President Obama’s meeting today with Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, won’t be focused exclusively on Israel’s stubborn refusal to move forward on a deal with the Palestinians. Also on the table will be the issue of Iran. And the president ought to tell the prime minister: “We’re handling this, so sit down and shut up.” The last thing Obama needs is more Israeli bluster about taking out Iran’s nukes militarily at such a sensitive moment in the talks. Why? Because Israeli bombast makes it a lot harder for Iranian leaders to follow through on a deal that is controversial within Iranian politics, since the Israeli bombast makes it look like they are capitulating to the “Zionist entity” if they accept the deal.
The deal, you’ll remember, reached Oct. 1, would provide for Iran to ship most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing for a medical-use reactor. As the deal became a political soccer ball in Iran, Tehran stalled — and new proposals surfaced. One, reportedly by Iran, would have Iran maintain control of the fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on its own terrritory, but that’s a nonstarter. Another, brokered by IAEA, would allow Iran to ship its uranium to neighboring Turkey, while Russia would substitute reprocessed fuel of its own.
In spite of alarmist reports about Iran’s foot-dragging on the nuclear talks, the Obama administration seems to be handling the talks professionally and intelligently. Glyn Davies, the US representative to the IAEA told Reuters:
“There have been communications back and forth. We are in extra innings in these negotiations. That’s sometimes the way these things go. We want to give some space to Iran to work through this. It’s a tough issue for them, quite obviously, and we’re hoping for an early positive answer from the Iranians.”
Davies — who, by the way, seems to have been a very competent negotiator during all of this — added:
“Iran has the opportunity to embrace this deal, and it’s a very good, very positive…and fair deal. It would do much to move this process forward. When the reactor’s fuel runs out next year, we would help to keep it going. There are hospitals, doctors, cancer patients who rely on the material produced there. We know the leadership in Tehran needs to keep the reactor going. We would like to help with that effort.”
Earlier, an Obama administration official told the New York Times that Iran had reneged on the deal and that they’d given up hope that the Oct. 1 agreement would be implemented. That, clearly, is a Cassandra-like interpretation of a fast moving situation. Here’s the Times:
“But members of the Obama administration, in interviews over the weekend, said that they had now all but lost hope that Iran would follow through with an agreement reached in Geneva on Oct. 1 to send its fuel out of the country temporarily — buying some time for negotiations over its nuclear program.
“‘If you listen to what the Iranians have said publicly and privately over the past week,’ one senior administration official said Sunday, ‘it’s evident that they simply cannot bring themselves to do the deal.'”
Conservatives, neo-conservatives, and other Chicken Littles have, of course, echoed such black pessimism. For example, the New York Daily News, never reluctant to embrace bombast, editorialized:
“At what point will the world take ‘no’ for an answer? The Obama administration has gone through the motions of extending a hand to the terrorists of Tehran. Turns out, that’s all the back-and-forth was ever to be: motions. Because the Islamic Republic is obsessed with acquiring nuclear weapons and well on its way toward that goal.
“There’s no fooling ourselves any longer.”
In all of this, it’s interesting to ask: what, exactly, is going on in Tehran? The Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime initially agreed to the Oct. 1 deal, which was widely hailed as a breakthough. But back home, it ran into a firestorm of criticism. Pragmatists, centrists and reformists, the opposition coalition, criticized Ahmadinejad for caving in to the West, an especially despicable type of political opportunism by the Green Movement. Hard-line conservatives, including the Larijani brothers, also blasted the deal, leaving Ahmadinejad alone to defend it. (And defend it he did.) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, didn’t tip his hand, although he delivered a pompous and bombastic speech warning about the evils of negotiating with the United States.
If Iran, since the June 12 election fiasco, has become an authoritarian, military-style regime that brooks no opposition, then the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime ought to have been able to do anything it wants in the talks, and ignore domestic criticism. The fact that that the deal is so controversial is a signal that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei don’t feel confident enough, in the face of a political challenge, to ignore the criticism. On the other hand, it’s possible that both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are, in fact, unwilling to hand over the uranium, and they’re just using the opposition noise as an excuse to renege on the deal. There are other possibilities, too. All of which indicate, as I’ve said before, that the United States can’t fine tune its approach to the talks in order to game Iranian domestic politics. We don’t know enough about how it works. That is precisely what Ambassador Davies seems to understand.
Let’s hope President Obama makes it clear to Netanyahu, too, that Washington won’t tolerate Israeli interference in the talks.