Netanyahu steered U.S. toward war with Iran – the result is a deal he hates

July 21, 2015
Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu points to red line he drew on graphic of bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear program, in New York

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he drew on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran’s nuclear program as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Much of the criticism of the Iran nuclear deal has focused on the fact that it is entirely limited to the nuclear issue, which leaves Iran a free hand — and new resources — to continue policies that have angered regional and international players. There is no denying that if Iran plays its hands well and uses the next decade to build its economic and political potential, its regional influence is likely to expand, as is its capacity to do the sort of things that have angered Israel and Gulf Arab states.

The deal’s biggest critic may be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called it “a historic mistake.” The irony is that the urgency with which the Obama administration pursued a nuclear deal was itself a product of Israeli actions. For Netanyahu, the deal was a good example of “be careful what you wish for.”

A little reminder is helpful here. To his credit, President Barack Obama succeeded early in his first term to get international support for sanctioning Iran — one critical reason for Iran’s willingness to take the negotiations more seriously. There have been deliberate and sustained efforts to continue pressuring Iran on multiple levels, including its behavior outside the nuclear issue.

US President Obama listens as Israeli PM Netanyahu delivers a statement in Washington

President Barack Obama (L) listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Netanyahu preferred U.S military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, over Israeli ones, from the outset. His calculus was that the key fear that could drive the U.S. debate to support military strikes on Iran was the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program — not Tehran’s support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Netanyahu exaggerated the imminent nuclear threat as much as possible. Remember how many times, over the years, he cited Iran as being only six months away from a bomb? He gave the impression that Israel was prepared to take matters into its own hands by striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, even without U.S. backing. Initially, however, most analysts, including U.S. officials, believed he was simply bluffing.

There were many reasons why the United States didn’t take Netanyahu’s early threats seriously. For one, Israel’s capacity for sustained long-distance military operations remained limited. More important, even substantial U.S. strikes were seen to have the capacity only to delay Iran’s nuclear program — not stop it.

Israel would then have also had to worry about Iranian and Hezbollah retaliation, as well as eventually dealing with a nuclear Iran. The focus on Iran was also seen as partly intended to shift attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Netanyahu faced much international pressure.

But something happened in the lead-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. The Israeli pressure on the Obama administration to take action substantially increased.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

At first, it was hard to know if this was merely a political play. It was no secret that Netanyahu preferred the Republican nominee for president, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. His pressure on Obama was seen to be playing into the Republicans’ hands. But there was far more to the story than politics.

The Israelis took steps in 2012 that portrayed as credible their threat to attack Iran – and inevitably drawing the United States into the fight. We don’t know much about the specifics, but reports revealed hints that the Obama administration was growing increasingly alarmed by Israel’s actions. The Netanyahu government was spending billions of dollars on a military buildup, as well as consolidating military cooperation with Azerbaijan near Iran’s northern borders.

Not until a year later were there whispered suggestions — including one from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — that Netanyahu had spent billions to make his threats look more credible to Washington rather than for serious military preparation.

What is clear is that the Israeli moves were taken seriously by the Obama administration, which shifted its assessment in 2012 as more high-level U.S. officials began to take the Israeli threat to attack as credible.

Even aside from the coming presidential elections in November, the prospect was seen as disastrous for Obama. He was not going to allow himself to be dragged into another messy war in the Middle East with no end in sight. Only the Iran issue had the potential to do so, even after his re-election. And Obama also understood that the war would have been even worse for Israel.

U.S. President Obama walks with Israel's President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu during an official welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport

President Barack Obama (C) walks with Israeli President Shimon Peres (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during an official welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside​

How would war have been good for Israel? The Jewish state would have been, for the first time, at war with a Persian civilization (since all Iranians would likely have unified against the enemy) that would inevitably develop nuclear weapons anyway. It would have seemed that the United States was deliberately dragged into war on behalf of Israel — undermining the Israeli-U.S. relationship. How in the world is that good for Israel?

So a nuclear deal that would avoid war — and make it less likely to result in an Iranian bomb than war — became the Obama administration’s priority. It went into full diplomatic gear and worked on multiple tracks. The administration did everything it could to make it happen before Obama left office.

Which also meant the focus of the deal had to ignore nonnuclear issues because that would have opened a Pandora’s Box by making an early agreement almost impossible. Besides, this was not merely a U.S.-Iranian negotiation but one that involved five other countries, not to mention messy American and Iranian domestic politics.

Sure, there were other incentives along the way. The rise of Islamic State, for example, created common interests. Iran had leverage for involvement in troubled areas where U.S. influence was limited: Syria and Iraq. Some may also have seen strategic leverage to be gained with two longtime U.S. allies that can be hard to influence: Israel and Saudi Arabia.

But these were benefits that came after the fact. What truly focused U.S. priorities was that Israel made it clear to the White House in 2011-12 that Washington could otherwise be dragged into a war it could not control. One that would likely have devastating effects on both the United States and Israel. Thus started Obama’s urgent search for a nuclear deal.

In clinching the deal with Iran, Obama has, above all, succeeded in averting a disastrous war that would not have prevented Tehran from acquiring nukes. And it was Netanyahu who made sure Obama thought war was on the horizon.


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Maybe this does not matter. But the writer Shibley Telhami does not make clear whether s/he is complementing or criticizing Netanyahu.

