A Matter of Perspective: Michael Oren Explains The Difference Between U.S. & Israel on Iran Talks

This week as part of his book tour,  I had the opportunity to discuss  the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran with Michael Oren, historian, author and most importantly for this discussion, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. from 2009-2013, the first four years of the Barack Obama Administration.

The discussion didn’t involve the difference between the United States and Israel regarding the negotiations as much as it focused on the reason for those differences.

The former ambassador explained that Israel and the United States have had very few differences regarding the status the Iranian nuclear program, but from the very beginning there was a vast separation of how the Obama Administration and Israel viewed that Iranian threat.

Throughout our discussion Oren who grew up in the U.S., used the term, “Obama Administration” when discussing the American position, and “Israel” when discussing Israel’s. His rationale was that in the U.S. there are differences in position between the two major political parties regarding Iran so he has to specify, but in Israel there is no difference between the parties so he can confidently say he is explaining the position of the entire country.

The perspective of the Iranian threat between the two countries differs on both a structural and ideological basis.

Structurally the differences are obvious.  America is a large country, the most powerful country in the world.  It does not live in Iran’s “neighborhood,” and is not threatened with annihilation by Iran. Israel on the other hand, is in “Iran’s backyard,” “threatened with genocide by the Iranian regime, they say they are going to wipe us off the map” making Iran an existential.  “And though our armed forces are very formidable; we don’t have America’s capability. We don’t have B-2 bombers or aircraft carriers.” In other words as he explained, “Israel’s margin for error is exactly zero.”

On the ideological side is the issue that “goes to the very heart of the debate.” Which is, whether or not the Iranian regime is “rational.”

“The President has said this publicly, that the Iran regime, though anti-Semitic, is rational; it operates on a cost-benefit analysis. If properly engaged it can be a responsible, regional power. It can help to resolve the Sunnis-Shiites divide.

The Israeli estimate across the board was that although the Iranian regime does occasionally take rational steps, they took rational steps to reach insane objectives.

(…) That it remains a fundamentalist, radical-jihadist regime which, when it threatened to wipe us off the map meant it. That the largest state-sponsor of terrorism was trying and some cases succeeding in assassinating Jews and Israelis across five continents, in several dozen cities around the world. So the debate over whether or not Iran is rational was an issue, not just of academic interest for Israel, it was an issue of out and out national security for Israel, and in some cases even one of survival and is probably the deepest gap between the two [countries’] positions”

He added that Israel’s other neighbors were just as worried as the Jewish State:

“I think our readings of the Iranian regime’s nuclear intentions are very similar to those of the Saudis and other Sunni states throughout the region. The big difference of course, is that while Iran threatens these other regimes across the region, only Israel is threatened with national obliteration. It is an existential issue for us as a state; it is an issue for the Saudi’s as a dynasty. “

Oren explained how and why the U.S. was being out-negotiated by Iran (although he didn’t use that term).

Beginning 2009 the Obama administration’s position has been the window for diplomacy will not remain indefinitely open. This position was reiterated after virtually every round of negotiation.

The Iranians subsequently have realized that the window of diplomacy is going remain open, but that it wasn’t really a window at all. It’s sort of a permanent aperture. And the president came out yesterday and said he was willing to walk away from the deal, this is not the first time this has been stated. I fear and I think I am speaking for —it’s an Israeli national fear that the Iranians are far frame convinced that there’s ever a situation from which the United States will walk away, and therefore they have time on their side.

I have been predicting for months that prior to the June 30th date, that there would be no agreement signed because Iranians have learned again and again that the longer you negotiate, the more concessions they’ll receive.

(…) Iran has every reason and every interest in remaining at the negotiating table more or less and not signing an agreement. Because it’s already received many of the benefits of an agreement, without actually signing it.

As the next deadline is on July 7th we will soon know if Oren is correct.