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Why Obama says Iran does not have to recognize Israel as part of a nuclear deal

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press on April 3, 2015 in Jerusalem, Israel, regarding a pending nuclear deal with Iran. (Photo by Kobi Gideon /GPO via Getty Images)
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Last week, after Iranian and American diplomats announced a framework deal regarding Iran's controversial nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his conspicuous opposition to an accord with Tehran.

On Friday, Netanyahu, as he has done for quite some time, warned of the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and harped on the belligerent rhetoric of some of its leadership.

"Israel demands that any final agreement with Iran will include a clear and unambiguous Iranian recognition of Israel's right to exist," Netanyahu said. "Israel will not accept an agreement which allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop nuclear weapons, period."

Netanyahu has spent months campaigning against the Obama administration's attempts at rapprochement with Iran, including delivering a polarizing speech in Washington ahead of Israel's parliamentary elections in March. This seemed to be perhaps one last roll of the dice.

President Obama, who doesn't get along with Netanyahu, seemed to dismiss the Israeli premier's latest demand in an interview this week. When asked by NPR's Steve Inskeep whether Iranian recognition of the state of Israel would be included in any final deal, Obama deemed such a move a "fundamental misjudgment." Here's an excerpt of his remarks:

Well, let me say this — it's not that the idea of Iran recognizing Israel is unreasonable. It's completely reasonable and that's U.S. policy....
There's still going to be a whole host of differences between us and Iran, and one of the most profound ones is the vile, anti-Semitic statements that have often come out of the highest levels of the Iranian regime. But 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. And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.

The point here is one that diplomats would take for granted. When attempting to make a deal with your interlocutor, particularly one where there's a considerable history of grievance and animosity, you can't expect to win a total capitulation.

Proponents of a nuclear deal with Iran believe it is the most effective means to safeguard against Iran risking a move toward building a nuclear weapon. Sanctions relief and small confidence building measures may change the demeanor and rhetoric of the Islamic Republic, but no one is counting on that. "We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can't bank on the nature of the regime changing," Obama said in the NPR interview.

His comments echoed the pragmatism of earlier remarks made in an interview with the New York Times's Thomas Friedman, where Obama argued that trying to forge an opening with Iran was a calculated move with low risk.

"Iran understands that they cannot fight us... You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities," said the president.

Arguably, as Middle East expert Robin Wright notes in the New Yorker, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is taking the far bigger gamble, defying his country's powerful hardliners while risking political humiliation at home should the talks collapse.

The American president attempted to reassure Israelis that, ultimately, the U.S. and Israel's vastly superior capabilities would neutralize an Iranian threat. "Iran is deterrable, and it is deterrable not just because of Israel's superior military and intelligence capabilities but also because you got a really strong ally in the United States of America," Obama told NPR.

Iran, moreover, is hardly alone in not recognizing Israel. A host of Muslim-majority countries to this day refuse Israeli passports at their borders --a legacy both of Israel's wars with Arab states as well as a somewhat feeble act of solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. One of these countries is Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Yet Israel and Saudi Arabia -- one a Jewish majority state, the other an orthodox Sunni Arab monarchy -- have found a fair amount of common ground in the region because of their mutual distrust for Iran. They share a tacit, largely secret relationship, built entirely on strategic self-interest. You'll never find Netanyahu calling on Riyadh to formally recognize Israel -- it just wouldn't be practical.

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