Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s just-concluded visit to the United States set in motion a potential confrontation with the Obama Administration. Netanyahu’s true intentions were masked during his White House meeting with President Obama and other top Obama Administration officials. In those conversations, Netanyahu followed an anticipated script: He warned against Iran’s secret plans to continue towards a nuclear bomb while giving the appearance of appeasement. He demanded further American military aid for Israel’s Iron Dome and other defense programs. He dodged the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
On the surface, the talks were cordial. But Netanyahu’s real motives came out when he left the White House and went to Capitol Hill to confer with allies in the pro-Israel camp in both the Republican and Democratic parties. According to Capitol Hill sources, Netanyahu made clear there that he has no confidence that President Obama will stand firm in the talks with Iran that are already underway. He solicited his Congressional allies to use every means to block the progress of resumed P5+1 talks, to introduce new sanctions on Iran and prevent the White House from lifting any existing sanctions.
The next day at the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu devoted most of his speech to a diatribe against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He explicitly warned Obama against lifting sanctions against Iran until it has provably dismantled its entire nuclear program, including the enrichment facilities at Fordow, and turned over its entire stockpile of enriched uranium.
In a highly unusual move, Netanyahu also referenced a growing cooperation with Persian Gulf Arab states that share Israel’s concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons. Israeli officials have been reported to be conducting secret diplomacy with several Gulf Cooperation Council member states over the Iran issue and their shared distrust of Obama.
In their meeting on the sidelines of the P5+1 talks in New York last week, Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif had a short but substantive exchange. Kerry suggested that if Iran freezes any further 20 percent enrichment, the U.S. is prepared to lift sanctions blocking letters of credit and gold transactions. This would have a genuine impact on the Iran economy and pave the way for an estimated expansion of oil exports by 500,000 barrels per day, according to a source close to Kerry. For every step taken by Iran to verify that they have truly halted work on a nuclear bomb, the US will reciprocate.
Netanyahu’s nightmare is that the P5+1 talks succeed and the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is verifiably ended. At that point, he knows that his own political future is finished. He intends to Israel’s support inside the U.S. Congress to throw up every conceivable obstacle to a P5+1 and bilateral Washington-Tehran diplomatic success.