Diplomacy: Cutting Iran some slack

Khamenei can make abominable statements, but the muted response from the world indicated to Jerusalem that everyone’s mind was already made up: This train was bound for “success.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at NAM 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at NAM 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Some 10 days ago, in front of about 50,000 Basij militiamen, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to Israel as the “unclean rabid dog” of the region and predicted its demise. His words were greeted with chants of “Death to America,” and “Death to Israel.” That was a pretty routine development, actually – just another day in the neighborhood.
But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in Moscow at the time, took angry note of the words.
“The Iranians deny our past and repeat their commitment to wipe the State of Israel off the map,” he told a gathering of local Jewish leaders in his Moscow hotel, located in the shadow of Red Square. “This reminds us of the dark regimes of the past that plotted against us first and then against all of humanity.”
Senior officials in the prime minister’s entourage barely hid their frustration – not necessarily with Khamenei’s words, which were considered pretty much standard fare from the Supreme Leader – but with the world’s failure, with the exception of France, to immediately condemn them.
US Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the remarks the next day in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling them “inflammatory” and “unnecessary,” and adding that “at this moment when we are trying to negotiate what can and can’t be achieved, the last thing we need is names back and forth.”
Only later in the day, when Israel’s irritation became clear, did Samantha Powers, the US ambassador to the UN, call the words “abhorrent” during a CNN interview.
Israel knows full well what Khamenei thinks about it – it also knows what Washington thinks about these types of statements. What miffed Jerusalem was the sense that with the peace train roaring into the Geneva station (this all took place just as the Geneva talks that led to the interim agreement with Iran were set to begin), none of the members of the P5+1 driving that train – the US, China, Russia, France, Britain or Germany – were going to let anything happen to upset the journey.
Khamenei could make abominable statements, but the muted response from the world indicated to Jerusalem that everyone’s mind was already made up: This train was bound for “success.”
Echoes of this were also evident on Tuesday, when Iran publicly disputed the details of the agreement – formally known as the Joint Plan of Action – that the White House made public on Sunday.
“What has been released by the website of the White House as a fact sheet is a one-sided interpretation of the agreed text in Geneva,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham was quoted as telling the Farsi press. “Some of the explanations and words in the sheet contradict the text of the Joint Plan of Action, and this fact sheet has unfortunately been translated and released in the name of the Geneva agreement by certain media, which is not true.”
But even these disputes, these discrepancies, were summarily papered over by parties involved in the negotiations. These differences were dismissed as each side just trying to spin the agreement to their advantage for their domestic audiences.
In Jerusalem, this all brought back bad memories of Yasser Arafat’s memorable May 1994 speech at a mosque in Johannesburg, just after the signing of the Oslo Accords and just before Israel handed Gaza over to Palestinian administrative control.
During that speech, Arafat called for a jihad over Jerusalem (though he said later he meant a “jihad for peace”) and indicated the Oslo Accords were only a tactical move that could later be done away with.
The backers of Oslo explained away his words by saying that he did not really mean them and that they were only intended for domestic Islamic consumption.
The problem was, as events such as the second intifada later proved, those words did seem to reflect his mindset.
Former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror alluded to the problem in an op-ed he penned this week for The New York Times. The six powers negotiating with Tehran, he wrote, “have shown that they wanted an agreement more than Iran did. The party that was targeted by the sanctions has achieved more than the parties that imposed them.”
And if you want an agreement so, so bad, chances are that when you get it you will then be blind to violations.
Or, as former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote in Politico this week, “No matter how imperfect, negotiators and US officials get very attached to their negotiations and agreements. Those who labored to produce this interim agreement will become very invested in their handiwork and move to defend it vigorously.”
Miller, who was a major player in the Oslo process, said he’s “seen this movie” before and even been an actor in it, having “succumbed to these same sentiments several times over the years. The process – with all its historic resonance – will acquire a legitimacy and authority that will steel the administration against arguments that point out its deficiencies.”
Even if Iran “fudges some aspects of the deal,” Miller wrote, “there will be great pressure and temptation to try to work things out even at the risk of not strictly enforcing the agreement.”
And this is exactly the type of development that Israel will be carefully watching, and warning about, in the coming weeks.
After weeks of shouting from every rooftop and behind every microphone against the agreement, once it was signed, Netanyahu quickly shifted gears. True, he did not embrace the agreement, still telling the Likud faction on Monday it was a “bad deal,” but then he announced that an Israeli team would go to Washington to discuss what a permanent agreement should look like.
