Ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's much-anticipated meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House today, White House officials signaled that Obama would seek to reassure the Israeli leader on one key front: His administration recognizes Israel's sense of urgency regarding the Iran threat and is not naive about the U.S. attempt to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran.
In a background conference call Saturday, senior administration officials emphasized that the Obama administration was committed to trying to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran, but not without seeing results.
"This discussion takes place against a backdrop of this administration's unshakeable commitment to Israel's security," a senior administration official said. "We have had and continue to have extensive discussions about this issue with the Israelis.
"This is not talking for talking's sake," the official continued. "At the end of the day, the president has said, if talking doesn't work ... it would strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community" to further pressure Iran.
"The president has said on various occasions he is not interested in talking for talking's sake," another senior administration official emphasized. "He does want to use all elements of our national power to advance our interests, regarding Iran and the region. And so I don't think we'll be putting a specific timeline on it. I also think the president recognizes the urgency of the issue as it relates to our interests and friends' interests."
In an interview published this weekend in Newsweek, Obama further outlined his thinking on Iran policy:
I've been very clear that I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran. I don't take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period. What I have said is that we want to offer Iran an opportunity to align itself with international norms and international rules. I think, ultimately, that will be better for the Iranian people. I think that there is the ability of an Islamic Republic of Iran to maintain its Islamic character while, at the same time, being a member in good standing of the international community and not a threat to its neighbors. And we are going to reach out to them and try to shift off of a pattern over the last 30 years that hasn't produced results in the region.
Now, will it work? We don't know. And I assure you, I'm not naive about the difficulties of a process like this. If it doesn't work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it's being victimized by a U.S. government that doesn't respect Iran's sovereignty.
Asked if Washington would pressure Israel to refrain from striking Iran, Obama said:
"No, look, I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They're right there in range and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.
"I can make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives."
U.S. officials want maximum flexibility to pursue a diplomatic course with Iran, even while they reassure jittery allies like Israel and others in the Gulf that their diplomatic outreach to Iran will not come at their expense. While the Obama White House has shunned any public discussion of a "deadline" for Iran to respond to their offer especially in advance of Iranian elections next month, some reports indicate they are considering a mechanism of benchmarks to help them determine whether their outreach efforts are succeeding.
"They're benchmarks by which we judge whether our approach is working or not," a senior administration official told The Cable. "They're not benchmarks that have been agreed with allies/others that would trigger sanctions if they're not met."
The benchmarks "include whether Tehran is willing to let United Nations monitors make snap inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities that are now off-limits," the Wall Street Journal reported last week. "And whether it will agree to a ‘freeze for freeze' -- halting uranium enrichment in return for holding off on new economic sanctions -- as a precursor to formal negotiations."
"Generally speaking, I think the reference to benchmarks probably suggests an interest on the part of the administration in documenting some measure of achievement with respect to Iran -- an interest which is totally sensible," says former State Department policy planning official Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert with the Brookings Institution. "Any effort to engage Iran will be protracted and frustrating, and will require a significant investment of political capital to sustain in the base. These interests are even greater given the position of the current Israeli leadership. I am generally a skeptic of matrices and metrics as a means of assessing U.S. strategy on an issue as complex and broad as Iran, but I can see the utility of some mechanism that attempts to catalog the efficacy of our approach."
The risk of such a mechanism, Maloney says, will be the tendency to declare failure too quickly. "If your benchmarks for success are too ambitious, it would be inevitable in the short term to view any negotiations, or engagement more broadly, as an ineffective path for addressing our concerns about Iranian activities," she said. "For this reason, I'd hope that whatever benchmarks exist have been devised by people who know something about Iran and how its politics operate. Because however frustrating engagement/negotiations may prove, the alternatives have not proven to be more cost-effective."
An Israeli diplomat said that while Netanyahu has day-long meetings at the White House, and a private dinner planned with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the key meeting is Obama's private meeting with Netanyahu, which kicked off at 10:30 this morning.
"What will happen in the one-on-one -- the ONLY important meeting -- will only transpire when and where the White House chooses to divulge," the Israeli diplomat told The Cable.
He predicted that Netanyahu will tell Obama, "something along the lines of: ‘At the end of the process of nation-building and transparent government processes and institutions it is possible that a demilitarized Palestinian state may emerge,'" the diplomat said. "I imagine he'll say it to the president, not necessarily in public."