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Obama at AIPAC

Jim Lobe: There are serious strategic differences between US and Israel, but they share the aim of weakening Iran as a regional power

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

And in Washington over the weekend, AIPAC, which bills itself as the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, had its annual meeting in Washington. And, of course, all the major political leaders of the Republican Party and President Obama spoke there. Here’s a little bit of President Obama’s speech.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: When the Goldstone report unfairly singled out Israel for criticism, we challenged it. When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them. When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now, when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.

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JAY: And, of course, this is an annual tradition, that the president of the United States or president wannabes go to AIPAC to declare their fidelity and support to the state of Israel. But of course the real issue everybody wanted to hear the president on was Iran, and here’s a bit of what he had to say.

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OBAMA: I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon I will take no options off the table. And I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power. A political effort aimed at isolating Iran. A diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored. An economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions. And, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Already there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.

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JAY: Now joining us to discuss the AIPAC meetings and President Obama’s speech and U.S.-Israeli relations as it regards Iran is Jim Lobe. Jim is the D.C. bureau chief for IPS. He also blogs at Lobelog. Thanks for joining us, Jim.

JIM LOBE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, IPS: Thanks very much, Paul. I’m happy to be here.

JAY: So President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly have some tension between them. In his recent interview in The Atlantic, President Obama described the tension as being that Netanyahu comes from a right-wing political—right-of-center political tradition and that President Obama comes from a left-of-center traditional political trend, although I think a lot of people in the United States might argue with just how left of center he is. But at any rate, the issue of how to approach Iran, clearly there’s tension. So what do you make of it, and what effect will President’s speech at AIPAC have on this situation?

LOBE: Well, I don’t know. It seems to me the president stated a pretty firm line. And I think you quoted perhaps what’s most imminently important, which is his criticism of what he called "loose talk", which has been emanating both from Israel and from sectors here that are sympathetic to Israel, as well as three out of the four Republican candidates, regarding the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran or Iran’s nuclear targets over the next year and what the U.S. attitude would be with respect to that. I think he made very clear in his speech that he wants more diplomacy, that diplomacy has to be given time, and that this kind of talk is actually counterproductive. And I think that was a pretty important statement, given the degree to which tensions have escalated over the last couple of months.

On the other—he was also very clear on another point of obvious difference between the Israelis and his administration, which is on the question of whether military action should be considered if Iran or when Iran obtains a nuclear weapons capability—the magic word being capability—as opposed to Iran actually obtaining a weapon or taking very concrete actions to obtain a weapon, such as throwing out the IAEA inspectors. Congress as you know, the Senate in particular, is now considering a resolution which focuses on capability, saying that should be the threshold at which military action should be considered and probably carried out. And that is definitely Israel’s position as well. But it’s clear that Obama has a different view, and he repeated it several times today, which is it’s really the question of their possession of a nuclear weapon, that that’s the threshold at which you consider and, presumably, take military action to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed power.

JAY: Now, he wasn’t very definitive on that in the speech, whether capability his red line or not. The—clearly Senator Joseph Lieberman is pushing this in the Senate. The American military seems to be on the fence on what their red line is, although it seems to be the decision to make a bomb. But when you talk to experts on this issue, there’s—you know, the spectrum of capability, there’s a certain point where there’s capability but not yet a bomb, where it doesn’t take very long to go from capability to bomb. But set that aside for just a moment. In that Atlantic interview, President Obama acknowledges the fact that the Iranian leadership says that they’re not building a bomb and that it’s anti-Islamic to build a bomb, and he says they just need to prove what they’re saying is true. Well, what he doesn’t address at all in this speech or any of his interviews is that there’s still no real evidence that there is a bomb, a weapons plan. There’s lots of people that think there’s one, but it’s not like the IAEA has found evidence that there is one.

LOBE: No, that’s certainly the case. And I think in his speech he also made that point, that that’s an area on which U.S. and Israeli intelligence actually agree. That is, there’s no evidence that a decision has been made that there should be a nuclear weapon. And that would require a number of steps which, he said in his speech, the Americans are confident they would be able to detect.

I think your point, you know, is well taken under the circumstances, and I think he kind of underlined that today. But going back to this capability issue, he didn’t use the word at all, and I think that’s significant, because the Israelis and people like Senator Lieberman talk about almost nothing but capability. And you’re right, it is a very, very vague word and nobody really knows what the threshold is. In fact, I think that’s another point of serious difference between the Americans at this point and the Israelis, because the Israelis have said—in fact, Netanyahu said while he was in your home country just a few days ago that there’s—.

JAY: Okay, but let me just interrupt. By "your home country", you mean Canada, ’cause I’m—a lot of The Real News is Canada. But we’re in Washington, and I’m actually a dual citizen, so—.

LOBE: Oh, you’re a dual citizen.

JAY: I’m okay with "your home country", but I got two "your own country". But go on.

LOBE: I didn’t want to cast any aspersion by referring to your [crosstalk]

JAY: No, no, no, no. I’m fine. It’s just we’re going to get more letters, "Oh, you bloody Canadian."