Is Telhami for or against the deal? Does Telhami think that Netanyahu was for or against the deal?

Does Telhami think that Netanyahu is happy about the deal in reality, but faking his unhappiness?

Does Telhami believe that Netanyahu go a result that Netanyahu does not really want? Is Telhami mocking Netanyahu?

Does Telhami think Obama should have called Netanyahu’s bluff?

Posted by Robert_H_Eller | Report as abusive

6 months ago in an unknown, self published little book that is selling only in rural Australia, I stated that ‘Iran will win this one’ in reference to the nuclear negotiations. At the time, I was thinking in years, in terms of ‘the long game’ that Iran is so adept at. I had absolutely no idea that their victory, both short and long term, was just around the corner.
Matt Quade

Posted by mindless_thug | Report as abusive

Excellent analysis, Prof. Telhami, of what took place. Such encapsulate my views and why this nuclear deal is, on balance, a good one.

Posted by PGreenbaum | Report as abusive

Maybe the writer could expand a little about the “accidents” in Iran that have periodically occurred at the nuclear sites that have delayed the progress of development of the technologies by Iran. Pretty sure much of the adjusting timelines by Netanyahu have taken these “accidents” into consideration.

Posted by MEOilMan | Report as abusive

What a biased article. Not surprised considering the source.

Posted by CE360 | Report as abusive

Number of Israeli troops who served in Iraq: 0

Number of Israeli troops who served in Afghanistan: 0

Number of Israeli troops deployed to fight ISIS: 0

Number of times per year Netanyahu complains that America does not do enough for him: 278

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

This myopic article ignores the fact that those billions of dollars Netanyahu spent on Israel’s military buildup came from the US in the first place. Netanyahu was extorting us with our own money and complicity. We have the capacity to stop Netanyahu’s extortion — just say “NO” to anymore military aid to Israel. And demand that the “Jewish” state stop the genocide of Palestinians and the theft of their land. The world will be a better place.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

Yeah Obama’s the Man……tick tock…..

Posted by nek866 | Report as abusive

When your ready Bibi.

Posted by Azuka | Report as abusive

So this article is saying Obama made a horrible deal due to Israel?

Then she says Obama is the one that initiated sanctions against Iran? A little fact checking shows this to be misleading. Sanctions have been off and on Iran since the 70’s. The 2011 CISADA sanctions were initiated in Congress and signed by Obama before his second term. In 2013 Obama was part of a relaxing of sanctions termed the JPA.

Is this an excuse for a really bad deal that the Iranians are already saying they have no intention of honoring? There is no doubt Israel has an axe to grind here- they are one of Iran sponsored terrorists primary targets- just note the ‘death to Israel” chants right along with the ‘Death to the USA” during the latest speeches.

The author did a good job of emphasizing that the middle east is close to the boiling point….this deal is only going to turn up the heat.

Posted by Beendare | Report as abusive

This whole article “feels like” a rear-view-mirror justification/excuse. It addresses all the criticisms that readers have launched over the past week as if they were foreseen and planned for.

This comment seems particularly contrived, “He [Obama] was not going to allow himself to be dragged into another messy war in the Middle East with no end in sight. Only the Iran issue had the potential to do so…” We all know now that Obama was briefed on the vacuum and resulting upheaval in Iraq as a result of his decision for quick withdrawal, so there was quite a bit more than the Iran issue to keep him engaged in the region–not just Iran.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

i wonder what life would be like right now if we hadn’t rushed into war and removed Iran’s most powerful enemy .

Iran must had secretly thanked GW for his splendid work.

Posted by franktwo | Report as abusive

Netanyahu steered U.S. toward war with Iran ………enough said

Wars are caused by Israel.

US is steered to wars.


Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

When Israel puts their nukes on the table, they can have a say.

Until then, Netanyahu is just blowing foul wind

Posted by AnneFrank | Report as abusive

Why Israel has Began to Count its Days ?
US Resources will still be at its Disposal, even if a finger is Pointed at its Inhuman & Monstrous Treatment of Palestinians!

Posted by MMHassan | Report as abusive

Netanyahu, an honorary congressional Republican, like they, has been wrong on practically everything including that Obama was some kind of simpleton Bush-clone that he could push around. History will view Mr. Obama as entirely worthy of his Nobel.

Posted by Pokatok | Report as abusive

Time our Congress started to make decisions based on US policy and what is best for a safer future – not Israeli whining and AIPAC money.

It is shameful that people who swore to protect and serve this country take more of an interest policies of a hard right foreign nation whith a terrible huma rights record.

We used to stand for global peace and justice, co-founding the United Nations and many other international groups sworn to avoid war, nukes and respect of national borders. The israelis have pushed our leaders into rejecting our core values, and very few in Washington take notice any more.

Huckabees’scomments iced the cake this week – comparing a nuclear disarmament agreement with the HOLOCAUST???? REALLY????? DISGUSTING!!!!! This gets dragged out of the closet, along with all the Holoaust movies on the movie channels whenever there is an international discussion not going Israel’s way….

Doesn’t anyone see this?????? Is the GOP that dumb, or just that cynnical…….

Posted by DeeToo | Report as abusive

Oh ..I forgot ..accurate and insightful analysis by Professor Telhami.

Posted by johnpro2 | Report as abusive