US President Donald Trump (L) and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner take part in a bilateral meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (not seen) in Villa Taverna, the US ambassador's residence, in Rome on May 24, 2017. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Former top national security officials urge Trump to stick to Iran nuclear deal


A bipartisan group of former top national security officials urged President Donald Trump to stick to the Iran nuclear deal, saying that war with Iran is “more imaginable” today than it has been in five years.

The statement, published Tuesday on the website of the The National Interest magazine, was responding to reports that Trump may refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. The next assessment period is in October. The statement is signed by nearly 50 former senior U.S. government officials and prominent national security leaders.

“The international agreement with Iran continues to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” the statement says. “No American national security objective would be served by withdrawing from it as long as Iran is meeting the agreement’s requirements.

“To the contrary,” the letter continues, “given continuing assurance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), such a unilateral act would have grave long term political and security consequences for the United States.”

The signers recommend a “comprehensive policy toward Iran that furthers U.S. national security interests.” Such a policy would include American leadership in the JCPOA, a follow-up agreement that would extend terms of the deal farther into the future, and an additional consultative body on major disputes.

The letter also suggests establishing a regular senior-level channel of communication between the U.S. and Iran, and  regular consultations among U.S. allies and partners in the region to share information and coordinate strategies.

The signers warn that a U.S. rejection of the JCPOA could push Iran to return to its pre-agreement nuclear enrichment program under far weaker international monitoring.

Trump last month re-certified Iran’s adherence to the 2015 deal brokered by President Barack Obama. But he did so reluctantly, at the urging of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They argued that decertification would alienate U.S. allies because Iran is indeed complying with the deal’s strictures.

However, within days of giving the go-ahead to re-certify, Trump reportedly tasked a separate team, led by his top strategist, Stephen Bannon, to come up with a reason to decertify Iran at the next 90-day assessment in October.

The signers include: Morton Abramowitz, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research; Robert Einhorn, former assistant secretary for nonproliferation and secretary of state’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control; Morton Halperin, former director of policy planning at the State Department;  Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to both Israel and Egypt; Carl Levin, former U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services; and Barnett Rubin, former senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama administration ‘concerned’ about Iran’s deployment of anti-aircraft missiles


The Obama administration expressed “concern” over the deployment of powerful anti-aircraft missiles near an Iranian enrichment facility ostensibly shuttered under the Iran nuclear deal, but said it did not violate embargoes.

Iran over the weekend announced the deployment of the Russian-made S-300 missiles around the Fordow facility.

“We’re concerned about the provision of sale to Iran of sophisticated defense capabilities such as this S-300,” John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said on Monday.

“As we get more information, obviously, we’re going to stay in close consultation with partners going forward,” he said. Russia, like the United States, is one of the six major powers that negotiated the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal reached last year.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, speaking separately at the White House, also expressed concerns but said the sale did not violate arms embargoes on Iran.

“The arms embargo that had been in place under the previous regime would not have been applied to the S-300 system because it’s a defensive system,” Rhodes said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have concerns with any increased Iranian military capability, and we’ve expressed those concerns.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., an architect of the sanctions regime, said in a statement he believed Russia may be subject to sanctions because of the sale. “The Administration is failing to enforce U.S. laws that mandate sanctions against countries that export destabilizing advanced conventional weapons to Iran,” he said.

President Barack Obama in 2009 exposed Fordow as a bunker-style underground uranium enrichment facility and used its existence, kept secret for years by Iran, to persuade an alliance of nations to sanction Iran.

The sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and once the deal was reached last year, Russia lifted a ban on the sale of the S-300s to Iran in place since 2010, when Israel and the United States prevailed on Russia not to make the sale.

Iranian regime statements said the deployment of the missiles was “defensive.” Iran maintains civilian uranium enrichment capabilities, but has shut down military-level enrichment.

Rhodes said that United Nations nuclear inspectors continue to monitor Fordow, and that Iran has kept its part of the deal, saying enrichment has stopped and centrifuges “have been, in many cases, removed and put under monitoring and storage.”

Obama defends Iran cash payment story: ‘It wasn’t a secret’


President Barack Obama on Thursday strongly defended the nuclear deal and hostage arrangement with Iran amid an uproar over reports that the U.S. delivered $400 million in cash to Tehran in January.

“We announced these payments in January – many months ago. That wasn’t a secret,” Obama said in a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday. “We announced them to all of you. This wasn’t some nefarious deal. And at the time, we explained that Iran had pressed a claim before an international tribunal about them recovering money of theirs – that we have frozen – that as a consequence of them working its way through the international tribunal, it was the assessment of our lawyers that we were now at a point where there was significant litigation risk and we could end up costing ourselves billions of dollars. It was their advice and suggestion that we settle, and that’s what these payments represent.”

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama Administration sent $400 million dollars – in “wooden pallets stacked with euros, Swiss francs and other currencies” – to Iran at the same time four American hostages were released. The paper quoted Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, as accusing the Obama administration of paying a “ransom to the ayatollah for US hostages.”

Obama defended the administration’s decision to send cash and disputed the notion that it was a ransom payment for the release of American hostages. “We do not pay ransom. We didn’t here, and we won’t in the future,” Obama said. “Those families know we have a policy that we don’t pay ransom. And the notion that we would somehow start now, in this high-profile way, and announce it to the world, even as we’re looking in the faces of other hostage families whose loved ones are being held hostage, and saying to them we don’t pay ransom, defies logic.”

The president also pointed out that the nuclear deal has been working for over a year despite initial warnings and pessimistic predictions that the Iranians would violate the terms of the agreement. “It’s now been well over a year since the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear program was signed and by all accounts it has worked exactly the way we said it was going to work,” Obama said. “It’s not just the assessment of our intelligence community, it’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community – the country that was most opposed to this deal that acknowledges that this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal, and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to develop nuclear weapons.”

If there is some news to be made,” Obama continued, “why not have some of these folks who were predicting disaster say, you know what, this thing actually worked. Now that would be a shock. That would be impressive. But of course that wasn’t going to happen. Instead what we have is the manufacturing of outrage in a story that we disclosed in January.”

 

In Riyadh, Obama defends nuclear talks with Iran


President Barack Obama strongly defended the nuclear negotiations with Iran at the end of the US-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

Speaking at the conclusion of the summit, Obama said the outcome of the negotiations proved it was the right approach to take despite the Saudis and Gulf countries’ concerns that the United States was “naïve” when dealing with Iran.

“John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan still negotiated with the Soviet Union even when the Soviet Union was threatening the destruction of the U.S.,” he said. “That’s the same approach we have to take. Even as Iran is calling us the great Satan, we were able to get a deal done that reduces their nuclear stockpiles. That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength.”

The President maintained that the Iran nuclear deal “cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.” But he said the United States continues to have “serious concerns” about Iran’s behavior in the region. He also raised the possibility of diplomacy to resolve conflicts in Yemen and Syria, since ”none of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran.”

“We’ll remain vigilant to ensure that Iran fulfills its commitments, just as we will fulfill ours,” Obama promised.

Thursday’s summit was preceded by bilateral talks that Obama held with Saudi King Salman on Wednesday in which the two leaders sought to restore the relationship strained in the aftermath of the Iran deal. According to U.S. officials, Obama pressed the Saudi King to be more open to engaging in diplomacy and to find alternatives to direct confrontation with Iran’s leadership.

“We made very clear to the leaders last night and today on the subject of Iran that our partners, our friends in this region are in the room with us here, and Iran, on the other hand, has in many ways been confrontational not just to the countries here in the GCC, but to the United States as well, and that we share their concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program, its destabilizing activities in the region, its ongoing support for terrorism,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Thursday. “And, in fact, many of the capabilities that we’re developing on the defense side through this process are focused on countering Iranian actions.”

Rhodes said President Obama made the point to Gulf leaders that their concern with Iran “should not foreclose the potential for diplomatic engagement if there’s an ability to resolve problems. And a recent example, of course, is the nuclear deal where, despite all of our concerns about Iran’s behavior, we were able to see a significant rollback in the Iranian nuclear program because we pursued a diplomatic process.”

Obama says Iran has pledged to help find Robert Levinson


Iran will “deepen its coordination” with the United States to locate a Jewish-American man missing since 2007, President Barack Obama said.

“Iran has agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson, missing from Iran for more than eight years,” Obama said, speaking Sunday from the White House.

Levinson, 68, of Coral Springs, Florida, has been missing since disappearing from Iran’s Kish Island during what has since been revealed as a rogue CIA operation. His family told the media they were “devastated” that he was not among the five Americans released this weekend as part of a U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange that marked the launch of the nuclear deal.

“Even as we rejoice in the safe return of others we will never forget about Bob,” Obama said. “Each and every day but especially today our hearts are with the Levinson family and we will never rest until their family is whole again.”

The Iran nuclear deal was launched formally Saturday as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, confirmed that Iran had met its nuclear restriction requirements. The United States and the European Union responded by suspending an array of nuclear-related sanctions on the country.

“Engaging directly with the Iranian government on a sustained basis, for the first time in decades, has created a unique opportunity, a window, to resolve important issues,” Obama said.

“We’ve now closed off every single path Iran had to building a bomb,” he said. “We’ll know if Iran ever tries to break out.”

The White House website posted abundant material defending the deal, along with a video animation depicting all paths to a nuclear weapon as being choked off, accompanied by triumphant swells of a string orchestra.

Obama insisted that the United States remains vigilant in confronting Iranian mischief in the region, addressing a key anxiety expressed by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Even as we implement the nuclear deal and welcome our Americans home we recognize that there remain profound differences between the United States and Iran,” Obama said. “We remain steadfast in opposing Iran’s destabilizing behavior elsewhere, including its threats against Israel and our Gulf partners and its support for violent proxies in Syria and Yemen.”

Netanyahu in a statement Sunday simultaneously reiterated his skepticism of Obama’s ability to make good on that pledge while promising to vigilantly monitor Iran’s compliance.

