Obama Draws His Own Lines at AIPAC

As Adele Stan noted yesterday, the President’s speech to AIPAC was a pretty big deal: “Given tensions with Iran and the rhetoric of the Republican presidential primary campaign, the importance of this speech as both a piece of diplomacy and one of political position really can’t be overstated.”

The full import of the speech may not be apparent immediately; a lot may depend on how Bibi Netanyahu reacts during and after his private meetings with Obama. But it is clear Obama did not succumb to the pressure to close ranks with Bibi that Marc Tracy described before his remarks:

AIPAC is calling on the more than 13,000 conference attendees to ask House members and senators—many of whom will be present at tomorrow night’s “roll call” and be lobbied Tuesday on Capitol Hill—to support a bipartisan Senate resolution that would put them on the record opposing containment of an Iran with a “nuclear weapons capability.” Neither AIPAC nor the resolution allege that Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon—and available intelligence suggests that decision hasn’t been made. Instead, they argue that Iranian capability—on the model of, say, Japan, which has all the elements in place so that it could produce a nuclear bomb within a year if it wanted—is still unacceptable. “If Iran achieves the status of a ‘threshold’ nuclear state,” the talking points declare, “it will enjoy virtually the same benefits as if it actually possessed nuclear weapons.”

The cover of the brochure that is the first thing you see when you open the media kit says it all: “Iranian Nuclear Weapons Capability: Unacceptable.”

If this became U.S. policy, it would bring its position closer to Israel’s. It might constitute the new “red line” that Prime Minister Netanyahu will seek tomorrow when he meets with President Obama at the White House.

Trita Parsi succinctly explains that Obama did not cooperate with this effort:

The dispute on the nuclear issue is centered on red lines. Israel, like the Bush administration, considers a nuclear capability in Iran a red line. It argues that the only acceptable guarantee that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon is for Iran to have no enrichment program.

The Obama administration puts the red line not at enrichment — which is permitted under international law — but at nuclear weapons. This is a clearer, more enforceable red line that also has the force of international law behind it.

While expressing his sympathy and friendship with Israel, Obama did not yield his red line at AIPAC. With the backing of the U.S. military, he has stood firm behind weaponization rather than weapons capability as the red line.

This may turn out to be a more crucial distinction than the “options on the table” arguments about U.S.-Iran relations that have drawn the most media attention for years now.

More basically, at a time when the general expectation was that Obama would devote his AIPAC speech to a pander-thon, he actually didn’t. As Spencer Ackerman observed: “Obama’s speech to AIPAC threw down a gauntlet to multiple audiences, while challenging them to do things his way.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.