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As U.S., Israel Navigate Tensions Over Iran, Are ‘All Options on the Table?’

March 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed some areas of disagreement Monday over potential solutions to an Iranian nuclear threat, disputing whether diplomacy or military action would be a better move. Gwen Ifill and guests discuss how the leaders are dealing with their differences.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the growing debate, we turn to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine. He interviewed President Obama on this issue for an article published last week. Jamie Fly, who served on the staff of George W. Bush’s National Security Council, he’s now executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. And James Dobbins, he has held various diplomatic posts at both the State Department and the White House. He’s now a director at the RAND Corporation.

Jeff Goldberg, you had a 45-minute meeting with the president on this topic. And after watching the conversation that happened after this meeting at the White House today, did the prime minister get what he came for? Did the president get what he invited him here for?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: I think that there’s a zero percent possibility that either man is going to leave these meetings getting all that he wanted.

I think that the prime minister was coming to Washington to get a level of specificity from the president that the president is not going to give him in terms of, by what date will you attack Iran if they don’t accede to your requests, and how, and what are your red lines?

The president indicated in many different ways that he’s not going to provide that level of detail to anyone, in part because he doesn’t know. And in terms of what the president wanted, the president wanted to communicate in broad terms to the prime minister, as he said, that he has Israel’s back. Therefore, you, Mr. Prime Minister, can stand down. You should not do anything premature or precipitous that could actually wind up emboldening or strengthening Iran.

And I don’t think the prime minister is ever going to promise an American president that he will, from the prime minister’s viewpoint, subcontract out Israel’s defense to the United States or to anyone else.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Dobbins, it seems like in the few — what we have been seeing as the rhetoric has been building over the last several weeks that there was never going to be a common ground. So it leads you on to believe whether Israel is playing bad cop and the United States is playing good cop in this.

JAMES DOBBINS, RAND Corporation: Yeah, I don’t think these messages are actually particularly directed at Tehran.

I think the Israeli threats are directed largely at Washington and at the rest of the international community that desperately doesn’t want a war in the Middle East. And they’re designed to harden the American position and to increase the pressure on Iran thereby. And I think they’ve succeeded to some degree in doing that.

On the other hand, I think Obama has pushed back hard and effectively on the question of timing. He’s made clear that an early military strike on Iran, whether from the United States or from Israel, is not in the American interest, not in the Israeli interest. And I think it will be hard for President Netanyahu to go back and order such a strike in reaction to that.

On the other hand what Netanyahu has received is a rather more explicit Obama commitment to eventually take military action against Iran if Iran persists in pursuing nuclear weapons.

GWEN IFILL: Jamie Fly, the president told Jeffrey Goldberg last week, I’m not bluffing, or something to that effect. And he seemed to be saying that again today.

Is it as effective as Jim Dobbins seems to think, to you?

JAMIE FLY, Foreign Policy Initiative: I think the administration’s rhetoric, especially with the president in the interview that he gave to Jeff Goldberg, has been somewhat effective in clearing the waters a bit, because his administration had not been consistent in its messaging about the military option.

But I think, as Jeff noted, that this is unlikely to leave Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government satisfied. And the main reason is, the president in his speech focused primarily on Iran actually obtaining a nuclear weapon, whereas I think the Israelis are much more concerned, and I think rightfully so, about Iran reaching the point where they have that capability.

And all of the information from the International Atomic Energy Agency and other reports are that Iran is almost at that point. And so I think that’s also the major difference we’re seeing coming out of these meetings.

GWEN IFILL: When you use terms like — I will continue with you and ask you this, too, Jim Dobbins — like loose talk of war, like the president, that does seem like it’s stepping up some of the pushback.

JAMIE FLY: I do.

I disagree with the president, though, on that, because I don’t think this is loose talk. I think, even if the president believes that there’s the possibility of a negotiated solution — and he certainly seemed to say that in the interview he did with Jeff — I think that the Iranians need to understand that there is real pressure out there and there is the real possibility of a military option.

And, unfortunately, some of the president’s top Cabinet officials, like Secretary of Defense Panetta, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they have not given off that indication in the last several weeks that this is a real, viable military option.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think there’s a real, viable, Jim Dobbins, military option?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think the president’s talk about loose talk is probably directed more at his Republican opponents than at the Israeli prime minister.

I don’t think he regards what Netanyahu is saying as particularly loose. I think he regards it as a credible threat and one that he wants to clearly signal is not consistent with American policies or views.

Personally, I think that, as the president made clear, that an attack on Iran at this stage would produce a more unified Iranian public. It would validate certainly to the Iranian public the necessity of achieving nuclear deterrence. And for much of the rest of the world, I think the sanctions regime would begin to loosen.