“Israel’s policy is exactly as it has been – not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons,” he said. “What is clear is that Iran will now have more resources to divert to terrorism and its aggression in the region and around the world, and Israel is prepared to deal with any threat.”

Obama also said that the he would sanction Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests. Congress and pro-Israel groups had urged him to do so, but Obama initially slowed down such sanctions. Subsequent to the release this weekend of the prisoners, it was revealed that the delay was in part not to scuttle the exchange.

Why we lost the debate to kill the Iran deal, and how we could ultimately win


Early on in February of this year, as the President and his Secretary of State were starting to leak information on the  negotiations around the proposed deal with Iran, the world looked on and assumed like so many attempts before it, the prospects of success where slim – they would fail.  But the Israeli government took them seriously, they went into high gear, sending out messages through government operatives, generals and eventually the Prime Minister. This culminated in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grand performance before congress. 

Mistake number #1.  No sitting president wants to be upstaged, nor embarrassed.   And no Democratic member of congress wanted to be part of a political maneuver that was staged not just by the Republican majority, but was blatantly used to manipulate the elections in Israel.  With that move, so began the slippery slope of alienating the key members of congress, the key democratic constituencies that could have turned the tide and killed what is arguably a “poor deal with Iran”.   

Then after the Netanyahu grandstanding, negotiations began to heat up as deadlines approached.  And Israel turned up the heat with its propaganda machine.  Leaking information on the Iranian nuclear program, placing editorials in newspapers, sending operatives from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to media and events like congressional hearings. 

Mistake number #2 – Its not all about Israel — Its about the spread of terrorism and the importance of keeping sanctions.   As the elements of the deal leaked out in earnest in late April early May, the Israeli lobby began to attack the deal without any substance.  “We know this will be a bad deal for Israel.” stated a email from AIPAC.  “We cannot trust the Iranian's to keep their word” stated another one.  

Mistake number #3  While the Israeli lobby did the inside the beltway dance and shuffle, all the while the President and his people were out working the world stage putting pressure on our strongest allies to support a deal that they themselves had concerns about.  And setting in place U.S. based support with key Democratic constituencies.

Next up, the deal is getting done, the Iranians were close to walking away according to sources in the talks.  They did not want an extension.  We could have killed the deal right then and there.  But instead pro-Israel forces and members of the Israeli government chose a different path.  They focused their efforts on stirring up their base, sending out fundraising letters and attacking the wrong folks – the important Democrats that they were going to need in the coming months. 

Mistake number #4.  While the pro-Israel forces focused on attacking Democrats and let their Republican allies carry the message, the President and Secretary of State John Kerry were traveling the world, further pushing our allies into supporting the deal, and meeting regularly with the Democratic leadership to prepare for the eventual rollout of a flawed deal.  They knew it was flawed, yet they continued to think as they do today that this is the best deal we can get. 

Mistake number #5.  Already behind the eight-ball only weeks before the final announcement of the deal, finally the pro-Israel lobby meets in secret meetings in DC to plan what to do about a deal.    What do they do – they hire a Republican PR firm and Republican operatives to oversee the campaign, while leaking their strategy to the conservative media.   Not a great strategy, when you have to convince 30+ Democratic House members and a dozen or more Democratic Senators to oppose a flawed deal.   And in a typical inside baseball strategy they start running ads in national publications and doing TV advertising to an audience that has not been contacted in months as to their position, and has little connection to what is now become a partisan battle. 

Mistake number #6.  Panicked and playing catch up, they put into place a last minute attempt to lobby members of congress during the recess.  The big problem —  they have no base of support, the constituents that would make the most impact to members are already either neutral or are not going to go up against the President.  Having been worked for months by the administration, the supporters have convincingly framed the debate, and the Israeli government having counted the votes now knows they need to be careful for fear of a increased Obama backlash. 

Is it too late?

So where are we today, the pro-Israel groups for the last 40 days have been desperately trying to work constituencies that have no skin in the game, and are more concerned about the last two years of an Obama presidency and important members of Congress that will be critical to their issues in the coming years.  Throw on top of this members being lobbied by the leadership to tow the line or else they may end up in the smallest office, working on the subcommittee on Post Office operations. 

And so we have a misguided plan, late execution, a lost moral high ground, and many pro-Israel supporters like myself left confused and disappointed.

So can we win this? Probably not.  But we could inflict enough damage and pain that the administration and the world will listen- – implementation is still yet to be determined.    How can we achieve this.  We need to enlist the Obama coalition – go grassroots, and capture the debate by shifting the narrative away from Israel and back to terrorism and protecting the Homeland. 

We cannot re-write the history of the last 6 months.  We cannot undo the Netanyahu speech, or even bring together members of the Democratic caucus to rally behind their most trusted allies – the Jewish community.  Nor can you take back the millions wasted on national media campaigns and robo calls to staff members who have more to loose in bucking the leadership.  

Opportunity number #1.  What we could do and what we should have done is to reach out to the traditional Democratic base, the coalitions of minorities, women and seniors, labor and others that have stood side by side with the American Jewish community for decades.  Fighting for human rights, civil rights and personal freedoms.   We should have utilized this most powerful of coalitions to push back on our friends in the Democratic establishment to support what is right and what is important.   There is nothing more persuasive than a local constituent or large contributor calling or writing a member of congress to say.  “Please think before you cast this vote….”   Staff members catch on when calls come in from individuals that don't even know whom they are talking to – pushed through by eager political operatives that are making big bucks, while the President and his team count favorable votes.

Over and over again, our community falls into the same trap.  We take for granted that the communities we have been so closely aligned with, will be there when we need them. 

Opportunity number #2. So moving forward as a community, lets cast off the traditional playbook, put energy into local third-party Democratic and independent groups and focus on the importance of protecting the USA.    We as a Jewish community need to dig deep into our strong alliances with groups that have for decades relied on our support to achieve personal justice – we need them now, and they should be with us.  We need to ask them to reach key Democratic leaders and tell them its important that this deal not be implemented without the support of the community it will impact.  

That is where we should be, that is where we need to be – unfortunately, we are weeks away from approval of this deal, while continuing to  watch ads that point fingers and talk down to the same people that we need to support us.

White House: Sanctions relief depends on Iranian compliance with nuke deal


The removal of sanctions depends on Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers, the White House said.

“We’ve been crystal-clear about the fact that Iran will have to take a variety of serious steps to significantly roll back their nuclear program before any sanctions relief is offered,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday

Earnest was responding to a statement by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had said that if the sanctions are merely suspended, then Iran’s actions would also be “at the level of suspension and not in a fundamental way.”

Earnest said sanctions relief would not kick in until Iran had complied with every condition in the deal, “from reducing their nuclear uranium stockpile by 98 percent, disconnecting thousands of centrifuges, essentially gutting the core of their heavy-water reactor at Arak, giving the IAEA the information and access they need in order to complete their report about the potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency is the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

“And then we need to see Iran begin to comply with the inspections regime that the IAEA will put in place to verify their compliance with the agreement,” he said.

The deal, reached in July, stipulates that Iran will scale back some of its nuclear program in exchange for suspension and gradual peeling back of international sanctions.

In his statement to clerics, which a state television anchorman read on Thursday, Khamenei is reported to have said “there will be no deal” if the sanctions are not lifted.

“We insisted that sanctions ought to be lifted, not suspended,” Khamenei said, according to the Iranian Tasnim news agency.

Khamenei also ruled out any cooperation with the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the radical Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Part of the agreement refers to Iran’s Parchin facility, which inspectors, instead of conducting inspection themselves, would study through photos, videos and samples to be provided to them by Iranians, according to an Associated Press report from last month.

Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency – a U.N. watchdog – told the Times of Israel that he had “a lot of reservations about the reasonability and credibility of the arrangements.”

What America will offer Israel after the nuclear deal


The moment the Iran nuclear deal becomes law, as seems increasingly likely given growing congressional support for the agreement, the focus of the U.S.-Israel conversation will shift to the question of what’s next.

What more will Washington do to mitigate the Iranian threat and reassure Israel and other regional allies?

For starters, President Barack Obama seems ready to offer an array of security enhancements. Among them are accelerating and increasing defense assistance to Israel over the next decade; increasing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East; stepping up the enforcement of non-nuclear related Iran sanctions; enhancing U.S. interdiction against disruptive Iranian activity in the region; and increasing cooperation on missile defense.There also will be an emphasis on keeping any of the tens of billions of dollars to which Iran will gain unfettered access through the sanctions relief from reaching Iran’s proxies.

Adam Szubin, the U.S. Treasury undersecretary charged with enforcing sanctions, made targeting Hezbollah a focus of his meetings with Israeli officials last week, JTA has learned.

Once some nuclear-related sanctions on Iran are lifted – should Iran meet the requirements in the deal on nuclear restrictions – Washington will allocate greater resources to focusing on other sanctions unaffected by the agreement, including those related to backing terrorism, a senior U.S. official told JTA.

“We have a lot of that same personnel and resources we can devote to U.S.-specific sanctions on Iran – and not only Iran,” the official said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not wanting to be seen as endorsing the deal while there’s still a chance Congress could scuttle it, has directed Israeli officials not to engage with U.S. officials on what could be done after the deal is in place. The Israeli envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, has said that Israel would be ready for discussions only after options to kill the agreement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are exhausted.

“We appreciate the support that we have gotten from this administration, from this president, to enhance our security,” Dermer told USA Today in a July 27 interview. “And the discussion that we’ll have about the day after, we’ll have to leave to the day after.”

Congress has until Sept. 17 to decide whether to allow the deal to proceed.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is leading the opposition to the deal, argued in a memo distributed Monday that U.S. pledges of post-deal security enhancements are inadequate.

“The administration has tried to reassure those concerned by the dangerous consequences of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in two ways: by pledging increased support for Israel and our Gulf allies and by vowing that it will strictly enforce the deal,” said the memo, which is headlined “Promises Cannot Fix a Bad Deal.” “Neither approach will repair the deal’s fatal flaw: it legitimizes Iran as a nuclear-threshold state in 15 years.”

