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Obama's Super-Bowl Fumble on Iran

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This article cross-posted from Consortium News


President Obama with advisers in the Oval Office (White House photo by Pete Souza)

Before President Barack Obama's interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, aired before the Super Bowl on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably hoped that, if Obama discussed Iran, he would give him the strong backing that Israeli leaders crave, freeing them to lash out at Iran -- militarily, if they so choose.

Few could have been more keenly interested than he in what the President would say in an interview beamed to a hundred million American TV viewers. The problem was that Netanyahu could not have been completely sure of what to expect, given the confusing mixed signals coming out of Washington in the past several weeks.

Some of those signals had been disquieting to Netanyahu and other Israeli hard-liners -- for example, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying flat-out on Jan. 8 that Iran is NOT "trying to develop a nuclear weapon" -- undercutting the key casus belli for war -- and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey visiting Israel on Jan. 19, reportedly to repeat that in person and warn his hosts against provoking war with Iran.

In Netanyahu's world, though, functionaries like Panetta and Dempsey are to be listened to politely but not taken all that seriously. It is what the American President says, in public, that may require more attention -- and that is enhanced when he has the eyes and ears of multiple millions of super-prime-time viewers.

For Obama's part, he was walking a political tightrope, having sent out two of his top national security aides to signal Israel that he doesn't want a new war in the Middle East, but not wanting to give his hawkish Republican rivals new reasons to question his support for Israel.

Obama is reportedly hopeful that a peaceful settlement can still be reached over Iran's nuclear program, but he understands that he has little margin for error in this high-wire act of political diplomacy -- especially with so many crosswinds in an election year.

So, President Obama decided to forgo his best chance to inject a loud, unmistakable note of caution into recent warmongering over Iran, not only in Israel but also among influential neocons in the United States who have been jumping up and down, demanding another preemptive war over hypothetical WMDs, much as they did with Iraq.

When the interview was over, Netanyahu could breathe a sigh of relief. With Obama's words and body language, there was nothing that would constitute a red light and some things that Netanyahu might interpret hopefully as nearly a green light.

Heightened Danger

Bottom Line: The way the President chose to handle Lauer's leading questions on Israel-Iran tensions has brought the world closer to hostilities that would deeply destabilize not only that region but the world economy...

Lauer: [Regarding] building tension between Israel and Iran: It seems now the Israelis are signaling they may act, and conduct a strike inside Iran at their nuclear sites sooner than later. Do they have your full support for that raid?

Obama: I don't think Israel has made a decision on what they need to do. I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program, and we have mobilized the international community in a way that is unprecedented. And they [the Iranians] are feeling the pinch, they are feeling the pressure.

But they have not taken the steps they need to take diplomatically; which is [for the Iranians] to say, "We will pursue peaceful nuclear power; we will not pursue a nuclear weapon." Until they do so, I think Israel, rightly, is going to be very concerned, and we are as well.

Lauer: Has Israel promised you that they would give you advance warning to any such attack? Should they give you that warning?

Obama: I won't go into the details. I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we've ever had.  And we are going to make sure we work in lockstep, as we proceed to try to solve this -- hopefully diplomatically. ...

Our preferred solution here is diplomatic; we're going to keep on pushing on that front. But we're not going to take any options off the table, and I've been very clear that we're going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race in a volatile region.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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