Theoretically the agreement reached this week between the six world powers and Iran on its nuclear program is a good one: As long as you trust theories and feel you can trust the ayatollahs’ regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The arrangement that was meant to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power was also good, in theory.
In practice it fell short. The devil is in the details, they say.
Once again I feel like a party pooper living in a country of perennial party poopers. It’s no surprise that Iranians were dancing in the streets on July 14. The date has just gone down in history for a second time: First, as Bastille Day, the French national day, and this week as the date that announced a form of Iranian freedom.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was among the first to announce he would soon be visiting Iran. I expect the visit will focus more on potential lucrative deals between the two republics and a lot less on the touchy subject of egalité, liberté and fraternité when it comes to the rights of women, gays, Christians, Baha’is and other minorities. And there is of course the even more awkward topic of Iranian sponsorship of terror. But focusing on something like Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas, the murderous regime of Bashar Assad (who praised the agreement as a “great victory” for the Iranians) or the Houthis fighting on Iran’s behalf in Yemen, might ruin the atmosphere.
The influx of money to Iran could have a double-edged effect, not only boosting its available funds for its terrorist proxies but also diverting donations that could be better spent elsewhere – propping up countries like Egypt, for example, or aiding Kurdish fighters in their front-line battle against Islamic State, or helping the millions of refugees displaced as Muslims murder Muslims in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.
I’m reminded of how the West just four years ago got excited by the so-called Arab Spring. President Barack Obama went so far as to compare it to the biblical Exodus from Egypt. It was one of those many occasions when I realized that the American president doesn’t understand either history or the Middle East.
Many years ago I had an in-depth conversation on the nature of the Iranian threat made memorable not just because of the nationalities of the people I was discussing it with but also where we were talking – a beach in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. Here, on the edge of the Persian Gulf, Omani journalists and officials expressed the country’s fear that the Iranian Shi’ite extremism could easily cross the water. In almost the same breath, they mentioned the occasional struggle with their bigger and stronger neighbor to the south, Saudi Arabia.
That was in the mid-1990s. Oman has continued its uncomfortable balancing act since then – reaching out to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, worried that its own moderate form of Islam could be undermined by either of them.
It’s hard to know which way the wind will blow. The Saudis and Iranians are clashing in Yemen, and the strategic oil-shipping route in the Strait of Hormuz is under threat.
The agreement reached in Vienna this week covers a period of some 10 years – not much in historical terms, but a huge amount in terms of current affairs in the Middle East.
This time last year, after all, Washington and the West were largely deriding ISIS as a bunch of terrorists in beat-up Toyota trucks. Nobody now thinks the spread of Islamic State is a laughing matter.
It is possible that the US hopes to use Iran to fight Islamic State, ignoring the problematic nature of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Iraq and elsewhere. But life is not a game of backgammon. You can’t just throw the dice and hope that your skill will be backed by good luck. Neither can you always trust your partner not to cheat. US Secretary of State John Kerry in a TV interview this week admitted the Iranians had been caught cheating in the past when it came to their nuclear program, but he emphasized that they had been caught, as if this were reassuring enough to cancel out the original deception.
Last month, when I interviewed Prof. Alan Dershowitz at the B’nai B’rith World Center Awards for Journalism he blasted Obama’s foreign policy saying: “I would not allow Barack Obama to negotiate a onemonth lease for me. He is a terrible, terrible negotiator.” The phrase came back to me this week as details of the agreement emerged. When I rented an apartment I insisted that the clause allowing the landlord to visit was cushioned by the phrase “with reasonable advance notice.” I had something like 24 hours in mind, not 24 days.
Addressing the Knesset on the agreement he called “bad in every respect,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted: “For example, the agreement gives Iran 24 days’ [notice] before an inspection. It’s like giving a criminal organization that produces drugs a 24-hour warning before performing a search.”
THE MORE than 100-page agreement officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is “historic.”
On that, at least, we can all agree.
Its full impact will not be known for a while – the Iranian parliamentary elections in February 2016 are likely to pit reformists and fundamentalists in a clash that might include perceptions of whether reconciliation with the US (or the Great Satan) is a good thing or not.
The negotiators in Vienna might have been able to ignore the Israeli and American flags that were burned in Tehran on Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day rallies just four days before they reached an agreement with the Iranians, but most Israelis – across the political spectrum – consider it a bad sign that nothing has changed. Even the anti-Israel rhetoric has not disappeared.
One thing’s for sure: Despite repeated official reassurances that the historic alliance between Israel and the US remains strong, it is not nearly as firm as it was, and I’d say the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama couldn’t be worse, except I don’t want to tempt fate.
Would a different prime minister have been able to produce a different result? It’s doubtful. From the moment Obama chose to kick off his first term by reaching out to the Muslim world in his famous 2009 Cairo Speech, it was clear the world order was changing on his watch.
The greater problem is that Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t understand the nature of that change any more than President Obama understands the ways of the Middle East. Netanyahu is still stridently promising to fight the agreement, clearly concentrating on Congress as a starting point. Obama has already promised he will veto any move by Congress against the agreement (and democracy be damned). Meanwhile, focusing on the US and Congress as if this could achieve something other than creating additional tension in Israel- US relations seems naive at best and desperate at worst. There are other powers that are partners to the deal and looking forward to “a new age” – even though it is likely to be more profitable than peaceful.
By constantly harping on the dangers to Israel (legitimate though the fears may be), Netanyahu is weakening Israel’s case, not strengthening it. He is helping create an image of Iran as “the victim” and Israel as the aggressor. Iran, in return for smiles and promises, is being seen as a legitimate player in the Middle East. And, more seriously, it is turning the Iranian issue into an Israeli one, deflecting from the point that if Iran – or any of its terrorist proxies – attains military nuclear capabilities any time in the future, nowhere on Planet Earth will be safe.
Netanyahu is obviously reaching out behind closed doors to other countries that feel high up on Iran’s list of enemies: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states along with Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel already has peace agreements. And this could be the time for a major shift in regional alliances. The Arab world has noted that US-Israeli ties aren’t what they once were – for Iran (and Lebanon basically under its control) this is encouraging; for others it is added proof that America is not a trustworthy ally (and Obama shouldn’t be surprised if some look to Russia instead).
I cringe every time I hear Saudi Arabia described as “moderate” and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, while courageously fighting Salafi and jihadi terror, is far from perfect. But I trust that they have the same fears and needs as Israel. Iran, under its current regime, I don’t trust.
I’d rather wipe the smile off the face of Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani than leave them in a situation in which they could within a decade (or less) have nuclear weapons and wipe whichever enemies they choose off the face of the earth. Some theories you just do not want to test.