Former NSC head: Had US-Russia ties been better, Iran deal would look very different

Former National Security Council head tells ‘Post’ that Netanyahu’s strong opposition was also aimed at deflecting pressure on the Palestinian track.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US-Russian tensions over the last decade are a principal reason Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, former National Security Council head Giora Eiland told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Eiland, who will be one of the panelists at the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York on June 7, said that the world’s failure to halt Iran’s nuclear march is not the result of US weakness in negotiations but, rather, “the product of 10 years or more of great tension between the US and Russia about other things.”
Furthermore, he said, when the Russians asked Israel to intervene on their behalf with the Americans on a number of occasions both before and after US President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Jerusalem was not willing to help. “That would have helped our interests,” he said.
According to Eiland, the greater the clash between the US and Russia in other areas, and the more tension between the White House and the Kremlin, the more difficult it is for the US to completely isolate Iran.
“If Russia is not with them [the US], then China is not with them, and India is partly not with them, and then Iran is not completely isolated either politically or economically,” he said. And, as a result, Tehran’s ability to withstand pressure is much greater when it is not totally isolated.
“For many years the Americans – and I am talking about way before the crisis in Ukraine – preferred – for reasons that are odd and not justified in my eyes – to fight with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin about issues that I think are tangential and, as a result of that, to essentially sacrifice the interest of stopping the Iranian nuclear project,” he said.
The Americans, Eiland continued, fought with Putin for years over human rights in Russia, attacked him for using force in Chechnya, openly supported Georgia in its 2008 war with Russia, and consistently are trying to drag the Baltic countries into NATO, essentially – he said – rendering those states “anti-Russian.”
The result of this policy, he said, was “to create a great deal of anger inside Russia” and an unwillingness to cooperate with Washington regarding Iran.
“It was more important for the Americans to attack Putin about the lack of democratization in Russia than it apparently was for them to reach a better agreement with Iran, and that is unfortunate,” he said.
Eiland, who as head of the NSC in 2005-2006 was intimately involved in the Iranian portfolio, and who has followed the issue closely ever since, asserted as a fact that if there were better relations between the US and Russia, the emerging agreement with Iran would look completely different.
“I don’t think this,” he said, “I know it, I am sure.”
He said that had the ties between Moscow and Washington been better, “it would have been possible to get a much better agreement years ago.”
“The Russians showed a willingness in some issues to take far-reaching steps toward the Americans on the Iranian nuclear front, including much greater pressure on Iran, but the Russians demanded payment in other areas where the Americans were not willing to pay,” he said.
While acknowledging that it is in Russia’s interest – just as it is in the interest of Israel and the US – to keep Iran from a nuclear bomb, Eiland said that if one were to ask Putin, this would be “about 15” on his list of priorities.
“His No. 1 priority is that they [the US] do not intervene in his internal affairs; No. 2 is that they don’t support countries bordering Russia that rattle the sabers – be it the Baltic countries, Georgia or Ukraine. And interest No. 3 is that the US treat Russia as an equal.”
In Putin’s eyes, Eiland said, the US over the last 12 years – under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama – has “systematically and consistently worked to harm those interests of Russia. By the way, I think he is right.”
And as long as that is the feeling in Russia, he said, the Kremlin has no reason to accommodate the Americans on an issue that for Putin is low down on his priority list.
Although worried by a nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands, Eiland pointed out that Russia is surrounded by countries with nuclear weapons – Pakistan, India, China and North Korea – so that it is not an issue of paramount concern.
Back in 2004 Putin would have been willing to go very far to accommodate the Americans on Iran, he said, “but the Americans were not willing to come to a package deal that would include Iran and issues that the Russians wanted.”
Here, he said, is where Israel also dropped the ball, having been approached on a number of times in the past by Moscow – both before and after Obama’s election in 2008 – to intervene with Washington and work for a package deal.
“Israel was not willing to help the Russians, something that would have helped our interests,” he asserted.
Eiland also said during the interview that one of the reasons for Netanyahu’s adamant opposition to the US on the Iranian deal has to do with relieving US pressure on the Palestinian front.
“Let’s theoretically take an extreme scenario and say Netanyahu had welcomed the agreement – that he said it was wonderful and thanked the US for preventing a nuclear Iran.
Then the Americans could have said, ‘Okay, we did our share with the Iranians. It is now your turn to do your part with the Palestinians.’” Since Netanyahu is very far from thanking Washington for its efforts on Iran, Eiland said, “it will therefore be difficult for the Americans to say, ‘Okay, it is now your turn to make concessions because we acted for you.’”