In urging congressional Republicans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider their strong opposition to a new international agreement to block Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon in return for lifting economic sanctions, President Obama on Wednesday argued opponents of the deal have offered no alternative to diplomacy except going to war in the Middle East.
"Israel has legitimate concerns about its security regarding Iran," Obama said at a White House news conference, referring to Israeli leaders' repeated concerns about Iran's sponsorship of Hezbollah and repeated calls for the destruction of Israel. However, Obama noted that these threats would be exacerbated if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, and Netanyahu has yet to present a better “Plan B.”
“Without a deal,” the president said, "there would be no limits to Iran's nuclear program and Iran could move close to a nuclear bomb. Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East."
But what would happen if Netanyahu made good on his threat to launch a preemptive military strike to take out Iran’s nuclear plants? If he concluded that the very survival of the Jewish state were at stake? How would the United States — Israel’s closest and staunchest ally — respond to such an attack with so much invested in a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat in the Middle East?
It was a question that hung in the air during Obama’s lengthy news conference but one that was neither asked nor answered. Experts differ on how the U.S. might respond to such an action, but most doubt Israel would take such an action that would leave it virtually isolated on the world stage.
“If you see a bunch of Iranian physicists disappearing or things mysteriously self-destructing [in Iranian nuclear facilities], I wouldn’t be surprised,” said a former Obama administration official who worked on Middle East issues. “But the idea of Israelis strapping into a cockpit and flying off and bombing Iranian targets, I think that’s science fiction and also fantasy fiction.”
Netanyahu and other critics of the deal insist that it would only temporarily prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. In addition, they warned that the Islamic country, which has long called for “death” to the United States and Israel, would reap hundreds of billions of dollars in new oil revenues and other funds once onerous international economic sanctions are lifted by the end of the year.
The agreement calls for a massive scaling back of the Iranian nuclear program over the next decade or so, but Iran would be free after that to pursue development of a nuclear weapon if it chooses, though it would likely face the same global pushback that the deal announced Tuesday in Vienna is now scaling back.
On Wednesday, according to a report by Agence France Presse, Netanyahu reiterated his contention that the deal is a “stunning, historic mistake.” He had lobbied actively against the deal while it was being negotiated, including a controversial appearance on the floor of the U.S. Congress earlier this year, to the Obama administration’s annoyance.
He also made it very clear that he still sees unilateral military action against Iran as an option, warning darkly that Israel would do whatever was needed to protect itself from the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of Iran.
At one time the Obama administration and Israel had seriously discussed joint air strikes against Iran to destroy uranium enrichment programs being conducted in heavily reinforced underground bunkers and other facilities, but Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton changed directions and urged patience while the U.S. and its allies pursued a diplomatic solution to preventing Iran from getting its hands on the bomb.
Gordon Adams, a military expert and historian at American University, said in an interview that if Netanyahu and the Israelis decide to seek a military solution to blocking Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, they will have to go it alone.
“The Israelis put themselves at high risk attacking now under the conditions of this agreement,” he said in an interview. “And the reason they put themselves at high risk is that the White House is now locked into the agreement and the virtues of the agreement as opposed to using military force.”
“If Israel decides, screw you all, we’re taking out the Iranian nuclear capability, my judgment is that in round one, they do it all alone,” he said. “They have no backdoor guarantee from the U.S. that the U.S. will support it.”
Moreover, as the former Obama administration official noted in an interview on Wednesday, Israel would need powerful U.S. bunker-buster bombs to penetrate Iran’s highly fortified underground nuclear facilities, such as the Fordow site that is built into a mountain and was designed to withstand most aerial attacks.
Although precisely how the U.S. would respond to a unilateral assault by Israel on Iran is sheer supposition at this point, Adams described one scenario: The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would go to the Security Council and seek a resolution to halt the attacks. At the same time, the administration would inform Israel that it will not deliver on future military supplies to Israel. And it would take additional action to try to further isolate Israel as punishment.
“Going from a semi-pariah to full-pariah status is the likely first outcome of an Israeli attack,” Adams said.
For Netanyahu, the deal represents one of the most humiliating defeats during his long political career, following as it does his prolonged and aggressive lobbying effort against it. In Israel, a strong current of thought found Netanyahu’s reaction to the deal overblown. It might not be perfect, the sense was, but perfection was probably never attainable.
“Netanyahu was right when he said that it was not a good agreement, but he is mistaken and misleading when he tells the Israeli public that there can be such a thing as a good agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program,” wrote Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.
“A decade in the Middle East is an eternity,” he added. “It’s enough to look at what has happened in our region over the past five years to understand how much is liable to change in Iran as a result of this agreement. The change could be for the worse, but it might also be for the better. An Iran that is closer to the West, that is full of foreign companies, that is closer to the United States and maintains a normal dialogue with it may become an Iran that’s less dangerous for Israel.”
The White House announced late Tuesday that Obama had spoken to Netanyahu and told him the deal won’t lessen U.S. concerns about Iran’s support for militant groups and its threats toward Israel, The Washington Post reported. Obama said a planned visit to Israel next week by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter reflects the high level of security cooperation between the two allies.
Rob Garver contributed to this story.