What was agreed upon in Geneva is an interim deal that restrains Iran’s nuclear progress in certain areas, in exchange for sanctions relief, and gives the P5+1 and Iran time to negotiate a comprehensive deal without worry that while the talks are continuing, Iranian centrifuges are spinning the country to a nuclear bomb.
And it is that comprehensive agreement that Israel will now try to impact. Which raises the question of what this Israeli engagement will look like, or deal with. Obviously, officials say, it will be an Israeli attempt to ensure that the comprehensive agreement includes elements that Israel believes are essential to halting – not just restraining or freezing – Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It will also, however, include Israel nudging the P5+1 not to surrender to the temptation to turn a blind eye to Iranian infractions or a less than full implementation of what was agreed.
During this engagement, Israel is also expected to raise another issue that it feels has been lost in the conversation over Iran’s nuclear program – and that is Iran itself: Iran the exporter of terrorism, Iran the enabler of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran the serial trampler of human rights.
Much was written in the West this week about how the Geneva agreement, and the US-Iranian secret talks that gave birth to it, heralded perhaps an end to the US-Iranian Cold War that lasted since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the takeover of the US embassy there.
Any analogy with the US-Soviet Cold War, however, is faulty. The USSoviet Cold War ceased to exist when the Iron Wall came tumbling down and the Soviet regime became a historical footnote. The Cold War did not end while the Soviet Union was subjugating its people.
But those now advocating an end to the US-Iran Cold War are doing so without any fundamental change in the Islamic Republic’s regime: it continues to repress its own people and export its violent brand of Islamic revolution around the world. Iran, in short, has not changed, it is the same Iran. What is changing dramatically is the West’s perception of it.
Officials in Jerusalem said this week that Israel was dumbstruck by the degree to which the Iranian nuclear dossier, and attempts to deal with it, have been so completely isolated from the wider regional context and Iran’s singular role as negative actor in the region.
ISRAEL’S CONCERN over the years about a nuclear Iran has not only been that if it gets a nuclear weapon it may actually use it, but rather about how much more mischief a nuclear Iran could cause; how much more damage its proxies – Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas – could unleash knowing that they had an Iranian nuclear umbrella above them.
Israel has also warned that this becomes a problem not only when Iran assembles a bomb, but even as early as when it becomes a nuclear threshold state, meaning a state with the capacity to build a bomb when it makes the decision to do so – a position that Iran, according to Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, is already in.
Yet in the recent talks, Iran’s role in Syria, and with Hezbollah, has been left entirely out of the discussion.
Kerry, in a BBC interview three weeks ago, when asked how Iran’s role with Syria and Hezbollah were factoring into the discussions, said forthrightly, “Well, we’re not there. We’re not in a larger discussion. We’re not having a geopolitical conversation right now.”
Kerry was asked in the interview, which followed an inconclusive round of talks in Geneva, whether Hezbollah or the conflict in Syria came up in his talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
“I think we spent 30 seconds on Syria,” he said.
Which, from Israel’s perspective, is problematic. Granted, the main concern is Iran’s nuclear program, but all the talk with Iran, the new atmosphere, is creating a sense in Jerusalem that Iran’s other activities are being overlooked, if not legitimized.
While in the past the US administration, at least during the first year of Obama’s presidency, drew linkage between Iran and solving the Palestinian issue, today it is carefully delinking the nuclear issue from Iran’s behavior in the region; partly – sources in Jerusalem suspect – so as not to endanger some diplomatic agreement on the nuclear issue. All of this, of course, will impact on another key issue, and that is the negotiations with the Palestinians.
Kerry will come back to the region this week, and in his talks with Netanyahu the focus will not only be Iran, but also the Palestinians, the State Department said.
When he was last here three weeks ago, deep divisions between him and Netanyahu emerged both regarding the Palestinian track and the Iranians.
Following this week’s agreement, those divisions are likely only to deepen.
Any agreement with the Palestinians will obviously necessitate Israel taking serious security risks.
Netanyahu’s likelihood to take those risks as a nuclear-threshold Iran has its fingers deep inside Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, will likely be less than if an agreement had been reached that dismantled Iran’s nuclear weapons capability altogether. As a result, if the Kerry-Netanyahu meetings were uncomfortable in early November, chances are that this time they will be even more so, on both the marquee issues: Iran and the Palestinians.
Asked if Netanyahu should not be reticent about publicly fighting with the US and Obama over any of this, one senior diplomatic official replied that if Netanyahu does not speak up now – even against American policy – on an issue as cardinal to Israel’s security as a nuclear Iran, then when exactly should he speak out?