President Barack Obama in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner)
With refreshing bluntness, The New York Times informed us over the weekend that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to wreck the US-Iranian diplomatic opening. It wrote, in its lead paragraph:
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, moved quickly to block even tentative steps by Iran and the United States to ease tensions and move toward negotiations to end the nuclear crisis, signaling what is likely to be a sustained campaign by Israel to head off any deal.
That says it all. Israel, various hawks and neoconservatives, and outlets such as The Wall Street Journal are alarmed at the possibility that the United States and Iran might actually make a deal. As President Hassan Rouhani of Iran arrives in New York for a critical week at the United Nations, Tehran has sent plenty of signals that it’s ready to talk.
In response, unfortunately—perhaps because of pressure from those hawks—the White House has hardly responded with positive signals of its own. Although President Obama and the State Department have indicated that they are ready to “test” Iran’s good faith, Washington has not suggested that it is prepared to make significant concessions of its own. Still, there is even a possibility that either President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry will meet with their counterparts during the UN session that begins this week.
Even the prospect of an Obama-Rouhani encounter alarms The Wall Street Journal, which in an editorial today says that such a meeting “would give the dictatorship new international prestige at zero cost.” Echoing Netanyahu’s maximum, no-compromise position, the Journal adds that Obama must demand what would amount to complete capitulation by Iran:
At a bare minimum any deal would have to halt Iran’s enrichment of uranium, remove the already enriched uranium from the country, close all nuclear sites and provide for robust monitoring anytime and anywhere.
That, of course, isn’t going to happen. Any possible deal with Iran will have to include full recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, on its own soil, under international safeguards, and Iran’s right to maintain a stockpile of enriched uranium for nuclear-fuel purposes. No Iranian president could survive politically if they accepted anything less, and Rouhani—who served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator in nearly a decade ago under President Khatami’s reformist government—has already insisted on Iran’s fundamental nuclear rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty that Iran has signed.
At the UN, Netanyahu—who last year held up cartoon-like drawings intended to illustrate Iran’s rush to build a bomb—is said to be preparing a speech in which he’ll say that Iran is preparing a “trap” for the United States. A wide range of Israeli politicians and analysts quoted in The Guardian amply demonstrate that Israel intends to approach any possibility of US-Iran talks like a wrecking ball. And The Guardian quotes Netanyahu’s office:
“The true test is not Rouhani’s words, but rather the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continues to aggressively advance its nuclear program while Rouhani is giving interviews.”
A memo from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main arm of the Israel lobby in the United States, lays out harsh conditions for Iran, including a demand—not likely to be considered—that Iran “suspend all enrichment and heavy water activity.” If not, says AIPAC, “sanctions must be increased” and the United States must “[strengthen] the credibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear program,” adding: “The United States must support Israel’s right to act against Iran if it feels compelled—in its own legitimate self-defense—to act.”
David Ignatius, writing in The Washington Post, makes the important point that not only Israel but Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are fearful of an American-Iranian accord. He writes:
A comprehensive framework appeals to prominent U.S. strategists. But it deeply worries regional players in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who fear their interests would be sacrificed in the grand design of the U.S.-Iranian condominium…. Will Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations stop fulminating about the Iranian menace long enough to consider the shape of a deal?
Iran, for its part, has set the stage for a positive outcome. Rouhani has taken the nuclear file out of the hands of hardliners and given it to Iran’s new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, widely known as a reasonable, moderate interlocutor. He’s shaken up the nuclear bureaucracy in Tehran. He’s warned Iran’s military, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard, to stay out of politics. And he’s gotten support from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who has endorsed “heroic flexibility” in the upcoming round of talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1. Among other signals, Rouhani has freed many political prisoners and sent greetings to the world’s Jews during the recent Jewish holidays. In an important op-ed in The Washington Post, Rouhani offered Iran’s help in resolving crises in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and he added:
As I depart for New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, I urge my counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election. I urge them to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue. Most of all, I urge them to look beyond the pines and be brave enough to tell me what they see—if not for their national interests, then for the sake of their legacies, and our children and future generations.
And speaking at a military parade yesterday in Tehran, before leaving for New York, Rouhani said that if the United States and its allies “accept the rights of Iranians, our nation will stand for peace, friendship and cooperation, and together we can solve regional and even global problems.”
Barbara Crosette explores the upcoming UN Security Council vote on a Syria resolution.