Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Obama National Security Official: Drumbeat for war with Iran harms both Israel and the US, by Doni Remba

Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden, said last night in New York that the “drumbeat for war with Iran in the media is incredibly counterproductive” and “plays into the hands of Iran.”   It helps to further drive up the price of oil, undermining US economic recovery, and puts more dollars in Iran’s hands, explained Blinken.   The best policy is to “speak softly and carry a big stick, to be wise and strong.”

He spoke to group of about 100 people at the Harvard Club of New York, at an event sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum.

Blinken stated that the administration believes that Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear bomb, and stressed that the US and Israel are closely collaborating on assessing Iran’s actions and intentions.   He implied that this assessment was shared by the Israeli government, but neglected to mention recent press reports which indicate that Israeli intelligence too has concluded that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb.   According to these reports, this was the conclusion that Israeli officials presented to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US General Martin Dempsey on his recent visit to Israel, a conclusion also reached by US intelligence agencies.  

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported last month that “The intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to Dempsey indicates that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb.  The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon - or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.”  ("Barak: Israel 'very far off' from decision on Iran attack," Ha'aretz, Jan. 18, 2012)

When asked if US assessments on Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapon proved wrong, Blinken reaffirmed that “Israel has to make its own decisions” and that “we don’t tell our allies or partners what to do with regard to their own security.”   But he stressed the unprecedented close US-Israeli partnership on safeguarding Israel’s security and on the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.   He expressed confidence that “no predecessor has done more than the Obama administration has” to insure Israel’s security.

Blinken believes that the sanctions enacted by the Obama administration are placing heavy pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, and that there is still time for escalated sanctions, combined with diplomatic talks, to avert the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.   Iran is “struggling to buy refined petroleum,” and many major corporations in Europe, and foreign subsidiaries of US companies, now refuse to do business with Iran.

“The regime is feeling pressure.”   For those who still doubted this, Blinken cited a remark by President Ahmadinejad that “the West has imposed the most extensive and dastardly sanctions on Iran.  This is the heaviest economic onslaught on a nation in history.”   To illustrate how great the pressure is on the Iranian government, Blinken noted that the Iranian leadership is concerned about the possibility of losing public support for the regime.

While he acknowledged that “any country abiding by the nuclear nonproliferation treaty is entitled to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, Iran has lost the trust of the entire international community, and it has a long way to go to win back that trust,” if it wishes to do so.  For any diplomacy to have a chance of success after sanctions take an increasing economic toll on Iran, its leaders would have to show real seriousness, backed up by action, in any future talks to convince the US and other countries:   Iran would have to come “to the table in a serious way and show the world that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.”

When asked about the upcoming March 5 Obama-Netanyahu meeting in Washington, and expectations that the US and Israel would formulate an agreement on “what to do about Iran,” Blinken would not speculate, but affirmed the close US-Israeli collaboration, adding that “we may have some disagreements on tactics, but not on fundamental issues of Israel’s security.”   The US and Israel consult closely not just on Iran, but on the Arab Spring, the peace process, Syria and Egypt.

The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process:  When asked whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is moribund, Blinken drew upon the well-worn mantra of previous administrations that “we can’t want peace more than Israel does.”  “They have to want it and work for it. That’s where the decision lies,” he said.

But, he continued, “you have to have a partner for peace,” and the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, he stressed, is an obstacle.   "The Palestinians have to convince Israel that they accept it. They have to decide what their position on Israel is. The international community is united on the need for Hamas to renounce violence, affirm past agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority, and recognize Israel.”   Part of the reason for the fissure in Hamas is over these conditions, he explained, and while “some in Hamas know what they have to do and are considering it, they are not yet the dominant group.”

At the same time, Blinken stressed that the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace is close to President Obama’s heart, as he believes that creating a lasting peace will strengthen Israel’s security.  Blinken cited President Clinton who used to say that the US will do anything to help those who take risks for peace, and promised that the US will support “those who take risks for peace.”   The role of the US, he explained, is to minimize those risks.    But he was “skeptical that we can make progress this year because of politics in Israel and the US during an election year.”

He ruled out military intervention against Syria to accelerate the toppling of Bashar Assad, saying it “would not solve anything.”  He expressed confidence that Assad will go; the only question is how much damage he will do until that happens, as Assad is murdering his own people at a rate of 50, 60, 70 a day.   He believes that sanctions and isolation are having an effect, and alluded to the flow of business leaders moving out of the country with their families.

The November election, the Republicans and the Jewish vote:   Blinken felt that there was a “decent” chance that Obama and Biden would be re-elected in November for a second term.   When asked why the Republicans feel that they can pick off some of the Jewish vote in the upcoming election, Blinken responded that there has been a lack of factual basis in discussions about US policy on Israel.   Part of the reason, he acknowledged, is that the administration has “had some failure to communicate” as effectively as it should have, but there’s also “a noise machine that drowns out the facts.   Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.”   Clearly referring to the frequent Republican misrepresentations of the Obama administration’s policies towards Israel,  Blinken warned against allowing US-Israel relations to be exploited for partisan political purposes, suggesting that turning Israel into a political football during the election campaign could hurt those relations.  

When asked about Obama’s remarks about Israel and the 1967 borders, Blinken cited this as a classic example of the “partisan noise” on Israel, reiterating that Obama had restated long-held US and Israeli policy that in a final peace agreement Israel would return to the 1967 borders with mutually agreeable land swaps.   President George W. Bush too had taken the same position, as he did in a statement at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 2008 when he said that any peace agreement requires return to the 1949 armistice lines with mutually agreed land swaps, to take into account demographic changes and to insure that a Palestinian state will be territorially viable.

Blinken said that the pursuit of Israeli-Arab peace has been a priority of the Obama administration, and that the Obama administration supports a two-state solution between Israel as a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people, and a Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people.    As for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, Blinken emphasized that President Obama has been clear about the two-state solution, and that Israel as a Jewish state means that Palestinians will return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel.

Ha'aretz covered the event as well in a lead story on its English online edition, emphasizing several additional key points:   

Chemi Shalev, "US policy on Iran aimed at 'buying time' with Iran, says senior official," Ha'aretz, Feb. 28, 2012