Dennis Ross Reveals Behind the Scenes Secrets of Obama Admin’s Iran Strategy
The Obama administration’s gradual shift from a policy of preventing Iran’s nuclear program to merely containing its industrial reality as a fait accompli unnecessarily put a strain on relations between the U.S. and arguably its most reliable ally in the Middle East: Israel. So stated former Iran adviser to President Obama and longtime White House Mideast hand, Dennis Ross, in a revelatory piece for Politico on Thursday.
Not surprisingly given the intense White House lobbying for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear issue has figured into the Obama administration’s agenda since its first few months in office, with two internal camps coalescing early on in 2009 among advisers and officials concerning how to engage Tehran: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen wanting at all costs to avoid a military confrontation with Iran on the one hand, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her deputy Tom Donilon and Ross pushing for a credible military threat as a means to ensuring the success of the administration’s diplomatic strategy.
According to Ross, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had led Gates and others to believe that the U.S. military could not take another military confrontation in the region. The U.S. should avoid military confrontation at all costs, Gates believed and, often, stated publicly; in 2009, he said a military strike would have cemented the Iranians “determination to have a nuclear program, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them.”
“Gates and … Mullen … made it clear that we were in two wars in the region and that was quite enough,” wrote Ross — whose upcoming book on U.S.-Israeli relations, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, is due out next week — in Politico. “They were not soft on Iran, but they were not in favor of the use of force if all other means failed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit.”
But Ross, as well as the erstwhile secretary of state and Donilon were of a separate mind: they believed a credible military threat was necessary to maintaining the leverage to get the Iranians to back off their nuclear ambitions.
“It was a source of continuing frustration that Gates and Mullen periodically spoke of with the terrible costs of an attack on Iran—whether by us or the Israelis,” wrote Ross.
The mixed messages emanating from the Obama administration over an issue Israel perceived as existential deeply unnerved the decision-makers in Jerusalem, some of whom were keen on attacking Iran’s flourishing nuclear program as Israeli jets had before, and successfully so, in both Iraq and Syria.
Ross described Obama’s efforts over the next several years to assure the Israelis that prevention, and not containment, was the Obama administration’s ultimate goal; this included having Vice President Joe Biden adopt the language of “determined to prevent” Iranian nuclear weapons, which remained the official White House line thereafter; drawing the distinction between containment and prevention in policy speeches to the Atlantic‘s avuncularly Jewish Jeffrey Goldberg and the stalwart American Israel Public Affairs Committee; an Obama trip to Israel in 2013 in which Netanyahu said he was “convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
This might explain much of the intense frustration projected across the board in Jerusalem and among staunch Israel supporters: the Iran deal as it stands appears to greenlight a nuclear threshold Iran, rather than a dismantled nuclear program in a country that has openly declared its desire to see the end of Israel.
Interestingly, Ross insists that the catalyst for the breakdown in Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship over the Iran deal was actually a third wheel: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Obama believed Rouhani was a credible Iranian moderate while Netanyahu believed and continues to believe that Rouhani is merely a smokescreen for Iran’s nefarious ambitions regarding the Middle East and, more importantly for the Israeli prime minister, the Jewish state. When Obama put his faith in Rouhani, which ultimately led to the JCPOA, Netanyahu could not reconcile, prompting his more bombastic tactics, such as speaking directly to Congress against the White House’s wishes over the perils posed by the president’s nuclear deal.