Obama in an interview Monday with the Forward attached urgency to confronting Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.

Speaking of Israel, he said, “We can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles.”

The emphasis on Hezbollah was appropriate, said Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security adviser from 2009 to 2011.

“The president on sensing a degree of urgency with Hezbollah sooner rather than later is absolutely right,” Arad said, noting the group’s role as an Iranian proxy in helping prop up the Assad regime in Syria. “It relates to the need to uproot and to neutralize the violent and anti-American and anti-Israel radical group. It is a matter of urgent joint concern.”

Arad outlined a number of areas that would enhance Israel’s sense of security in a post-deal environment, including:

* Maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, even as the United States enhances the military capabilities of Arab Persian Gulf allies that, similar to Israel, will be seeking reassurances in the wake of the Iran deal;

* Enhancing joint missile defense programs;

* Extending the defense assistance memorandum of understanding, which since 2008 has provided Israel with an average of $3 billion in defense assistance per year, for another 10 years (it’s set to expire in 2018), and delivering promised F-35 advanced fighter aircraft to Israel;

* Enhancing joint civilian scientific research and development;

* Delivering advanced bunker-buster bombs to maintain Israel’s deterrent edge should Iran cheat on or abandon the deal. “Israel should be given this special kind of ordnance so it could have a more effective military option in case of Iranian violations of the agreement,” Arad said, arguing that this would strengthen the agreement by creating a disincentive for Iran to cheat.

*A “declaratory” component emphasizing U.S. longstanding commitments to Israel.

* Making clear that the U.S. effort to stop the expansion of Islamist terrorism and extremism targets Iranian activities as well as those associated with the Islamic State terrorist group.

Obama touched on many of these issues in a letter he sent to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Aug. 19.

“It is imperative that, even as we effectively cut off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon through the implementation of the JCPOA, we take steps to ensure that we and our allies and our partners are more capable than ever to deal with Iran’s destabilizing activities and support for terrorism,” Obama said in the letter, which was first obtained by The New York Times.

The president specified four areas where cooperation would be enhanced: extending defense assistance for a decade, joint missile defense research, joint efforts to improve tunnel detection (following the advances made by Hamas in its 2014 war with Israel), and “strengthening our efforts to confront conventional and asymmetric threats.”

The letter persuaded Nadler to back the deal and should be a salve to Israeli security officials, said Dan Arbell, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Washington.

“If I were an Israeli bureaucrat right now in any of the related areas working around this, what the president provides in his letter is a pretty thorough list, which I think the Israeli defense establishment would be happy with,” said Arbell, who now lectures at American University.

Persian Gulf allies would want the reassurances that Israel is receiving as well as specific assurances of assistance in keeping Iran from meddling in Arab affairs, said Michael Eisenstadt, a longtime officer in the U.S. Army Reserve who served in the Middle East.

Even with such assurances, Eisenstadt said, Gulf allies would remain concerned that the deal enhances Iran’s stature.

“Weapons are Band-Aids on a hemorrhage,” said Eisenstadt, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “From the point of view of our allies in the region, we’ve contributed to a lot of the problem” by advancing the Iran deal.

Obama in landmark interview: Hezbollah will be a focus of post-Iran deal


A focus of security enhancement once the Iran nuclear deal goes through will be neutralizing Hezbollah’s threat to Israel, President Barack Obama said in a landmark interview with The Forward.

“As soon as this debate is over, we will, I think, be able to invigorate what has been an ongoing conversation with the Israelis about how we can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles,” Obama said in the interview published Monday — the first with the Jewish media since he became president.

“Where Iran has been effective in its destabilizing activities, it’s not because it’s had a lot of money,” Obama said, countering criticism that the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal that will unfreeze $50 billion in funds will increase Iran’s capacity for disruption.

“It’s because they’ve effectively used proxies; it’s because they’ve invested in places like Lebanon for decades and become entrenched,” the president said. “And the reason we haven’t done a better job of stopping that is not because they’re outspending us. The reason is, is because we haven’t been as coordinated, had as good intelligence and been as systematic in pushing back as we need to be.”

Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia, has stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles on Lebanese territory since its 2006 war with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vigorously opposes the Iran nuclear deal, has rejected Obama administration efforts to coordinate post-deal defense strategies regarding Iran, preferring to wait until he is certain that Congress will not reject the deal.

Republicans mostly oppose the deal, so there has been a concerted effort by both sides to win over Democrats, in part by appeals to the Jewish community, a key constituency of the party. Congress has until late September to consider whether to reject the deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

Obama spoke on Friday, the same day he gave the Forward the interview, to a webcast jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“This deal blocks every way, every pathway Iran might take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” said Obama during the 50-minute webcast, which was filmed live from the White House. “We’re not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they chose to cheat.”

In additions to concerns about how Iran will spend its unfrozen funds, Netanyahu and other opponents, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, say the expiration dates for some of the deal’s components, in 10, 15 and 25 years, will leave Iran a nuclear threshold state.

In his Forward interview, Obama said that tensions between the Israeli and U.S. governments surrounding the deal would not last.

“People will look back and say as long as we implemented it with care and precision that it was the right thing to do,” he said. “The one thing I do want to make sure is that your readers and everybody who cares about the U.S.-Israeli relationship retain the understanding that I think is one of the foundations of this relationship, which is, is that this is not a partisan issue; the bipartisan support of Israel is critical to a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.”

A dybbuk in the nuclear deal


In Jewish folklore a dead malcontent may return to possess the living. The troubled soul is known as a “dybbuk’, and it runs amok making mischief. In books and on stage and screen the fiend is invoked to aggravate family wrangles to the point of madness. Yet for all its wicked antics the dybbuk wants nothing more sinister than to settle a score. It may upturn some lives in the ghetto, but not the balance of world power. And no dybbuk, until now, toyed with the President of America.

Love or hate the nuclear deal, no one disputes that Obama’s ‘any deal is better than no deal,’ has upturned the balance of power. Iran, hitherto America’s number one foe, shall henceforth be, in the world’s number one hotspot, America’s number one ally. A detente, in other words, is brewing between the world’s powerhouse and the world’s sour pickle jar.

This devilish diplomacy has nothing to do with Don Corleone’s, ‘keep your friends close but your enemies even closer.’ POTUS has not kept long-time Middle East friends close. He’s left them bewildered and hurt. At least five powers – Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel – look at the mullah coddling by which Tehran had to be coaxed to the table, and wonder what they’ve become to the White House: still allies or new discards. Never mind historic deal: the nuclear accord bears the hallmarks of an historic barter. The dealmakers in Vienna acquired a valuable trading partner in return for a wink and a nod and the signatures of a murderous cabal. 

Unenforceable ‘snap back’ sanctions and a pre-arranged checking mechanism, in case Iran cheats, mean that Obama rolled the dice on a wing and a prayer. And he knows it. That dash to the Security Council to lift sanctions in order to blunt the teeth of Congress is not the way a dealer you can trust behaves.

Call the deal catastrophic or a triumph of diplomacy: Obama swears it was the best of no alternatives. It will stop, he convinced a minority of people, Iran from making The Bomb. It’s what he set out to do, audiences are told; it’s what the ‘good for everyone’ deal does. Sceptics and proponents may both be wrong: the White House’s move to bring war-mongering mullahs in from the cold was neither brash nor bold. Prophetic more fits the bill; not in the narrow sense of foretelling what the future holds, but prophecy that paves the way for upheavals of biblical magnitude. The making of Iran into a regional power (the President’s undercover motive according to Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute), could be the harbinger of tectonic shifts and rude fractures.

A bubbling cauldron of disparate voices; Iran’s consummate cunning, emboldened by weak-kneed Washington and partners. Mullahs knew how deeply Obama was invested in the project. As badly as they needed a deal, he signalled that he needed one far more. Tehran knew that Europe had no stomach and Russia and China no scruples. One shackle after the other came off master criminals, even as the teams parried. The P5+1 conceded sticking point after sticking point; and when all was said and done, six impatient dealmakers left with no guarantees that Tehran would not go back to wicked old ways. The mullah’s red lines, unlike Mr Obama’s, were real and firm. Ridding the world of the ‘Zionist cancer’ was non-negotiable. So it was not negotiated. Anything for the devil to make a pact with White House and partners.

A spectacle of natural allies falling out of bed and habitual enemies climbing into bed brings to mind a celebrated tale of bedlam. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, left alone in the workshop, enchants a broom and a pail to do chores for him. In no time there’s chaos, with the greenhorn clueless how to stop the magic. He splits the broom in half, hoping that will do the trick, but both pieces turn into more brooms while the pail slops water at twice the rate. “Powerful spirits should only be invoked by a master wizard,” scolds the sorcerer when he beholds the mess. A late lesson for the White House and its unholy alliance? Don't get into bed with religious fanatics you can’t control. Perhaps there lies the moral of the nuclear deal, which may be more a ticking bomb than a moment for the world to relish.

Like Marlowe’s creature, Mephistopheles, like hell’s monster, Hitler, Iran would never have struck a deal it meant to honor. The accord with Iran is some more “Peace in our time” scrap paper. Britain’s Neville Chamberlain was innocently bamboozled. Dr Faustus danced with his devil merely to relieve boredom. What made the world’s most powerful leader let his genie out the bottle?  Who or what is the mischief-maker behind the nuclear deal? What fiend runs amok in the corridors of power? If the genie has been freed, what possessed the world’s most powerful leader to let it go free?

Washington’s wager with the devil is a gamble. Faustus gambled his own soul; Obama with the lives of hundreds of millions. And while he tries to sell the pact it’s worth remembering: the devil never deals itself the bad card. It signs pacts with blood, and that’s another thing worth remembering. More, the devil likes to break its word before giving the signature time to dry, and that’s something else to keep in mind.

