While neither President Obama nor Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has gotten what he most wanted from the other regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, each has given the other valuable assistance in handling the tense situation.
That was the message Professor of Politics Shai Feldman, the Judy and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, delivered to a gathering of Fulbright Scholars from around the world at a briefing and luncheon at the Harvard Faculty Club recently.
The session was arranged by H.D.S. Greenway, who following a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent is now a fellow of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.
In the latest talks between Obama and Netanyahu, Feldman said, "Obama wanted a commitment that Israel would not act without a green light from Washington. What Netanyahu wanted was a commitment from Obama that if Israel refrains from acting against Iran and all other measures fail… the United States would take action itself."
While neither leader would make the commitment the other wanted, Obama got time to continue ratcheting up the economic and social pressures on Iran that he hopes will lead it to eschew nuclear weapons development, Feldman said, while Netanyahu got a commitment of the United States to a policy of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
This latter commitment means that the United States will not opt for the possibility of accepting Iran as a nuclear-armed state and moving toward deterrence and containment, Feldman said, adding that "this is an important milestone in the relationship between these two countries."
He said that "for the first time in a long time, the prospect of serious negotiations has been launched" through the mid-April meetings in Istanbul of Iranian and Western representatives.
"The worrisome aspect," Feldman said, is that "I have not seen any signs of serious preparations on the U.S. side, on the European side, of what would be the negotiating positions. What are the concessions one can think about? What can be realistically expected from Iran?"
He urged people to stop thinking in terms of an "American position" or an "Israeli position" on the Iranian nuclear issue, because there is discussion and debate at every level of society, in particular in Israel.
The principal questions under discussion, he said, include:
- Is this an existential threat to Israel?
- Could a nuclear-armed Iran be deterred?
- How soon will it be too late to prevent Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capacity?
- What could a preventive military operation achieve?
- What would be the regional reaction to such an operation? Would Hamas and Hezbollah launch massive assaults on Israel?
- What would be the effect on the US-Israel relationship of such an operation?
Feldman said that last question is critically important in Israeli thinking because of the extremely close relations that exist between the American and Israeli defense communities.
Greenway said Iran had made a major mistake by threatening Israel with nuclear annihilation because of the small size of the country and the history of attempts to annihilate the Jews. Feldman said that "for Netanyahu, [Iran] is essentially Germany in 1938 with nuclear weapons."