“What’s the rush?” President Barack Obama asked reporters at his joint press conference with Chancellor Merkel in the White House on Monday.
The president was referring to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned speech in Congress, a short while before both the conclusion of nuclear talks with Iran and Israel’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
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It was a smooth and well thought out attack by Obama on Netanyahu, in which it became clear that—regardless of the realities surrounding Iran’s nuclear intentions—the president simply outclassed the prime minister.
The opportunity for this rebuke came when Christi Parsons, White House correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, asked: “The Iran nuclear negotiators have now missed two deadlines. Should the upcoming March deadline for talks be the final one? And what are the circumstances in which you think it would be wise to extend those talks?”
That’s crucial information we would all like to know. Then Parsons added this:
“Also, sir, some have suggested that you are outraged by the Israeli Prime Minister’s decision to address Congress. Is that so? And how would you advise Democrats who are considering a boycott?”
The boycott, in case you’ve been away on a mission to Mars and weren’t following terrestrial news, is one possible response of Democrats in both houses, to the speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to give before a joint session of Congress on March 4. The speech will be about the Iranian threats and the need to enhance economic pressure on that country, to force it to cease its nuclear program.
Democrats consider a boycott, or worse, a walkout, during the speech, because the event was arranged despite White House objections, and is intended as a bloody nose to the president, courtesy of House Speaker John Boehner.
President Obama responded:
“First of all, we understood, I think, from the start, when we set up the interim agreement with Iran, that it would take some time to work through incredibly complex issues and a huge trust deficit between the United States and Iran, and the world and Iran, when it comes to their nuclear program. So I think there was always the assumption that, although the interim agreement lasted a certain period of time, that we would probably need more time to move forward.
“The good news is that there have been very serious discussions. That time has been well spent. During this period of time, issues have been clarified; gaps have been narrowed; the Iranians have abided by the agreement. So this is not a circumstance in which, by talking, they’ve been stalling and meanwhile advancing their program. To the contrary. What we know is the program has not only been frozen, but with respect to, for example, 20 percent enriched uranium, they’ve reversed it. And so we’re in a better position than we were before the interim program was set up.”
Sure, many of you out there suspect that this is not the case, that the Iranians are cheating, as they did ten years ago, back when the nuclear program was under the leadership of the current president, Hassan Rouhani. UN reports on his wily methods of keeping inspectors in the dark while pushing the nuclear program full steam ahead are in the public record.
But the president, supposedly, was speaking based on solid intelligence, and at least deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Obama continued: “Having said all that, the issues now are sufficiently narrowed and sufficiently clarified where we’re at the point where they need to make a decision. We are presenting to them, in a unified fashion — the P5-plus-1, supported by a coalition of countries around the world, are presenting to them a deal that allows them to have peaceful nuclear power but gives us the absolute assurance that is verifiable that they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon.
“And if, in fact, what they claim is true — which is they have no aspiration to get a nuclear weapon, that, in fact, according to their Supreme Leader, it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon — if that is true, there should be the possibility of getting a deal. They should be able to get to Yes. But we don’t know if that’s going to happen. They have their hard-liners; they have their politics.
“And the point, I guess is, Christi, at this juncture, I don’t see a further extension being useful if they have not agreed to the basic formulation and the bottom line that the world requires to have confidence that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon.”
So, the president vows that this is the end of our discussions with the Iranians. They either come through, or we’re done.
Obama said: “Now, if a framework for a deal is done, if people have a clear sense of what is required and there’s some drafting and t’s to cross and i’s to dot, that’s a different issue. But my view — and I’ve presented this to members of Congress — is that we now know enough that the issues are no longer technical. The issues now are, does Iran have the political will and the desire to get a deal done?
“And we could not be doing this were it not for the incredible cohesion and unity that’s been shown by Germany, by the other members of the P5-plus-1 — which, I should acknowledge, includes Russia. I mean, this is an area where they’ve actually served a constructive role. And China has served a constructive role. And there has been no cracks in this on the P5-plus-1 side of the table. And I think that’s a testament to the degree to which we are acting reasonably in trying to actually solve a problem.”
So, of course, the president’s tone is not aggressive or threatening, he’s not pounding his podium or displaying cartoon bombs, but he’s not sounding like he has any illusions regarding Iran.
And, speaking of cartoon bombs, now Obama turns to the elephant in the press room.
“With respect to Prime Minister Netanyahu, as I’ve said before, I talk to him all the time, our teams constantly coordinate. We have a practice of not meeting with leaders right before their elections, two weeks before their elections. As much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House — (laughter) — and I suspect she wouldn’t have asked for one. (Laughter.)”
Now, that’s patronizing speech, intended to insult the recipient. Netanyahu, right or wrong, is being rude, the president is saying. It doesn’t change the cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, but the president is feeling wounded. And he is very smooth about letting us know he’s wounded, and by whom.
“So this is just — some of this just has to do with how we do business. And I think it’s important for us to maintain these protocols — because the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party. This isn’t a relationship founded on affinity between the Labor Party and the Democratic Party, or Likud and the Republican Party. This is the U.S.-Israeli relationship that extends beyond parties, and has to do with that unbreakable bond that we feel and our commitment to Israel’s security, and the shared values that we have.
“And the way to preserve that is to make sure that it doesn’t get clouded with what could be perceived as partisan politics. Whether that’s accurate or not, that is a potential perception, and that’s something that we have to guard against.”
So, it’s been established: as far as Obama is concerned, there is no real value to the Bibi speech when it comes to taming Iran — that’s already being taken care of. Netanyahu is coming strictly for political gain.
Time to deliver the finishing blows.
Obama said: “Now, I don’t want to be coy. The Prime Minister and I have a very real difference around Iran, Iran sanctions. I have been very clear — and Angela agrees with me, and David Cameron agrees with me, and the others who are a member of the negotiations agree — that it does not make sense to sour the negotiations a month or two before they’re about to be completed. And we should play that out. If, in fact, we can get a deal, then we should embrace that. If we can’t get a deal, then we’ll have to make a set of decisions, and, as I’ve said to Congress, I’ll be the first one to work with them to apply even stronger measures against Iran.
“But what’s the rush — unless your view is that it’s not possible to get a deal with Iran and it shouldn’t even be tested? And that I cannot agree with because, as the President of the United States, I’m looking at what the options are if we don’t get a diplomatic resolution. And those options are narrow and they’re not attractive. And from the perspective of U.S. interests — and I believe from the perspective of Israel’s interests, although I can’t speak for, obviously, the Israeli government — it is far better if we can get a diplomatic solution.
“So there are real differences substantively, but that’s separate and apart from the whole issue of Mr. Netanyahu coming to Washington. All right?”
That last note was directed at the Tribune reporter, but could have been leveled at the Israeli voters as well. Do they believe their prime minister will become more effective and better able to manage the Iranian threat if he goes to Washington or stays home in March.
Like I said, Bibi was outclassed yesterday.