Let no one accuse Tehran of non disclosure. It revealed its hand. But in the thrall of some dybbuk bent on mayhem, Obama wouldn’t heed bad omens. Which probably explains why pacts with madmen and the paper they’re written on are equivalent in value. Feted honour beckons like a pot of gold. The fate of Marlow’s Dr Faustus was eternal damnation. But the gambling medic was not the President of America. Faustus sealed his own fate, not the fate of mankind, which is what detente with Iran could seal. Embracing his new ally, Obama may have ushered in the era of Gog and Magog.  

Steve Apfel is a prolific author (novels and non-fiction), essayist and commentator on “enemies of Zion” which happens also to be the title of his latest book. Visit his webpage here.

His books are:

‘The Paymaster,’ 1998
‘Hadrian’s Echo: The whys and wherefores of Israel’s critics.’  2012
‘War by other means: Israel and its detractors.’ Contributor. Israel Affairs, 2012.
‘Enemies of Zion.’  (For publication in 2015)
‘Balaam’s curse.' A novel in progress

AIPAC: Obama administration peddling ‘inaccuracies’ about lobby


AIPAC said the Obama administration is peddling inaccuracies about the pro-Israel lobby’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

AIPAC President Robert Cohen emailed the organization’s activists on Monday, linking to a New York Times article published last week about tensions arising between the lobby and the administration, and said it reflects “multiple inaccuracies stemming from claims by the administration.”

AIPAC’s facts, Cohen said “are well-substantiated and accurate.” President Barack Obama has said that opponents to the deal have peddled arguments distorting or omitting elements of the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

An AIPAC affiliate, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, has run a TV ad addressing the substance of the deal.

“This ad does not single out the president in any way,” Cohen said. According to the Times article, Obama in a meeting last week with Jewish leaders conflated the CNFI ad with others attacking Obama personally.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee treated administration speakers who addressed about 700 activists who flew in last month to lobby against the deal “with courtesy and respect,” Cohen said. Administration officials have said that the speakers, among them top negotiators on the deal, were not permitted to take questions. AIPAC said the officials were free to use the 30 minutes allocated them as they pleased.

Cohen noted that AIPAC took no position on the Iraq War. Obama has said that some of the opponents of the Iran nuclear deal backed that conflict, but has been careful to distinguish these from those who oppose the deal out of concern for Israel. Some defenders of the deal have made the link between AIPAC and the Iraq War on social media.

Congress has until mid-to-late September to consider whether or not to reject the deal.

Netanyahu, Obama have contentious conversation about Iran deal


President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister had a contentious phone call after the major powers achieved a deal with Iran.

Netanyahu in a statement said he raising two objections in the phone call.

“One, the agreement allows Iran to develop extensive capabilities that will serve it in arming itself with nuclear weapons whether at the end of the period of the agreement in another 10-15 years, or earlier if it violates the agreement,” the statement said.“Two, the agreement channels hundreds of billions of dollars to Iran’s terrorism and war machine, a war that is directed against us and against others in the region,” it said.

Netanyahu’s statement also twice said that the desire by the major powers to get to an agreement was “stronger than anything else,” although it did not say whether Netanyahu made this accusation directly to Obama in their conversation.

The White House also released an account of the phone call. It said Obama told Netanyahu the deal would “verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program going forward.”

He also told Netanyahu the U.S. defense secretary, Ashton Carter, would visit Israel next week.

The visit, the White House statement said, “is a reflection of the unprecedented level of security cooperation between the United States and Israel, and that the visit offers a further opportunity to continue our close consultation on security issues with Israeli counterparts as we remain vigilant in countering the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activities in the region.”

Israel likely to turn to congress to fight Iranian nuclear deal


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

There’s a joke making the Facebook rounds of Israelis.

“Knock knock”

“Who’s there?”

“A nuclear Iran.”

“A nuclear Iran, who?”

“BOOM.”

The joke shows the deep skepticism most Israelis have, from officials down to the man in the street, that the Iran deal signed today will put an end to Iran’s nuclear program and make Israel safer. The deep skepticism is being expressed almost across the board in Israel, in a rare moment of political unity and support for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

“This agreement is about Iran making a bomb within 15 years,” General Yakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Netanyahu told The Media Line. “This is a threat to our existence and we will do whatever is needed. It’s become clear that we cannot build on the Americans, and Israel has to do it by itself.”

At the same time, most analysts said that an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, which had been discussed in the past, is unlikely now. It would leave Israel a pariah in the international community.

The rift between the US and Israel has never seemed larger than this moment, after President Obama said the deal “prevents the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” President Obama also pledged to veto any Congressional attempt to stop the deal.

Netanyahu, on his part, has already said that he will turn to Congress which now has 60 days to approve the deal. Israel remains skeptical about one of the crucial parts of the deal, the mechanism for inspection to ensure Iranian compliance with the deal.

“What will happen is that the inspectors will be able to visit only places declared by the Iranians or based on information they receive from intelligence,” Amidror said. “But there will be far less intelligence because you don’t spy on a state you have an agreement with the same way you do with one that is an enemy.”

Netanyahu was even more blunt at a meeting with Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders in Jerusalem.

“Iran is going to receive a sure path to nuclear weapons. Many of the restrictions that were supposed to prevent it from getting there will be lifted,” Netanyahu said. “Iran will get a jackpot, a cash bonanza of hundreds of billions of dollars, which will enable it to continue to pursue its aggression and terror in the region and in the world. This is a mistake of historic proportions.”

Yisrael Beytenu Chairman and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman went even further, calling it a danger for the future. “History will remember the Iran deal just like the Munich Agreement (with Nazi Germany) and the agreement with North Korea,” said Lieberman. 

Iran portrayed the deal as a clear victory. In a speech to the citizens of Iran President Hassan Rouhani said, “We didn't ask for charity. We asked for fair, just, and win-win negotiations.” He added a request to the world “not to believe the Israeli propaganda and mocked the failure of the “warmongering Zionist regime.” 

Israeli experts say they are disturbed that Iran will maintain its nuclear infrastructure, and be allowed to continue to enrich uranium. They do not believe that inspection experts will be able to visit any site at any time. They reject Iran’s claim that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and say that the international community has in effect legalized the Iranian bomb.

“Iran has a lot of experience with cheating and the deal is very complicated,” Eldad Pardo, an expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem told The Media Line.

He also said that Iran, which has been suffering from a deep financial crisis brought on by international sanctions, will now be flooded with money, which it could use to further support its proxies in the Middle East, including the Islamist Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Hamas, especially, has been facing financial difficulties due to Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza.

But some Middle East analysts said that even with the threat of more money flowing to terrorist organizations, the Iran nuclear deal could be good for the region.

“It is hard to see how the region would be better off without a deal,” Jane Kinnimont, a senior research fellow on the Middle East program at Chatham House told The Media Line. “We’ve spent most of the past decade debating various options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. If it is possible to manage this issue through diplomacy, it’s clearly far better than any other option.”

U.S. denies Israeli report on Obama inviting Netanyahu to meet


The White House denied an Israeli newspaper report on Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet in Washington next month.

Citing unnamed U.S. State Department sources, Yedioth Ahronoth daily said the two leaders could meet in the White House on July 15 or 16, after the June 30 deadline for an Iranian nuclear deal over which they have frequently clashed.

Since Netanyahu's election to a fourth term on March 17, U.S. and Israeli officials have said they expected he would meet Obama again. But no date has been set, and a White House official denied Netanyahu had received any U.S. invitation.

“No invitation has been extended, though certainly we’d expect that there will be occasion for the two leaders to meet in Washington at some point going forward,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in response to Yedioth's report.

A spokesman for Netanyahu's office had no immediate official comment on the report. Israeli officials speaking on condition of anonymity, however, told reporters that no such invitation had been received.

Netanyahu has criticized the emerging nuclear deal, which Israel fears will allow Iran the means of making a bomb, while also granting it sanctions relief that could help bankroll its militant allies in the region.

Iran says its nuclear projects are peaceful.

Obama and Israel: rationality, self-interest and hatred


This past week President Barack Obama went on a Jewish offensive trying to gain support for the forthcoming agreement with Iran by giving an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg, the wise and deeply committed Jewish writer for The Atlantic, and by speaking at Adas Israel Congregation, the largest and most prestigious Conservative Congregation in Washington, D.C. While others have focused ad naseum on his remarks to the synagogue, I want to concentrate on a brief but highly instructive exchange with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Obama: You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—
Goldberg: And they make irrational decisions—
Obama: They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest… (italics mine)


The president presumes that anti-Semitic leaders indulge their hatreds at the margins of national policy but when push comes to shove, they follow rational self-interest.

Would that it were so!

History suggests otherwise. Examples abound, let me offer three from recent memory.

This past week I received an important new book by an Israeli historian Yaron Pasher entitled “Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler’s Final Solution Undermined the German War Effort.”  Pasher is an expert in military logistics. His basis argument is simple, his evidence exhaustive, meticulous and irrefutable. During the times of greatest stress on the German military, the moments when fighting was fiercest and their logistical needs most acute, Germany launched its most intense efforts to murder the Jews.

In early 1942, Germany was fighting deep within Soviet territory. Expecting a short war and an easy conquest comparable to their experience in Poland and Western Europe, Germany had not supplied its fighting men with winter gear; its equipment was breaking down in the cold of the Russian winter, its 600,000 horses were not being fed, and its soldiers literally freezing to death. At that moment, the death camps were opened and during the next winter, spring and fall and into the following winter, the death trains rolled on unabated whileThe Wehrmact forces did without vital, urgently needed supplies.

The murder of Hungarian Jews is the second instructive instance: according to German documents, 437,402 Jews were shipped on 147 trains primarily to Auschwitz between the 15th of May and the 8th of July 1944. At this time, German forces were collapsing and the D-Day invasion of the European continent had begun, still the trains were secured. The deportation of Jews took priority over the war effort.

These were not marginal issues to Germany, but essential to the survival of the regime. Hatred often banishes rationality in policy decisions and anti-Semitism is, in the words of the late Robert Wistrich, the longest hatred.

