The Obama Dichotomy: Balancing Diplomatic Relations With Israel And Iran

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“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living”

– Omar Nelson Bradley

At 4:30 am on Sunday 24th of November, a historic agreement was reached in Geneva between Iran and the p5+1 regarding Iran’s controversial nuclear enrichment programme and Western-imposed sanctions which have been crippling the Iranian economy for years.

Amongst other developments, the Iranian government agreed to halt the enrichment of reactor-grade uranium, dilute its stock of highly enriched uranium and co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency by consenting to weapons inspections. The Geneva Deal, lasting six months, is hoped to facilitate the negotiation of a comprehensive and longer-term settlement that would allow Iran to pursue a peaceful, but limited programme, which would be subject to intrusive monitoring. This would ideally reassure the international community that Iran’s intentions are strictly peaceful, and prevent its development of a nuclear arsenal.

The agreement has been met with mixed responses. Even before the provisions of the settlement were formally announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, of the Likud Party, denounced it as a “historic mistake”. Israeli officials stressed that they would spend the next six months seeking to pressurize their allies in Washington, and especially the White House, to reach a deal with Iran that not only restricts Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also dismantles its enrichment programme.

Internal critics, however, have been just as vocal. In Congress, a large caucus of Republicans and Democrats spoke out deploring the agreement and reaffirming their commitment to Israel, arguably one of the US’s strongest allies. The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said of the deal: “I have serious concerns that this agreement does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies”. Speaker of the House John Boehner, an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration, remarked that “we will look back on the interim deal as a remarkably clever Iranian move to dismantle the international sanctions regime”.

What is clear from the reactions to the deal is that it provoked concerns over the future of Israel’s diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis the United States. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist and the second-most powerful politician in Netanyahu’s coalition government, told Israeli Army Radio he was worried not only about what he agreed was a “bad deal,” but “also because we have lost the ability to make the world listen.”

“Our job is to be the ones to warn,” Lapid said. “We need to make the Americans listen to us like they have listened in the past.”

Until now, no single nation in the world has wielded as much influence over law-making and policy administration in the US as Israel has. Amongst many other factors, this can be attributed to the strong network of Israel-focused interest groups operating within Washington DC, most notably of all, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The large network of groups advocating strong diplomatic relations between the US and Israel, known as ‘the Israel lobby’, has influence in the White House as well as on Capitol Hill. AIPAC has made numerous contributions to many Republican and Democrat pro-Israel politicians in Washington, such as Senators John McCain who received $750,368, Carl Levin ($366,378), Harry Reid ($179,640) and Robert Menéndez ($219,135). Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi received $83,400 in campaign contributions. In return, the US provides material support to Israel- one sixth of all US foreign aid goes to Israel- as well as diplomatic support. For example, in the UN Security Council, the US routinely vetoes resolutions which condemn the actions of the Israeli government.

It is clear that the US and Israel have always enjoyed remarkable diplomatic relations; almost unmatched in modern history. But to reconcile this with a changing attitude towards Iran is problematic.

Increasing efforts have been made by the Obama administration to engage Iran diplomatically. These efforts increased following on from the recent Iranian presidential elections, which saw power change from controversial figure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Hassan Rouhani, a former cleric who was viewed by many as a “moderate”. The Geneva negotiations are indicative of this. Moreover, a phone call conducted between Obama and Rouhani in September signalled the first time Washington engaged in diplomacy with Tehran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Although the conversation was just 15 minutes in length, it was seen as significant progress in the thawing of relations between states with vastly conflicting foreign policy agendas.

But how will the administration balance these attempts to engage with Iran with its commitments to Israel? This could be seen in two ways. Firstly, the US can either attempt- most likely with no fruition- to reconcile the two states. At the moment this seems highly unlikely. After the 1979 Revolution, Iran severed all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel, and its government does not recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a state. Coupled with Iran’s support for Hezbollah, it is difficult to view Iran and Israel as anything other than state enemies. Moreover, reconciliation of the states is a long-term task which requires significant commitment from the US. Since Obama has reached his two-term presidential limit, it would have to be continued by his successor, which, given Congressional sentiment towards the issue, is equally unlikely.

Alternatively, the US will increasingly side with one state over the other. Perhaps it is the case that, with polar opposite national interests, it is inconceivable ever to bring Israel and Iran together in diplomatic harmony. But should this be the approach the US adopts, it will ultimately fall back on its strong ties with Israel. Given the short-term nature of the Geneva agreements, its importance should not be over-stated; they need to be coupled with serious foreign policy change within all states involved to have the “historic” effect that commentators have been touting. But whether the US will be able to bring about a new diplomatic horizon in the Middle East remains to be seen.

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