Analysis: Mixed messages from Washington on Iran policy

What does America really think?; US Secretary of State John Kerry may face Israeli ire when he meets Netanyahu in Jerusalem Wednesday over comments made on US approach to Iran's nuclear issue.

John Kerry profile view hand gesture 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
John Kerry profile view hand gesture 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Whenever senior ministers publicly contradict Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as Finance Minister Yair Lapid did recently when he said he doesn’t need Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, moans are heard that this is something that could happen only in Israel.
Only in Israel, we complain, will key policy-makers – ministers in the government – publicly argue on key policy matters. Something like this would never happen in a “real” country; it would never happen in America.
Well, think again.
When US Secretary of State John Kerry meets in Jerusalem Wednesday with Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials, he may pick up on a degree of irritation about the speech he gave a week ago in Washington to the Ploughshares Fund, an organization opposed to nuclear proliferation.
Two things Kerry said in that speech were particularly jarring to Jerusalem: that the US wants to put to test “whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful [nuclear] program,” (he knows very well their true desires); and his comment that the US would not “succumb to those fear tactics that suggest” the US not diplomatically engage with Iran to test whether it will make nuclear concessions.
From the perspective of the Netanyahu government, there is much wrong with those comments. First of all, why even suggest – as Kerry seemed to do – that Iran may really just desire a peaceful nuclear program.
One of the themes of Netanyahu’s speech blasting Iran at the UN in September was to show that a country does not enrich uranium in underground facilities, acquire advanced centrifuges, construct heavy water reactors and build intercontinental ballistic missiles, if it wants nuclear energy for civilian use only.
Or, as President Shimon Peres once quipped, “I understand that the Iranians want medical isotopes, but do they need ballistic missiles to deliver them?” And then there is the business of not “succumbing to fear tactics” of those Kerry suggested think that diplomacy should not be tried. If diplomacy is indeed the art of ambiguity, then Kerry is the consummate artist, because he talked about those using scare tactics, without mentioning whom exactly he was referring to.
Typically, fingers were pointed at Israel, with the consensus being that this barb was aimed at Netanyahu (even though it could have been aimed at the Saudis or perhaps the US Senate, which is soon to vote on whether to implement tougher sanctions on Iran).
But if Kerry’s comment was indeed aimed at Netanyahu, it was a straw-man argument, with Kerry misrepresenting the prime minister’s position.
Netanyahu did indeed stride into the US in September on the tail end of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s UN charm offensive like the ultimate party pooper, warning against making concessions to the Iranians until they take real action to materially show they are dismantling their nuclear program. He never said, however, not to talk to Iran.
Rather, in numerous speeches and interviews, he said, go ahead and engage, do talk, but don’t give them an inch of sanctions relief until they take real steps to dismantle their nuclear weapons program.
That is a lot different than saying no to diplomacy.
And this is where the differences between the administration’s senior players begin to emerge. Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, in a piece published Monday, said he asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel point blank whether Netanyahu was using scare tactics to torpedo negotiations with Iran.
“I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is legitimately concerned, as any prime minister of Israel has been, about the future security needs of their country,” Hagel said.
He said Netanyahu “has got a history of being very clear on where he is on this.”
“It’s true that sanctions – not just US sanctions but UN sanctions, multilateral sanctions – have done tremendous economic damage,” Hagel told Goldberg. “Even many of Iran’s leaders have acknowledged that. And I think that Iran is responding to the constant pressure from Israel, knowing that Israel believes them to be an existential threat. I think all of this, combined, probably brought the Iranians to where we are today. Whether the Iranians will carry forth on that, we’ll see.”
Over the last couple of years Israel has convinced both Iran and the world that it means business when it says that it will not allow Iran to possess nuclear arms. That determination is responsible to no small degree in getting the Europeans last year to clamp sanctions on Iran that finally began biting, sanctions that – as Hagel acknowledged – helped bring the Iranians seriously to the table.
Kerry says the US will not succumb to “scare tactics” on Iran. Hagel says those scare tactics have actually shown results. So what does America really think? You choose.
If there is any consolation in these mixed messages it is only this: Contradictory and confused messaging is not an exclusively Israeli domain.