A tale of three capitals

According to recent reports, the US and EU have reconciled themselves to the need to allow Iran to retain some nuclear enrichment capability.

Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Tolga Adanali/Pool)
Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Tolga Adanali/Pool)
The need to resolve the growing international crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has never been greater.
In Jerusalem, fears of a threat to Israel’s very existence, at the very least of a dire strategic threat, have animated the public bluster of recent months. Designed first and foremost to put pressure on the international community to finally deal with the Iranian issue effectively, so that Israel will not actually have to strike, rather than as a true indication of imminent action, the policy has worked well. The world has finally gotten serious about Iran and Tehran is clearly worried, jingoistic bravado notwithstanding. Israel may ultimately be forced to act militarily, but clearly hopes that the hard-line approach will forestall the need to do so.
In Washington, a marked upturn in both bluster and activity regarding the issue reflect a sincere belief in the dangers attendant to a nuclear Iran and a determination to address the issue, as well as a desire to stave off the possibility of an Israeli attack, at least until the upcoming elections. Having put unprecedented sanctions in place, Washington still hopes, albeit with little real expectation, that Iran will buckle and prevent the need for military action, American or Israeli. If the likelihood of a diplomatic resolution remains as elusive as ever, Obama has at least brought Iran back to the negotiating table and bought time, his immediate objective.
In Tehran, the bluster of recent months reflects a recognition of Iran’s increasingly difficult circumstances, with heavy international sanctions taking a growing toll on its economy and the likelihood of a military attack growing, but also a sense of partial vindication.
According to recent reports, the US and EU have reconciled themselves to the need to allow Iran to retain some nuclear enrichment capability, if only at a level appropriate to a civilian program, and are willing to forgo the previous demand for a complete cessation, an unlikely outcome given the domestic consequences for the Iranian government. In the meantime, Iran remains defiant, committed to its nuclear efforts
All three capitals thus see some gain, but have much at risk. In such circumstances, it is commonplace to believe that diplomatic solutions are more likely. It is entirely unclear, however, whether last week’s US/EU talks with Iran, scheduled to resume May 23, constitute a basis for a last-minute breakthrough, or merely a façade that provides Iran with further time to promote its nuclear capability.
Based on all previous experience, it is highly unlikely that Iran truly wishes to take advantage of this opportunity to reach a deal. Nevertheless, a good-faith effort must be made to reach an agreement, if only to prove to the American people and international community that all avenues have been exhausted and that military action, should it come to that, is indeed the last resort. To this end, a narrowly focused initial American offer should be presented by the next round of talks, along the lines mentioned above, to achieve an immediate cessation of enrichment at the dangerous 20 percent level, leaving final resolution of the issue for further talks.
TO SUCCEED, this “carrot approach” should be backed up by a clear “stick,” a firm resolve to further heighten sanctions if Iran fails once again, as it so often has in the past, to step up to the plate. The onus will then be entirely on Iran
In what may be surprising to some, Israel will probably take an even more pragmatic approach than the US, in which the Iranian nuclear issue has become a part of the presidential campaign and partisan political discourse generally and where many believe that its resolution should also be tied to Iran’s human rights violations, suppression of domestic dissent and involvement in terrorism.
In Israel, although a range of views exists regarding the means of dealing with the nuclear threat, the approach is very narrowly focused; just prevent, or at least significantly delay, an Iranian bomb, even at the expense of other issues in which Israel has vital interests, such as Iran’s massive arming of Hezbollah. The nukes come first and unlike many other issues in Israel, differences on Iran are substantive, not partisan. It is further likely – even if this is not, for obvious tactical reasons, the official policy – that Israel would accept any deal that achieved the desired prevention or delay, under strict safeguards, even if otherwise painful compromises are required.
The writer, a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was a deputy national security adviser in Israel.