I think that Iran would begin to get potential assistance in its nuclear program which it’s not getting now from countries like Pakistan or China or Russia. And I think that at best you’d get a temporary delay and perhaps an explicit acceleration of the program.

GWEN IFILL: Jeff, when they talk about options on the table, the president says all options are on the table. What options is he realistically talking about?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, I do think that he believes that the sanctions regime is working. And it does seem to be working.

And, you know, he hopes that those sanctions lead to the building of an off-ramp, where the Iranians can get off a nuclear path without losing face. And he is talking about — in my interview, for the first time, he actually used the term military component to describe one of the options, obviously the final option.

And, you know, I think — I do believe that he was obviously doing a lot of messaging to a lot of different parties over the past week, domestic and international. I do think one of the strong messages he’s trying to deliver right now is to Iran. And he is saying to the supreme leader of Iran, listen, take me seriously. I’m not kidding when I say that this is unacceptable to me.

One of the most important things he’s done, I think, in the last week is to expressly rule out containment. He is not in any way arguing that the U.S. could or wants to live with an Iran with nuclear weapons. And that is a — that was a — that is a fairly big development. So he’s actually — he’s obviously trying to attempt to limit Israel’s options here, but he’s also somewhat limited America’s own options in this case.

GWEN IFILL: Jamie Fly, is there at its root here some distrust between two old staunch allies? Take Iran out of it for a moment, but there doesn’t seem to be — there seems to be more disagreement than agreement that you normally would see.

JAMIE FLY: I think that’s certainly the case.

And you just look at — Prime Minister Netanyahu is here to address the annual meeting of AIPAC. And this has become almost an annual occurrence, where the prime minister of Israel comes. And there’s always — at least for the last several years — been this confrontation between this government in Israel and between this administration, and for a variety of reasons related to differences over settlements in the Palestinian peace process.

But I do think there is some base distrust between this Israeli government and this administration.

GWEN IFILL: Did that encounter at the White House today read like confrontation to you?

JAMIE FLY: Well, I think this meeting certainly wasn’t as confrontational as the meeting a year ago, and partly because of how the press availability was managed after the meeting.

But I do think the prime minister made very clear after their meetings that he still believes that — as any Israeli leader would, that if he feels that Israel’s security is threatened, he will need to take action. And he noted that he thinks the president understands that as well.

GWEN IFILL: Now, these meetings at the White House went on for two hours. There are still meetings going on.

So, I ask you this, Jim Dobbins. With that full understanding, do you have a sense that an Israeli unilateral attack on Iran in the ways we’ve — for the reasons we’ve discussed is more or less likely after a meeting like today?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think it’s somewhat less likely in the short term.

I think, as I said, that the president pushed back pretty clearly. I don’t think that the Israeli prime minister would authorize such an attack if he believed that it would not, ex post facto, receive American support.

I think Obama has probably drawn that into question. I think it would be hard to do it over the explicit and firmly expressed advice of the American president. So, in the short term, I think it probably reduces the risk. But the effect will wear off in a few months. I mean this is a meeting. You have said something. Events and other things will drive the process.

So it doesn’t definitively exclude it, but I’d say between, now and the summer, it’s less likely than it was.

GWEN IFILL: And, Jeff Goldberg, how much of this tension that we see has to do with domestic politics in Israel and domestic politics here?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, you know, one of the most interesting things in this interview I did with the president last week, he got most exercised when talking about his record on Israel and the way that Republicans, especially Republican candidates for president, are talking about it.

And he repeated this in his speech to AIPAC, essentially saying — you know, giving a laundry list of things he’s done for Israel, all accurate, and saying, at this point, how could anyone possibly think that I’m anti-Israel?

This has a lot to do, obviously, with the upcoming election. The president is not vulnerable on most foreign policy questions right now. He’s obviously not vulnerable at all on questions of terrorism, after the killing of bin Laden. Republicans believe that he is vulnerable on the Iran question, that he’s not tough enough on Iran, that he’s not friendly enough to Israel.

So, if you noticed, you know, in past years, the president would be speaking a great deal about the peace process, about the Palestinians. He’s not talking about that right now. He’s talking about Iran. He’s talking, you know, according to an agenda laid in part by the prime minister, as opposed to an agenda that he has set out.

So, this has a lot to do with neutralizing an issue that the White House understands to be a possible vulnerability.

GWEN IFILL: Jeff Goldberg, Jamie Fly, Jim Dobbins, thank you all very much.

JAMIE FLY: Thank you.

JAMES DOBBINS: Thank you.