Even before the war, anti-Semitism was more powerful than self interest. If territorial expansion and world conquest were Hitler’s highest priority, he would not have gotten rid of Jewish scientists. His own economics minister argued that ridding Jews from German industrial life would leave Germany underprepared for war. Germany lost World War I because it could not keep up industrially, and still it risked defeat again in order to be rid of its Jews.

By all rational calculations, the leaders of Iran know that Israel has second-strike capacity, and that should be sufficient to restrain them. When Iran first threatened Israel with nuclear annihilations, Israel acquired from Germany two nuclear submarines. It now has more. So any leader of Iran must calculate that a nuclear attack on Iran would result in the annihilation of his own citizens and destruction of Iran. For a rational regime, Mutual Assured Destruction should take the use of nuclear weapons off the table. Unless…

Unless Iran’s leaders truly believe that this is a worthy price to pay for the damage they can inflict on Israel.

Unless its religious leaders believe that the world to come is more important than this world, and that, like the suicide bombers before them who willingly sacrificed their lives in attacks on civilian Western and Jewish targets, a martyr’s death is greater than life itself.

We do now know their calculations, and the President is being overly simplistic if he believes that irrationality is only pursued at the margins. He may be revealing to us more about the discipline of his own thinking, his own rationality, than about his adversaries.

And let me remind my Jewish readers who so easily routinely, and thoughtlessly, compare the situation of Jews in our time to the Holocaust, the idea that Israel poses an existential threat to Iran is credible and demonstrable, while the Nazi fear that Jews posed an existential threat to Germany in the 1930 and 1940s was sheer madness.

I concede that the Iran agreement may the best of all the current alternatives, but the argument that rationality and self interest overcome hatred is not a convincing argument.

Russia says missile deal with Iran will not happen in near future


Russia will not sell Iran advanced surface-to-air missiles in the near future, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said.
Russia earlier this month said it would lift its embargo on the sale of S-300 missile systems to Iran, antagonizing Israel and the United States. The advanced missile defense system could reinforce Iran’s protection of its nuclear facilities.
“I do not think that it is a matter of the near future,” Sergey Ryabkov told Russia’s Tass news service on Thursday. “It is far more important that a political and legal decision has been taken to open up such an opportunity.”
Ryabkov was referring to the framework nuclear deal signed last month between Iran and six world powers, including Russia.
The White House claimed that Russia’s missile sale to Iran could derail the completion of the Iran nuclear deal, and Israel argued that it was evidence of Iran’s aggressive motives in the Middle East. In response to Russia’s sale, Israel floated the idea of selling arms to Ukraine.
“Israel views with utmost gravity the supply of S-300 missiles from Russia to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last Sunday. “Especially at a time when Iran is stepping up its aggression in the region and around the borders of the State of Israel.”
Russia made a deal to sell Iran the missiles in 2007, but backed off off following strong opposition from the United States and Israel.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama said that the U.S. could penetrate the S-300 system.
“Our defense budget is somewhere just a little under $600 billion. Theirs is a little over $17 billion,” Obama said of Iran on MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews.” “Even if they’ve got some air defense systems, if we had to, we could penetrate them.”

Obama: Meeting with Netanyahu only after nuke talks deadline


(JTA) — President Barack Obama reportedly said he will not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the June 30 deadline for the Iran nuclear talks.
Obama told Jewish leaders last week that a face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu would probably end with Netanyahu publicly complaining about the president’s policies on Iran, unnamed sources familiar with the meeting told The New York Times.

For now, the president said, he would speak with Netanyahu over the telephone and an Oval Office invitation would wait until after the deadline for negotiating the details of the Iran deal, according to the Times article published Thursday.

The meeting came amid a White House push to tamp down its confrontations with Israel following a rare flash of public exasperation with an ally, the Times reported.

The White House also is engaged in an aggressive effort to assuage the concerns of Jewish-American groups and pro-Israel members of Congress over the agreement, which Israel opposes because it offers Iran sanctions relief while allowing it to keep its nuclear infrastructure and to continue to enrich some uranium.

Netanyahu, who in March decried the deal in a controversial speech he gave to Congress against the White House’s wishes, has said these terms and others risked making Iran a threshold nuclear power ready to weaponize its nuclear program so fast that world powers would be helpless to stop a breakout.

But U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said Iran already has a breakout capability of several months and that the deal would increase that time to a minimum of a year. And Obama described the deal as “our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”

Competing views of Iran deal highlight challenges ahead


Now that the outline for an Iran nuclear agreement has been released — or, more precisely, two outlines, one by Iran, the other by the Obama administration — major gaps have emerged that will need to be resolved ahead of a June 30 deadline for a final deal, including when sanctions on Iran are lifted.

President Barack Obama and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, issued conflicting statements in the past week on the sanctions issue, with Obama suggesting sanctions would be relaxed only once Iran begins to implement its obligations and Khamenei demanding that all sanctions be suspended upon signing an agreement. Khamenei also vowed that military sites would not be open to nuclear inspectors, which clashes with the American text, which says inspectors have the right to visit suspicious sites “anywhere in the country.”

The next round of talks is likely to be held within three weeks in New York City, on the sidelines of a meeting of the United Nations Disarmament Commission, and both Obama and Khamenei have said that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

In the coming weeks, both sides will endeavor to sell the deal to its various constituencies: Iran to its domestic hardliners, and the Obama administration to Congress, Jewish groups and skeptical allies, Israel chief among them.

What the Obama administration wants to see

In its outline of a framework accord reached earlier this month in Switzerland, and in subsequent statementsand interviews, the Obama administration has focused preeminently on the strict limits it is seeking on Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium.

These include limiting Iran’s advanced centrifuges to scientific research and reducing the number of active first-generation centrifuges, from 19,000 to 5,060, for 10 years. Enrichment would be limited to 3.67 percent, the level required for medical research and well short of weaponization levels. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium would be limited to 300 kilograms for 15 years. The deal would also provide for a regimen of intrusive inspections at all Iranian facilities.

“You have assurances that their stockpile of highly enriched uranium remains in a place where they cannot create a nuclear weapon,” Obama told National Public Radio last week.

According to the administration’s outline, sanctions relief is conditioned on Iran abiding by its commitments. The sanctions architecture will remain in place so they can be quickly reimposed if Iran defaults.

Additionally, Obama administration officials have emphasized that Iran’s breakout time will be extended from the current two to three months to a year, although how this will be quantified is not yet clear.

What Iran wants to see

In contrast with the phased relief outlined in the U.S. document, a “fact sheet” published by the Iranian Foreign Ministry posits an immediate lifting of sanctions after a deal is reached. On Thursday, in a speech broadcast live on Iranian television, Khamenei said there would be no point to the negotiations if they did not yield immediate sanctions relief.

“All sanctions should be removed when the deal is signed,” Reuters quoted Khamenei as saying. “If the sanctions removal depends on other processes, then why did we start the negotiations?”

On Twitter, Khamenei went further, accusing the United States of overall bad faith.

“Hours after the #talks, Americans offered a fact sheet that most of it was contrary to what was agreed,” said a tweet posted on his feed Thursday. “They always deceive and breach promises.”

On the enrichment question, the Iranian and American outlines are not mutually exclusive.

“None of the nuclear facilities or related activities will be stopped, shut down, or suspended, and Iran’s nuclear activities in all of its facilities including Natanz, Fordow, Isfahan, and Arak will continue,” said the Iranian document, which goes on to name only Natanz as a site for 3.67 percent uranium enrichment, which comports with the U.S. document. The other sites are deemed acceptable for scientific research in the American version, a status that conceivably comports with “related activities” in the Iranian document.

What Israel wants to see

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in the immediate wake of the agreement that the framework deal would threaten Israel’s survival. He counseled “standing firm and increasing the pressure on Iran until a better deal is achieved.”

Netanyahu did not provide details, but in interviews he has said that Israel could tolerate a deal that left “hundreds” of centrifuges in place, as opposed to the 5,060 the U.S. outline anticipates — itself a significant concession for Netanyahu, who had previously said that Israel would tolerate no more than a zero capacity for uranium enrichment.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, also provided more details of Israel’s desires for a final deal in a briefing for reporters in Jerusalem, demanding a complete end to research and development of advanced centrifuges, the shuttering of the underground Fordo facility, and freedom for inspectors to go “anytime, anywhere.”

In an Op-Ed published April 8 in the Washington Post, Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defense minister, called for dismantling much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

“Intelligence and inspections are simply no substitute for dismantling the parts of Iran’s program that can be used to produce atomic bombs,” Yaalon wrote.

Israel also has an eye on Iran’s destabilizing activities elsewhere in the region. The Obama administration and its five negotiating partners – China, Russia, France, Germany and Great Britain – see the nuclear deal as discrete from other Iranian actions.

“Restrictions imposed on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program will expire in about a decade, regardless of Iran’s campaign of murderous aggression in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere across the Middle East; its arming, funding, training and dispatching of terrorists around the world; and its threats and violent efforts to destroy Israel, the region’s only democracy,” Yaalon wrote.

Netanyahu recently also demanded Iran’s recognition of Israel as a component of a final deal, a requirement that Obama has said is unrealistic.

What Congress wants to see

Two bills under consideration in Congress, both backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, could affect the outcome of an Iran deal.

One sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would mandate new sanctions should Iran default on a deal or walk away from the talks. Obama has said such a bill would scuttle the talks and has pledged to veto it. The bill was approved in January by the Senate Banking Committee. Now its fate is in the hands of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority leader, who must decide whether it advances to the full body.

McConnell has not shown his hand, but he is unlikely to move it forward unless he can build a veto-proof majority of 67, which would require the support of 13 Democrats. With Menendez sidelined as he faces indictment on corruption charges, that is unlikely.

