Bibi, Barack talk tough at U.N.: meeting of minds on Iran

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not meet last week, but they ended up sounding not so far apart.

Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 27 in many ways echoed Obama’s speech there on Sept. 25, with both ratcheting up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program. The themes that echoed in each speech suggest that despite the bickering between the two leaders, they may be converging on policy.

Obama reiterated that “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, a stance in accord with Israel’s position.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a crude diagram to illustrate Iran’s nuclear advancement. photo/jta-un photo/j carrier

Netanyahu articulated a red line — something Obama has been reluctant to do, beyond saying that Iran should not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. But the Israeli prime minister set that red line in a way that allows the United States time to give diplomacy and sanctions a chance to work.

The speeches reflected a joint effort to see if a coordinated strategy is possible which, if successful, could make clear to the Iranians that the United States and Israel are aligned, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The key is that the U.S. and Israel eventually arrive at common thresholds, Makovsky said. “If that is conveyed to Iran publicly, that would be effective,” he said. “What I saw was effective in Netanyahu’s speech was that he was able to sharpen the focus on the Iranian nuclear program while not sharpening the conflict with the president.”

Netanyahu in his speech suggested that the United States and Israel were working to get on the same page. “Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together,” he said.

For all of the focus on the details of the difficult relationship between the two leaders — the fact that they did not meet during Netanyahu’s U.S. visit made headlines — the speeches sounded similarly tough notes on Iran.

“Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Obama said. “It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy.”

Obama has explicitly rejected containment since he spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in May. At the U.N., the president used blunt language at a venue not as receptive to tough talk on the issue, and characterized Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. The latter statement is the sort of warning Netanyahu has been repeating since being elected to his second term as prime minister in 2009.

Obama concluded the Iran portion of his speech with a clear commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran: “And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu’s speech, like Obama’s, was a no-holds-barred warning about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Of greater significance than the Israeli prime minister’s stern demeanor and dramatic delivery was the red line he drew — more precisely, where he drew it, between medium-enriched and high-enriched uranium. That, he said, is what should trigger a military intervention by the United States or Israel.

Moving Israel’s red line to permit Iran to move beyond medium-enriched uranium is a major concession for Israel.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s prediction of when the cusp between medium and high enrichment would occur, based on International Atomic Energy Agency reports, ended speculation that Israel would go it alone with a military strike before the U.S. presidential election. That has been a key request of an array of Obama administration officials who have been arriving in Israel each week over the past several months.

“And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage,” Netanyahu said. “From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Another overlap between the two speeches had to do with each leader’s call on the Muslim world to reject radicalism.

Netanyahu met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Sept. 27and spoke with Obama in a phone call Sept. 28.

A White House readout of the phone call said, “The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

The comity between the two leaders might not last, Makovsky said, but the effort is critical. “I’m not saying the U.S. and Israel have found common ground; I’m saying there’s an effort to find common ground,” he said. “Netanyahu’s calculation is that it’s better to make that effort.”