Netanyahu and Obama agree more about Iran than they let on


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 68th United Nations General Assembly. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Behind the rhetorical excesses of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Tuesday address to the United Nations – Iran's president, he declared, "thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too" – was a serious point. Netanyahu does not trust Iran's offers of rapprochement with the West and compromise on the nuclear program. "This is a ruse," he said. "It's a ploy." And he's pretty plainly worried that President Obama is falling for it, thus enabling Iran's nuclear program and endangering Israel.

It's true that Netanyahu and Obama disagree on Iran and that their disagreement can produce a lot of rhetorical fireworks. But they don't differ as much as it might seem. Their positions on Iran are actually pretty close and, believe it or not, might be getting closer. They do have two big and potentially tough disagreements – though Netanyahu left some clues they might yet be bridgeable.

Here's where they agree: they both believe, based on their U.N. speeches and many previous statement, that Iran is pursuing at least the capability to produce nuclear weapons. They both believe that this is bad enough to merit military action should Iran get too close – yes, Obama has made this point repeatedly. They're both willing to see the problem peacefully resolved through diplomacy – amid Tuesday's hawkish rhetoric, Netanyahu slipped this in: "The only diplomatic solution that would work is one that fully dismantles Iran's nuclear weapons program and prevents it from having one in the future." But they both insist that Iran's recent turn toward friendly rhetoric and token gestures isn't enough, that Tehran will have to provide what Obama termed "meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions" before it can win the West's trust.

So Obama and Netanyahu agree on a lot. That's good news for both of them. The less Netanyahu opposes any U.S. diplomatic outreach to Iran, the easier it will be for Obama to pursue. He needs Netanyahu to, if not accept a deal, at least hold back from attempting to scuttle it. That's true both internationally – Israel doesn't have veto power over U.S. foreign policy but allies do tend to influence one another – and within D.C., where Congressmen and others who could trip up Obama's outreach will surely consider Netanyahu's position. And if Netanyahu wants to see the United States continue to safeguard Israeli interests on Iran, whatever that takes, he is best served if he and Obama see eye-to-eye.

They do disagree, though, on two big issues: one of process and one of policy. The first disagreement, on process, is a little bit soft; it's possible they could find a way to bridge. The second, on policy, is tougher.

The process disagreement is over who backs down first. Netanyahu doesn't think that the United States or the United Nations Security Council should lift any of its economic sanctions on Iran until the country "fully dismantles its nuclear weapons program." He said in his U.N. address, "Don't agree to a partial deal. A partial deal would lift international sanctions that have taken years to put in place in exchange for cosmetic concessions that will take only weeks for Iran to reverse." In other words: You can give Iran what they want, which is relief from sanctions, but not until they give us everything we want first.

Obama has not directly contradicted this; he hasn't come out and said that the United States would ease up sanctions bit-by-bit as Iran gradually rolled back its nuclear program and allowed nuclear inspectors. But that's the general expectation – this is how negotiations typically work – and Obama hasn't given the world reason to believe otherwise. For any deal to work, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will have to get the supreme leader and Iranian hard-liners on board, which means convincing them that they can trust the United States to follow through on its word, which means securing some kind of token sanctions relief before Iran fully acquiesces to Western demands.

So that makes Netanyahu's process demand potentially a problem. But Netanyahu appears to have left some wiggle room. He had big, specific demands for what a final deal would look like. But his bar for what Iran has to do before it gets sanctions relief is lower, and a bit vague: ending its "nuclear weapons program." Given that Iran insists it has no such program, it's not clear what precise actions would satisfy this condition for Netanyahu – giving both Rouhani and Obama some wiggle room with him.

The second disagreement between Netanyahu and Obama, over policy, could be tougher. Netanyahu set four very specific conditions for what a final deal would have to look like in order to satisfy Israel. Two of them are going to be non-starters for Tehran: no more uranium enrichment for Iran and the country must give up all its enriched uranium. Iran has always said it wants a peaceful nuclear program as a matter of national pride. And Obama concedes this point, saying the United States could accept a peaceful Iranian program. It's hard to see how you find any common ground there.

So the question is whether Netanyahu's position here is soft enough that Obama could find a way to keep him on board. At a Monday press conference at the White House, Netanyahu said, "For Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program." Its military nuclear program – not any nuclear program whatsoever.

Netanyahu seemed to challenge Obama's position head-on when speaking to the U.N. "There are those who would readily agree to leave Iran with a residual capability to enrich uranium," he said, going on to suggest that Rouhani could try to use this low-level capacity to secretly develop a nuclear weapon. But, strangely, he did not then say, "and that's why Iran can never be allowed to have any nuclear program." He said, "This is why Iran's nuclear weapons program must be fully and verifiably dismantled." Again, he's qualifying the "weapons" program.

Maybe – maybe – Netanyahu is leaving the door open to accept a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, as Obama has said the United States would be willing to do. That's a much lower bar than ceasing all enrichment outright – and it's a lower bar than Netanyahu has set in the past. Maybe Obama, Netanyahu and Rouhani could find a compromise after all.

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Max Fisher · October 1, 2013