The other bill, backed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would require congressional review of an Iran deal. That bill stands a better chance of passage.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is in line to become his party’s Senate leader in the next Congress, backs the bill as it is. Other Democrats, including key Obama allies like Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Menendez’s replacement as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the top Democrat on its Middle East subcommittee, say they would back the bill if Corker removes non-nuclear related elements, among them requirements that Iran cease backing for terrorism.

The Corker bill comes up for review by the Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, and Cardin said he hoped to shape it to make it a “process” bill and not one that prescribes the terms of an agreement.

“One of my concerns is that the bill carries out its mission — a way for Congress to review and take action,” Cardin told JTA.

Obama, who had previously said he would veto the Corker bill, indicated this week that he could work with a modified version.

Netanyahu offers alternatives to Iran deal following latest Obama criticism


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel offered alternatives on the nuclear framework agreement with Iran.

Netanyahu released a statement on Sunday with the changes to the deal signed earlier this month, a day after President Barack Obama told reporters that Netanyahu had not provided any alternatives.

The Israeli leader called on the international community to negotiate a better agreement.

In his statement, Netanyahu criticized Iran for insisting in the wake of the agreement on maintaining its nuclear capabilities and refusing to allow nuclear inspections, as well as its continuing aggression in the region.

“Let me reiterate again the two main components of the alternative to this bad deal: First, instead of allowing Iran to preserve and develop its nuclear capabilities, a better deal would significantly roll back these capabilities – for example, by shutting down the illicit underground facilities that Iran concealed for years from the international community,” he said. “Second, instead of lifting the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear facilities and program at a fixed date, a better deal would link the lifting of these restrictions to an end of Iran’s aggression in the region, its worldwide terrorism and its threats to annihilate Israel.”

On Saturday, Obama spoke at a news conference at the Americas Summit in Panama City, Panama, on Netanyahu’s failure to come up with alternatives.

“The prime minister of Israel is deeply opposed to it, I think he’s made that very clear,” Obama said. “I have repeatedly asked, what is the alternative that you present that you think makes it less likely for Iran to get a nuclear weapon? And I have yet to obtain a good answer on that.”

The Netanyahu statement came the same day that Haaretz reported, citing two unnamed Israeli officials, that Netanyahu said at an April 3 meeting of the security Cabinet that if a final agreement is signed between Iran and the world powers, the greatest concern is that Tehran will fully implement it without violations.

Netanyahu reportedly said at the meeting — hours before the start of the Passover seder and a day after the framework agreement was signed — that he was concerned that Iran will not break the agreement, waiting until it expires in 10-15 years and the country is not considered a threat to restart its nuclear program without the threat of international monitors or sanctions.

The security Cabinet decided at the meeting to try to persuade the Obama administration to improve the agreement. Most ministers, however, reportedly believe the best way to halt or alter the agreement is through Congress, which is where the most effort will be spent.

U.S. says Iran sanctions face phase-out, Obama knocks Israel demand


The United States made clear on Monday that sanctions on Iran would have to be phased out gradually under a nuclear pact and President Barack Obama poured cold water on an Israeli demand that a deal be predicated on Tehran recognizing Israel.

“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won't sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” Obama said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR).

“That is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment… We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can't bank on the nature of the regime changing,” he said.

Meanwhile White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was no ambiguity about the U.S. demand that sanctions on Tehran be lifted in phases under a final deal, but details still had to be negotiated.

“It has never been our position that all of the sanctions against Iran should be removed from Day One,” he told a briefing.

The White House is working aggressively to convince U.S. lawmakers and other critics to embrace the framework agreement reached on Thursday between Iran, the United States and five other major powers.

The framework was a major step toward a final deal but did not include an agreement on the timing and scope of sanctions relief. Many other issues also must be hammered out before the end-of-June deadline for a final accord.

Iran's negotiators have interpreted the outline differently, saying sanctions would be lifted immediately once an accord is signed.

Earnest said Washington would want to see sustained compliance by Iran first and Iranwould be more likely to comply if it knew sanctions could be applied again.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said on Monday the differences in portrayals of the deal by both sides were not disputes over content but were related to what each side chose to emphasize.

“There's no doubt that right now there's a different narrative, but not in conflict with what's written down,” Moniz said.

A key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, sounded a note of caution on the agreement.

Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, told reporters the oil-rich kingdom wants to see more details on the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, nuclear inspections, and when international sanctions on Tehran would be lifted.

U.S. and Israel escalate war of words over Iran


Israel and the Obama administration have stepped up their war of words over the framework agreement that aims to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for a gradual rollback of sanctions.

President Barack Obama made his most detailed effort yet to persuade skeptics of the accord reached last week in Switzerland in a weekend interview with The New York Times, asserting that the deal is the “best bet” to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon and promising to “stand by” Israel in the event of Iranian aggression.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his skepticism of the deal undiminished, made the rounds of American talk shows on Sunday morning to denounce a deal that he said gives Iran a “free path” to the bomb. And on Monday, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, in an effort to rebut claims that Israel had offered no alternative to a military campaign against Iran, presented reporters in Jerusalem with a list of modifications he said would make the agreement “more reasonable.”

Steinitz’s requirements included the closing of the underground nuclear facility at Fordo, a commitment to ship uranium stockpiles out of the country and an inspections regime that would allow international monitors the ability to go “anywhere, anytime” in Iran.

Under the terms of the framework accord reached April 2 in Lausanne, the Fordo facility would be reconfigured and would not enrich uranium, but it would not be shuttered entirely. Iran also would be permitted to continue to enrich uranium using its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at its facility in Natanz. The accord requires Iran to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to investigate allegations of covert activity “anywhere in the country.”

In his interview with Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama said the deal is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to open a new chapter with Iran while preserving all American options and capabilities in the event that Iran fails to uphold its end of the bargain.

“Iran may change,” Obama said. “If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place.”

He added, “We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”

Obama acknowledged that Israel is far more vulnerable to Tehran, and he sought to offer assurances that the United States would maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and come to its aid in the event of attack. The United States, Obama said, “is sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.”

Yet on Monday, Obama indicated there were limits to how far he would go with respect to Israel, rejecting a demand issued last Friday by Netanyahu that a final deal require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist, calling the notion a “fundamental misjudgment.”

“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” Obama said in an interview with NPR. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment. I want to return to this point: We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing.”

Obama still faces an uphill climb in Congress. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed a bill that would grant Congress the right to review the deal. The committee is due to vote on the bill April 14. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to become Senate minority leader when Harry Reid (D-Nev.) retires at the end of the year, said this week that he would support Corker’s legislation.

“I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement, and I support the Corker bill, which would allow that to occur,” Schumer told Politico on Monday.

American Jewish groups are also skeptical of the accord. The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued statements following the conclusion of the agreement last week expressing hope for a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the standoff. But the groups also expressed doubt that Iran could be trusted to faithfully execute its end of the bargain.

“Given the nature of the Iranian regime, its pattern of seeking to deceive the international community on its nuclear program, its support for global terror and its regional hegemonic ambitions, its repeated calls for a world without Israel, and its clandestine weapons efforts, AJC is deeply concerned about whether Iran will abide by any undertaking it makes, and if any inspections regime will be sufficient to monitor Iran’s full compliance,” the American Jewish Committee said.

In an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu compared the agreement to the 1994 deal between the United States and North Korea. That deal, too, Netanyahu said, was “deemed to be a great breakthrough,” but it did not prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran, the prime minister said, “is a great deal more dangerous than North Korea.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning that the agreement does not threaten Israel’s survival and that Netanyahu should “contain himself because he has put out no real alternative. In his speech to the Congress — no real alternative. Since then — no real alternative.”

Steinitz pushed back against that criticism on Monday, saying the notion that war is the alternative to the Obama deal “is wrong.”

“The alternative is not necessarily to declare war on Iran,” he said. “It is to increase pressure on Iran and stand firm and make Iran make serious concessions and have a much better deal.”

Did the Obama administration drop Iran and Hezbollah from its threat assessment?


There’s a change in how James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, assesses terrorist threats, and it has sowed some confusion.

The Times of Israel this week reported that the DNI’s annual threat assessment “removed Iran and Hezbollah from its list of terrorism threats.” Newsweek picked up the story, and the American Jewish Committee tweeted its reaction, which it said was “beyond shocking.”

Both publications quote experts suggesting there is a quid quo pro with Iran as nuclear talks appear to be progressing and as it shares an enemy with the United States in ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Except calling what Clapper has done a “removal” of Iran and Hezbollah isn’t quite accurate. Compare this year’s threat assessment to last year‘s and you’ll see that all threats have been “removed”; the terrorism section in the assessment no longer appears as a list. So not only have Iran and Hezbollah disappeared, so have Al Qaeda and homegrown threats.

Instead, Clapper focuses exclusively in the section on terrorism on the threat posed by the ISIS.

This is not insignificant: The exclusive focus on a single threat has policy implications for how the United States confronts terror threats in other arenas. Israelis watching Hezbollah’s massive arms buildup have reason to be concerned that the following warning, in the 2014 report, does not appear this year: “Hizbollah has increased its global terrorist activity in recent years to a level that we have not seen since the 1990s.” The group’s eight mentions in 2014 are reduced to one this year.

But the terrorism section’s exclusive focus on ISIS does not add up to a “quid pro quo” for Iran; Iran, for one thing, gains nothing from the “removal” of another of its natural enemies, Al Qaeda, from the list.

Indeed, Iran in 2015 still merits its own listings, as it did last year, under separate sections, including “cyber,” “weapons of mass destruction” and “regional threats.”

Here’s how the Iran entry in the “regional threats” begins: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is an ongoing threat to U.S. national interests because of its support to the Assad regime in Syria, promulgation of anti-Israeli policies, development of advanced military capabilities, and pursuit of its nuclear program.”

In other words, Iran still remains very much a threat, according to the U.S. government.

Iran hints might not reject 10-year partial freeze of nuclear work


Iran's foreign minister on Thursday suggested that a 10-year moratorium on some aspects of the country's nuclear program might be acceptable to Tehran, though he declined to discuss the issue in detail.