LOBE: Okay. No.

JAY: Which I am.

LOBE: In any event, Netanyahu said that he didn’t see any point to further negotiations. And indeed the Israeli position on an acceptable negotiated outcome is that Iran should not be able to enrich any uranium at all on its own territory. And that position is actually stated somewhat more softly, but it’s still there, in the Senate resolution that’s under consideration now.

But I think it’s been made very, very clear over the last few weeks that the U.S. position is not the same as the Israeli position, that the U.S. position is that—although they haven’t stated it explicitly, is that Iran could be able to enrich uranium up to a very limited extent, strictly for civilian purposes, under very strict IAEA oversight. And that is a—if that’s the case, there is a very wide divergence on this question between Israel and the Obama administration—and perhaps even possibly between Congress and the Obama administration, but that remains to be seen, because we’ll have to see how this resolution fares.

JAY: Is part of what’s going on here is that the real division between Israel and the United States is actually not being talked about it, and it’s not actually about the nuclear program at all, it’s more about Israel, or at least Netanyahu’s position, ’cause there’s big divisions in Israel on this, but Netanyahu’s view that you cannot accept Iran as a regional power, you can’t accept Iran having the ability to arm or support Hezbollah or Hamas, that is the real issue for them, and that the United States is not on board on that, they don’t consider that an existential threat, certainly not to United States, nor really even to Israel, because if you look at the debate that’s going on in Israel there’s top leadership of the Shin Bet and Mossad and commentators who are all saying even if there was an Iranian bomb, it wouldn’t be an existential threat, and the issue actually really is just that Iran throws its weight around and that the United States doesn’t consider that a reason to go to war, even though I’m sure the United States would love to weaken the Iranian regime is much as it can?

LOBE: I think that’s basically true. I think the leadership understands, as you said, that Iran, or even a nuclear-armed Iran, does not represent an existential threat to Israel, certainly not in the same way that Israel could pose an existential threat to Iran, it being a far more powerful nuclear state, and that what’s really being objected to in terms of Iran’s rise and possible further empowerment through a nuclear weapon is that it would become a much stronger player in Iran and that it would—sorry—in the region, and that it would effectively constrain Israel’s freedom of action in the region. Israel could no longer take on Hezbollah and other recalcitrant parts of Lebanon or things around Hezbollah, necessarily, with impunity. It would not enjoy the kind of domination that it has for the last 30 or 40 years or so. And I think that is a great fear of the national security establishment of Israel. And I think to the—I think the Americans, as you say, I think they would prefer that Iran be weakened, because Iran is seen very much as an enemy, as a self-declared enemy of the United States who would like to, essentially, expel the United States from the Gulf area in any case, and the Americans don’t like that. But whether that’s an issue over which the Americans are prepared to go to war, that’s another question.

JAY: And how far Iran really would push that. There’s a lot of rhetorical push. But even without sanctions, the Iranian economy and strength was not at, really, some point to challenge the American position, especially vis-à-vis the strength of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although I suppose they see in some long-term way Iran might try to instigate rebellion or resistence in these countries and so on. But enough to go to war it’s hard to see. So—but then you get to this point that Obama raised in his interview with The Atlantic: when he says that Netanyahu comes from a different political tradition, he essentially means right-wing neocon, which is pretty much the position of the Republican leadership. And Netanyahu certainly plays better with the Dick Cheneys of this world (and whoever become the next set of Dick Cheneys if they were to gain the White House) than he plays with Obama. So how much is this is all about American electorial politics?

LOBE: Well, I should say that Liz Cheney was on the panel before Obama spoke, and she got a very enthusiastic reception from the AIPAC Crowd. No, I—you know, I don’t know. But when you were speaking, I mean, one thing that occurred to me, there’s another issue here, Paul, and I think that’s also that all of this focus on Iran plays very well to Israel’s desire not to deal with the Palestinians. And I think a lot of the buildup to where we are now is related to a kind of strategic desire on the part of Netanyahu and Netanyahu’s politics just to shelve the so-called peace process and continue the settlement activity and to put down facts on the ground that ultimately will make a Palestinian state unviable. And I think that’s another thing that’s behind a lot of the talk that—of the war talk that Obama was complaining about.

JAY: And to some extent President Obama is declaring in this AIPAC speech, look, we’re willing to do that with you; look how we came, we had your back whenever you were under pressure; and we’re also now engaged in this discourse about Iran with you. So it’s not like Obama doesn’t mind playing that game, taking the heat off the Israelis on the Palestinian issue, as long as the Israelis don’t start a war.

LOBE: That’s true, although I have to say the fact that he did mention the urgency of some progress on Israel-Palestine and the fact that he devoted several minutes of his speech to that was interesting, particularly when you remember he hardly mentioned it at all in his UN General Assembly speech in September.

JAY: Right. Well, we’ll see when they meet what happens. Netanyahu’s going to speak Monday night at AIPAC, and on Tuesday we’ll report on that. Thanks very much for joining us, James.

LOBE: It was a pleasure. Thanks.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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