Obama and Netanyahu See Iran Differently Because They See Their Own Countries Differently

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN Building, Sept., 21, 2011.Credit: AP

Expect U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep battling over the Iranian nuclear deal until the day it is signed, if not longer. The reason: Their conflict isn’t fundamentally about numbers of centrifuges and percentages of enriched uranium. It’s about a different view of the world.

Among American presidents, Barack Obama’s international experience is highly unusual. Many of his predecessors entered the White House having spent no significant time overseas. A few, like Franklin Roosevelt, were familiar with Western Europe. But Obama, who spent almost four years as a child in Indonesia, and later travelled to Kenya to better understand his father, is rare among presidents in having had deep experience in the developing world. That helps him grasp, as few American politicians can, why so many Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans reject the United States’ self-conception as a champion of freedom.

In his campaign book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama notes that in Indonesia, the United States backed a coup that led to “between 500,000 and one million people” being “slaughtered” and “750,000 others imprisoned or forced into exile.” In a foreign policy speech early in the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama imagined a child in Darfur, Djibouti or Baghdad peering at an American helicopter flying overhead. Then he asked, “when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?”

For Obama’s right-wing critics, the question itself proves that Obama doesn’t love America enough. But that’s wrong. Obama loves America’s democratic ideals, and those moments when Americans have struggled to make them manifest. But unlike many of his conservative adversaries, he is empathetic and cosmopolitan enough to understand why non-Americans – especially those from countries where the United States has funded and armed dictators – take a more jaded view.

This doesn’t make Obama sympathetic to Iran’s rulers. To the contrary, an Obama aide once told me that Obama feels a special disdain for third world tyrants because Kenyan dictator Jomo Kenyatta discriminated against Obama’s talented father, and thus contributed to the unraveling of his life. But Obama’s overseas experience does help him understand Iranian suspicion of the United States. “Part of the psychology of Iran,” Obama told Thomas Friedman this week, “is rooted in the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war. So part of what I’ve told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable.”

This recognition that Iran has, in addition to sinister motives, legitimate anxieties about scrapping its nuclear program under American pressure, helped make last Thursday’s deal possible. It made Obama willing to let Iran retain some nuclear infrastructure – which even many Iranians who hate the regime see as a symbol of national sovereignty and pride – so long as that infrastructure can’t be used to build a bomb anytime soon. Underpinning Obama’s willingness to compromise lay his ability to see the world through Iranian eyes.

This ability to empathize with those who have grievances against your country is alien to Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s 482-page book, “A Durable Peace,” offers virtually no acknowledgment that Palestinians might have any grounds whatsoever for fearing or resenting Israel. When Netanyahu writes about the Arab “plight” (the book’s first edition doesn’t use Palestinian as a noun) and “all they have suffered,” he puts the phrases in quotation marks. Bibi declares that Palestinians left their homes during Israel’s war of independence because of “the directives the Palestinian Arabs were receiving from the Arab governments” and in spite of the fact that “in several casesJews pleaded with their Palestinian Arab neighbors to stay.”

This refusal to see the world through the eyes of Israel’s adversaries also shapes Netanyahu’s view of Iran. Obviously, neither Bibi nor anyone else should feel much sympathy for Iran’s cruel and despotic regime. But while Obama can distinguish that regime’s ugly ideology from the legitimate fears of a people who have seen the West overthrow their democratically elected leader, prop up a dictator and now repeatedly threaten to bomb them, Netanyahu can’t.

For Bibi, Iran is less an actual regime with a mixture of aggressive and defensive motivations than the manifestation of a demonic strain that runs through Jewish history: from Amalek to Haman to Hitler. That’s why Netanyahu can’t see any meaningful distinction between Hassan Rohani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s why he keeps calling Iran a threat to Israel’s existence while Israeli military and intelligence experts generally describe it as a threat to Israel’s strategic position. . And it’s why he describes Iran’s nuclear program as purely the product of Iran’s toxic ideology when the program began under the Shah and enjoys the support of even dissidents like Green movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

As the African American son of a Kenyan father who grew up partly in Indonesia, Barack Obama can see America from the bottom up and the outside in. For Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, there are no legitimate grievances against Israel. There is only the pathological hatred of an anti-Semitic world. Which helps explain why, six years after Obama and Netanyahu first took power, America is overcoming old enmities while Israel’s isolation grows and grows.