U.S. President Barack Obama told Reuters on Monday that Iran must commit to a verifiable freeze of at least 10 years on sensitive nuclear activity for a landmark atomic deal to be reached between Tehran and six world powers.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour asked Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an interview if Tehran was prepared to accept decade-long limits on a nuclear program Iraninsists is exclusively peaceful.

“It depends on how you define it,” Zarif said. “If we have an agreement, we are prepared to accept certain limitations for a certain period of time but I'm not prepared to negotiate on the air.”

On Tuesday Zarif was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Obama's demand for a 10-year partial freeze was unacceptable.

Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks this week in Montreux, Switzerland with the aim of securing a political framework agreement by the end of March.

“There are a lot of details that need to be discussed. We have made some progress,” Zarif said. “We will have to work very, very hard for the next few weeks.”

Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have given themselves an end-June deadline to reach an agreement that curbs sensitive Iranian nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief. The Western powers hope to have a political framework agreement by the end of March.

“We can in fact reach an agreement if there is the necessary political will to make the tough choices,” Zarif said. “Everybody has to make tough choices.”

He said there has so far been no satisfactory agreement on how to remove sanctions on Tehran.

“We are still some time away from resolving all the issues,” he said.

In a speech to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the deal being negotiated was a serious mistake. Zarif dismissed the address.

“Some people consider peace and stability as an existential threat,” he said, adding that it had no impact on the negotiations.

The United States and its allies, notably Israel, suspect Iran of using a civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies the allegation.

Day 1 at AIPAC: Trusting Congress, expecting little from White House and anxious about Bibigate


The marching orders to the reported 16,000 attendees were clear on the first day of this year’s AIPAC policy conference: push legislators to pass a proposed bill that would give Congress the right to approve or reject any nuclear agreement signed between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime.

And the implications, too, were clear: AIPAC, an organization built on fostering bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and the White House, all but expects the president to sign a “bad” deal with Iran, one that the group believes would make Iran a threshold nuclear power and would endanger Israel’s existence.

This dynamic—relying on Congress to counterbalance the White House—along with the anticipation and anxiety over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday address to Congress, characterized the first day of AIPAC’s three-day conference in Washington, D.C.

While AIPAC’s top brass and politicians addressing the conference did not ignore the drama surrounding the circumstances of the speech—which has further frayed an already troubled relationship between Obama and Netanyahu—the focus was on the two bills AIPAC and its army of citizen lobbyists will push when they pack Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

First, the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015”, a bill introduced on Jan. 27 that would automatically introduce new sanctions on Iran if nuclear talks collapse. Second, the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015”, introduced last Friday, which would require Obama to obtain Congressional approval over any nuclear deal with Iran.

As Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, said, “Thank goodness for Congress.”

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), appearing together on stage Sunday morning in symbolic bipartisan fashion, praised the AIPAC members for what the two said is their influence on lawmakers.

“To my AIPAC friends, you’re going to make more difference than any speech any politician could deliver,” said Graham, a crowd favorite. “AIPAC is the glue that holds this relationship together.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (R), interviewed by Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University Frank Sesno in Washington on March 1. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The South Carolina senator said that he will be in the “front row” of Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech to a joint session of Congress, which news reports have suggested he will use as an opportunity to inform lawmakers of particularly risky and dangerous elements of the deal.

“Let us commit ourselves to get as many eyes as possible on this deal before it becomes binding,” Graham said.

Cardin, stating that Israel must never become a “political wedge issue”, also helped pump up the crowd in preparation for their Tuesday lobbying mission. “We need you on Capitol Hill. We have to keep strong sanctions against Iran,” Cardin said. “We could use your help.”

For all the talk, though, about how support for Israel cannot become a Republican or Democratic issue, by putting its weight and resources behind Congress as a sort of nuclear negotiations watchdog, AIPAC's message is clear—the White House is headed toward a dangerous deal, and only Congress can stop it.

“There are some real strains in the relationships,” Kohr admitted. “There is a serious policy difference, particularly over Iran.”

About 30 Democrats reportedly plan to skip Netanyahu's Tuesday speech to Congress, which has further worsened an already toxic relationship between the current governments in Washington and Jerusalem. Netanyahu critics have argued that he’s using the speech as a political tool for upcoming elections in Israel, that he disrespected the Obama administration by not informing it beforehand of the address, and that he’s turning Israel into a partisan issue in Washington.

Netanyahu’s office has repeatedly said that he has an obligation to speak up for Israel because it stands the most to lose from a bad deal with Iran, and that it was not the responsibility of Netanyahu’s office to inform the White House, but of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office, which officially invited Netanyahu. Boehner’s office reportedly informed the White House of Netanyahu’s acceptance two hours before it was publicly announced.

Sunday at AIPAC, although Kohr and politicians in attendance stressed the importance of attending Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, there were few, if any, public endorsements of his decision to address lawmakers.

“There’s no question that the way this speech has come about has created a great deal of upset among Democrats in Congress—House and Senate,” Kohr said. “It’s created some upset, frankly, outside the Capitol and, frankly, it may have upset some people in this room.”

On Feb. 26, Al-Monitor columnist Ben Caspit reported that AIPAC’s top officials “were in shock” after they learned of Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, and that the group warned Netanyahu that some Democrats would “boycott” the speech.

And even though Kohr did not endorse Netanyahu’s decision, he stressed that AIPAC believes “it’s an important speech.”

“We have spent active hours lobbying for members of the House and Senate to attend this speech,” Kohr said. “When the leader of our greatest ally in the region comes to Washington to speak about the greatest challenge of our time, we hope and urge members of Congress to be there to hear what he has to say.”

Cardin, striking a similar tone, said that the “circumstances surrounding the invitation are not how it should’ve been.”

“But don’t lose focus,” he continued. “The bad guy is Iran.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Ca.), who represents a district in Los Angeles and sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an afternoon panel session about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, that the “personal and partisan” nature of the hostility between Obama and Netanyahu makes it harder for Democrats to go against Obama and vote on sanctions while negotiations with Iran are ongoing.

“Back home they view this as a personality contest between two people, Bibi Netanyahu and President Barack Obama,” Sherman said. “It's hard for people in districts where the president got 60, 70, 80 percent of the vote to vote against Obama's position on sanctions now that it's such a personal, high profile issue.”

“It is much more difficult for me to go to Democrats,” he said.

Obama should send high-level rep to AIPAC conference


 The Obama administration reportedly will not be sending a senior representative to address next week’s annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Snubbing AIPAC will help lock in the caricature of a president who dislikes Israel and disrespects the pro-Israel community. By contrast, sending a high-level representative would reflect the reality of strong relations, especially at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the one angering and undermining many in the pro-Israel community, AIPAC included.

Substantive concerns over the current negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have been eclipsed by Netanyahu’s insistence on proceeding with a speech to Congress, despite the objections of the normally supportive FoxNews, Commentary magazine and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman. In his Jan. 21 statement announcing the speech, Republican House Speaker John Boehner framed Netanyahu’s address as a direct rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.

“There is a serious threat that exists in the world,” Boehner said, “and the president last night kind of papered over it.”

AIPAC and the administration apparently were equally surprised by the arrangement between Netanyahu and Boehner. But only AIPAC has seen its own strategy — new sanctions against Iran before any nuclear agreement is reached — collapse as a result. Even if the president had vetoed the bill as he has promised, a strong bipartisan showing could have spooked the Iranian leadership enough to prevent a deal.

By making the issue more about his defiance of Obama than about stopping Iran, and by alienating sympathetic Democrats, Netanyahu has essentially made any early sanctions bill radioactive. Mossad briefings also reportedly convinced a few key Republicans to let talks play out instead of derailing them.

AIPAC isn’t the only ally Netanyahu left out in the cold. He and Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Ron Dermer, have each blamed Boehner for misleading them. Netanyahu’s address to AIPAC will come across as an anti-Obama victory lap and an awkward afterthought to his self-styled Churchill moment on Capitol Hill.

This leaves the door open for Obama to find some common cause with AIPAC, the Republicans and hawkish Democrats. No, he won’t sweep away doubts about the Iran talks, and it’s inconceivable that he’ll diminish Netanyahu’s clout among the AIPAC faithful. But at least he can help show the way forward on U.S.-Israel relations. Everyone agrees that’s worth pursuing, including Netanyahu.

To be effective politically and diplomatically, the administration needs to demonstrate that differences with a specific Israeli government don’t mean that Barack Obama and other Democrats have given up on Israel.

It’s been known for weeks that Vice President Joe Biden won’t be around for Netanyahu’s highly charged speech to Congress, where as the Senate’s presiding officer he would normally sit next to Boehner on the dais. Convenient.

An appearance by another prominent administration official, perhaps National Security Adviser Susan Rice or United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, would signal to AIPAC as well as Israelis that American Jews have not been sidelined in the relationship and that, regardless of GOP and Likud efforts, neither has the late-term Obama administration.

In late 2013, feeling betrayed by Obama’s overture to Iran, AIPAC went to war with the administration, privately expressing anger and publicly pushing for new sanctions legislation in Congress. This time, the Mossad warning against new sanctions has cut into Republican support, while the full-throttle challenge from Boehner and Netanyahu has scared off Democratic skeptics of the Iran negotiations. And unlike last year, AIPAC has kept out of the latest acrimony between Netanyahu and Obama.

The Obama administration failing to send a high-level representative to AIPAC will be seen as a lack of concern — for the Iran issue, for U.S.-Israel relations and for the American Jewish community. It will be taken as confirmation that the dispute really is between Obama and Israel, not just between two rival leaders. It will back up the stereotype, believed by anti-Semites and many Israelis, that all Diaspora communities are merely extensions of the State of Israel. And it will be needless.

The administration’s relationship with AIPAC must not depend on who sits in the Oval Office or the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. The more Democrats can show they still respect Israel and are among its best friends, the more the president and any possible Democratic successor can hope to find common ground with Republicans — and American Jews — regarding Iran and other international challenges.

