It’s not clear that Israel is convinced, but President Obama deserves credit for his forceful argument that the Jewish state shouldn’t precipitously attack Iran’s nuclear program. He has also effectively rebuked American politicians, including his Republican rivals, for “beating the drums of war.” At the same time, Obama has committed the United States to a “military effort” to block a nuclear weapon — a newly muscular formulation of his long-standing commitment to take no option off the table.
In a speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group, in discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and at Tuesday’s news conference, Obama has sounded three themes. One is that non-military pressure on Iran needs time to work but is already beginning to show promise. The second is that the United States is committed to Israel’s security. (“I have Israel’s back,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.) And third, that a war with Iran, whether launched by Israel or the U.S., would have catastrophic human costs. That reality needs to be acknowledged by Republicans who, in Obama’s words, have been “popping off” about a military confrontation.
Israel’s anxieties about Iran’s nuclear program are certainly understandable. The regime in Tehran rejects the Jewish state’s legitimacy in hateful language and has for years provided aid to both Hamas and Hezbollah. Nor is it surprising that Israelis agonize about whether the United States really appreciates its position. For many Israelis, an Iranian nuclear weapon would constitute the proverbial existential threat, a potential second Holocaust. For the United States, a nuclear-armed Iran would pose more diffuse dangers, such as a nuclear arms race in the region or the possibility that Iran’s nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists. There also are disagreements between the U.S. and Israel about whether Iran is, in fact, committed to building a bomb.
Despite these different perspectives, Obama presented Israel with a strong case for patience. Sanctions, he said, are “slowing the Iranian nuclear program and virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt.” They also may have drawn Iran back to the negotiating table; on Tuesday it was announced that negotiations would be resumed between Tehran and the U.S., France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany. It is far too early to give up on diplomacy — or, as Obama said at his news conference, “this notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks, or month or two months, is not borne out by the facts.”