The Envoy

U.S. pushes back on pressure to assert more hawkish stance on Iran

The Envoy

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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in May 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The Obama White House vigorously defended its tough policy toward Iran Tuesday, saying it saw no need to issue more hawkish threats and new "red lines" when the President addresses the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC this weekend and meets with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Monday.

"We are committed, as Israel is, to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at the White House press briefing Tuesday.

"We do, however, believe that there is time and space to pursue diplomacy," he continued. "And we believe that the policy that we have pursued with our partners has put unprecedented pressure on Tehran, on the regime, has put great strains on the Iranian economy, great strains on the Iranian political leadership, and that is a course that we will continue to pursue."

The administration's Iran strategy is aimed at "buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future, and if you can do that -- strange things can happen in the interim," Tony Blinken, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, told the Israel Policy Forum in New York Monday, Haaretz reported. "You never know."

The remarks come at a tense moment in ongoing consultations between the two close allies about the timeline for pressuring Iran to curb its nuclear program. Israel has repeatedly asserted that it reserves the right to strike Iran's nuclear facilities -- if need be, without approval from, or advance warning to, the United States to protect the tens of thousands of U.S. personnel and assets in the region that could be targeted in revenge attacks.

The Obama administration counters that it has led a broad international coalition to pressure Iran with unprecedented economic sanctions, which it believes shows possible signs of yielding results. The administration noted that Tehran this month expressed readiness to return to the negotiating table -- an offer the international community has not yet formally responded to but seems likely to accept. (The Treasury Department on Thursday announced yet new sanctions targeting a Dubai bank it said has served as a chief vehicle for Iran to evade sanctions.)

In advance of the Netanyahu delegation's arrival in Washington, however, the United States and Israel have traded a flurry of messages through the press, lawmakers and senior diplomatic channels seeking to shape expectations for the visit--and gin up pressure to each side's advantage.

A delegation of mostly Republican lawmakers led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met last week with Netanyahu in Israel. The Israeli leader complained about top U.S. military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey commenting to CNN last week that military strikes on Iran would be premature, and assessing that the Iran regime is a rational actor. (Notably, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly described Iranian leaders as "radicals but not total meshuginah," in a 2010 speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (.pdf), using the Yiddush word for "crazy.")

Sen. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), however, this week echoed the Israeli leader's criticism, saying Dempsey's comments cautioning against military strikes only embolden Iran. "The Israelis are unnerved," Graham told the Wall Street Journal Tuesday. "They think the administration is sending the wrong signal, and I do too."

Biden's advisor Blinken alluded to the seemingly coordinated echo chamber effect of some of the election year criticism of the U.S. administration as insufficiently hawkish on Iran. But he suggested that Israel's leaders may want to consider the odds that they will be dealing with the Obama-Biden administration after the presidential elections next year.

"There are individuals on all sides who unfortunately use the debate over policy toward Israel for political purposes," he told the Israel Policy Forum.

A new poll released Wednesday of Israeli public opinion found that only 19% of Israelis support Israel carrying out a strike on Iran without U.S. support. The poll, conducted by Shibley Telhami, of the Brookings Institution and University of Maryland, found that 42% endorsed a strike only if there is at least American support. A third of Israelis--32%--opposed an attack altogether regardless of American support.

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