(Shai Franklin is senior fellow for United Nations Affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington.)

Bibi must stop an Iran bomb even if it offends Obama


There is nothing wrong with an Israeli prime minister doing his utmost to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, even if it offends the sensibilities of the American president. A nation that has experienced the world’s worst genocide just 70 years ago has not just a right but also an obligation to take seriously any existential threats that loom against it.

Iran is a genocidal regime. It has stated on countless occasions that it will destroy and annihilate Israel. And it is now building the doomsday weapons that can translate rhetoric into action.

For years, Iran has been hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. The Obama administration’s strategy to engage the Islamic tyranny in talks has produced no demonstrable results. Unfreezing Iran’s financial assets has only emboldened the brutal regime in continuing its genocidal rhetoric against Israel and disgusting human-rights abuses.

While the administration indulges Iran’s stalling tactics, Iranian centrifuges continue to spin. And with every minute that Tehran gets closer to realizing its diabolical nuclear dream, the civilized world inches closer to its peril. And this is especially true of Israel, which sits in the crosshairs of Iranian rage.

Iran is running out the clock. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran already has 13,397 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent uranium-235. If they use all 9,000 of their reactors at Natanz, the Iranians could enrich this further, to the weapon-grade level of 90 percent uranium-235 in just over a month and a half. And, if Iran’s close ally North Korea can serve as an example, they absolutely will.

The consequences of Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb are catastrophic — for Israel, the Middle East and the entire freedom-loving world. Israel would be under existential threat and would have its hands tied in any dealings with Iranian proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. The Middle East would be instantly destabilized, with a nuclear arms race certain to take off. And with the rogue state wielding end-of-days capabilities, the entire world would be forced to witness all levels of Iranian belligerence, virtually unable to intervene.

With so much at stake, it seems the last thing we should be concerned about is offending President Barack Obama. The American president is human just like the rest of us. He can be wrong. He can make mistakes, just like the rest of us. He does not enjoy the divine right of kings. He is not infallible. And if he is offended by being second-guessed by the leader of a nation that had more than a million children gassed to death seven decades ago, he’ll get over it.

The implications of a nuclear Iran for the world are far greater than such simple considerations as the wounded ego of the leader of the free world or a breach of diplomatic protocol.

I do not envy the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He lives every day with the understanding that if he errs in the confrontation with Iran, the consequences for his people are catastrophic, devastating and irreversible. History will hold him completely accountable for his failure to protect Israel.

Now, when it comes to launching a military strike against the Iranian nuclear apparatus, we can argue that perhaps the risks of something going horribly wrong are simply too great. Many already have said so. But can the same argument really be made of a speech delivered to the United States Congress by invitation of the House speaker? What are the terrible consequences that should prevent the prime minister of Israel going before the United States Congress to call for increased sanctions against Iran?

News reports are now saying that Obama administration officials are threatening serious consequences for Israel and the prime minister because of this breach of protocol. In fact, Haaretz just quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying, “Netanyahu spat in our face … there will be a price.” I had no idea that Al Capone worked in the administration.

Such Mafia language is beneath aides to the president of the United States. I, for one, have become fatigued with the continuous threats issued to the press by “undisclosed sources” in the administration against Israel.

Is it not unseemly for America to continually issue anonymous threats against its staunchest ally, especially when the rest of the world is going to hell in a hand basket?

Perhaps the Obama administration should threaten President Bashar Assad to stop slaughtering his people in Syria and actually, this time, do something about it. Perhaps Obama should threaten devastating and immediate consequences for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi should he continue to kill Western hostages with impunity, rather than just the airstrikes that have not stopped the vile beheadings. Perhaps officials of the Obama administration can focus their energies on occasionally mentioning the words “Islamic terror” rather than continually threatening the sole democracy in the Middle East with “consequences.”

Israel is not America’s threat. Why Obama despises Netanyahu so deeply is beyond me. Can the explanation really be that Bibi doesn’t accord Obama sufficient respect? Even if that were true, it would explain why Obama dislikes him, but not why he positively despises him, seemingly more than almost every other world leader.

Regardless, the prime minister of Israel is not elected principally to understand the mindset of the American president. He is elected, first and foremost, to defend a nation that has experienced more hatred, more torture, more bloodletting and more wholesale slaughter than any nation on Earth. That prime minister has the responsibility to do everything in his power to protect the Jewish people in Israel from a nuclear annihilation.

One Holocaust is quite enough. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s foremost organization defending Israel in the media. He is the author most recently of “Kosher Lust” and 29 other books. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Netanyahu defends planned Congress speech as anti-Iran strategy


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended on Sunday a planned speech to the U.S. Congress about Iran, saying he had a moral obligation to speak out on an issue that poses a mortal threat to Israel.

His visit to Washington in March has opened up a rift with the White House and has drawn accusations in Israel that Netanyahu is undermining the country's core foreign alliance in an effort to win an election due two weeks after the trip.

Briefing his cabinet on the March 3 speech to a joint meeting of Congress, Netanyahu said his priority was to urge the United States and other powers not to negotiate an Iranian nuclear deal that might endanger Israel.

“In coming weeks, the powers are liable to reach a framework agreement with Iran, an agreement liable to leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state,” he said in remarks carried by Israeli broadcasters.

“As prime minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weaponry that will be aimed at the State of Israel. This effort is global and I will go anywhere I am invited to make the State of Israel's case and defend its future and existence.”

John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, invited Netanyahu without informing the Obama administration, in what the White House deemed a breach of protocol.

Barack Obama, who has a testy relationship with the right-wing Netanyahu, will not meet the Israeli leader during the visit to Washington, his office said. This decision was widely portrayed in the Israeli media as a snub.

The White House has cited the proximity of Israel's March 17 election and a desire to avoid the appearance of influencing the poll as reason for withholding an Oval Office invitation.

There had also been contacts for a possible meeting between Obama and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who is visiting the United States this week to address a United NationsHolocaust commemorations event.

But Rivlin's spokesman Jason Pearlman and White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said there would be no meeting, citing scheduling conflicts.

The Israeli presidential job is largely ceremonial rather than political, and Rivlin is not up for re-election in March.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, asked on CNN's “State of the Union” program on Sunday about the controversial Congress invitation to Netanyahu, said the Obama administration did not want to get into a “blame game” over the issue.

“Let's take a step back: This is the most important relationship we have in the world. This is something that ought to be and will continue to be, as far as we are concerned, above partisan politics,” he said, referring to U.S. ties with Israel.

The relationship, McDonough said, “stretches across many different things: from values, straight through intelligence cooperation, to defense and security assistance.”

Six world powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have given themselves until the end of June to produce a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran and end a long-running dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Republican Senator John McCain said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that Israeli-U.S. ties were “never worse,” suggesting that for these reasons he thought “it's important that Prime Minister Netanyahu speak to the American people.”

Obama lauds Iran talks, says unilateral action still an option


President Obama said the United States would not hesitate to use military action in support of an ally and defended his policy of engagement with Iran.

Obama, in a major foreign policy speech on Wednesday at the graduation at the military academy in West Point, N.Y., sought a middle ground between what he depicted as “realism” and an overreliance on interventionism.

“The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it,” Obama said, including instances when the United States is directly threatened and “when the security of our allies is in danger.”

He emphasized, however, that he preferred multilateralism as a means of ensuring success.

“When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake — when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us — then the threshold for military action must be higher,” he said. “In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”

Obama said his choices on Iran bore out his theory, criticizing the confrontational posture of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, and Israel.

“Despite frequent warnings from the United States and Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years,” he said. “But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government. And now we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully,” he said, referring to the nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers.

Obama cautioned that the “odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

He continued, “but for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement — one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed concerns that the nuclear talks, to resume in mid-June in Vienna, will achieve a deal that leaves Iran perilously close to a nuclear weapon.

Obama did not mention the future of the failed U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, though he discussed other conflicts in the area, including Syria.

Iran commander: U.S. strike on Syria would bring Israel’s destruction


Iran's Revolutionary Guards chief said a U.S. military attack on Syria would lead to the “imminent destruction” of Israel and would prove a “second Vietnam” for America, according to an Iranian news agency.

Shi'ite Muslim Iran, an arch-enemy of Israel, is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels trying to oust him in a two-and-a-half-year-old revolt.

Iran has blamed the rebels for a suspected chemical weapons on August 21 that killed hundreds of civilians. Opposition activists blame Assad's forces, Washington has agreed and President Barack Obama made the case for a limited military strike against Syria in response to the chemical attack.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said in an interview late on Wednesday with the Tasnim news agency that a U.S. strike on Syria would not helpIsrael.

“An attack on Syria will mean the imminent destruction of Israel,” Jafari said, according to Tasnim.

The interview was widely picked up by Iranian media on Thursday. Tasnim, which launched in 2012, says on its website that it is devoted to “defending the Islamic Revolution against negative media propaganda”.

Jafari, as quoted by Tasnim, also warned the United States that it risked embroilment in a costly and protracted struggle if it intervened in Syria.

“Syria will turn into a more dangerous and deadly battlefield than the Vietnam War, and in fact, Syria will become the second Vietnam for the United States,” he said.

Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Congressmen tell Obama to increase pressure on Iran over nukes


In the wake of Iran’s recent election, a bipartisan group of congressmen are calling on President Obama to increase pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was perceived to be the most moderate of the candidates and “while this was not a free and fair election, judged by international standards, its outcome reflected considerable dissatisfaction by the Iranian people with an autocratic and repressive government that has internationally isolated Iran,” the letter from the congressmen to Obama noted.

The June 28 letter was signed by Reps. Ed Royce, (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and 43 other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The letter pointed out that “Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity.” It also noted that Rouhani previously served as his country’s nuclear negotiator and had indicated his support for the program in a post-election news conference.

“Our diplomatic goal must be to reach a negotiated settlement in which Iran agrees to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. For this outcome to be realized, Iran must face intensifying pressure,” the congressmen wrote.

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