Our Nov. 14 hour on the changing nature of the international negotiations with Iran to ease economic sanctions in exchange for demonstrated proof that the isolated country is not developing nuclear weapons covered a lot of ground. Now, as rumors of a peace deal moving forward get muddied up with the typically vague decorum of international diplomatic reporting, it’s worth looping back to our first segment with National Journal chief corespondent Michael Hirsh, who laid out the stakes on all sides.
“A resumption is scheduled for November 20th in Genevera. The newest front is on Capitol Hill where yesterday Secretary of State Kerry implored Senators to hold on on additional sanctions because they might interfere with the talks. Obviously, the skepticism that you heard from Benjamin Netanyahu, from the French has spread to Capitol Hill, particularly to the Republicans, who fear that Obama and Kerry are about to sign a weak deal with iran. But I think on the whole it does look fairly promising. This was always about a temporary deal, basically a six-month freeze in Iranian enrichment in exchange for a promised ease on the sanctions,which, as Kerry said yesterday is something that the U.S. could simply turn back on, that is the sanctions if it so chose and the Iranian government did not comply.”
The breakdown in talks in Geneva and continued confusion on what comes next is largely due to a real split between American and Israeli positions on the core issues at stake, Hirsh explained.
“Fundamentally, this is an issue of trust I think between the Israeli government and the U.S. government, and more specifically between Netanyahu and Obama. This goes back several years, you will recall in 2012 Obama gave a speech in which he said he’s got Israel’s back. That was also about this question of whether the Israelis could depend on the United States to ensure there would be no Iranian nuclear weapon. The threat of military force has been out there and yet the Israelis, you know, I think have lost a little bit of credibility because they’ve been talking about it now for the last few years. You’ll recall that now-famous speech that Netanyahu gave before the United Nations’ General Assembly in 2012 when he held up a diagram, a simplistic diagram of an Iranian bomb and said Israel would have to act. Well, Israel hasn’t acted yet, and now the fear I think among the Israeli security apparatus is that these negotiations will simply play out for a long, long time. The Iranians will not comply, or will be secretly still working towards their nuclear weapons program and military options will begin to peter out as they begin to bring facilities like the Fordo facility — which is deep underground and is not quite impregnable but is fairly resistant to military assault — that those will become fully operational. So it’s really a game of timing and a lot of political posturing right now.”
That position divide extends to the very nature of the current talks, Hirsh said. While the United States seems to be aiming for a gradual reduction of sanctions, Israel wants an “all-or-nothing” deal.
“In some respects, Netanyahu is a very hard line prime minister from the Likud Party, you know, who has never seen a deal or an agreement that he really liked. And that’s true both with the Palestinians and the Iranians. Essentially what Netanyahu seems to be calling for is total surrender by the Iranians: shut down and eliminate your nuclear program and then and only then will we lift sanctions. Kerry, as a savvy diplomat, knows that impossible. You do have a much more cooperative regime, one that’s hurting badly under the U.S. imposed sanctions, and that has come out Hassan Rouhani, the new Iranian president, and Javad Zarif the Foreign Minister and, with the permission of the Supreme Leader — who’s the ultimate hardliner in Iran — has come out and said, you know we’re wiling to talk here and to, you know, freeze our uranium encirhment. The fact is Kerry knows and Obama knows that’s really the most you’re gonna get right now. Netanyahu I think is mainly posturing, but what his alternative, if you will, adds up to is surrender and that’s not something that feasible for the Iranians.
French positions and political posturing have also thrown the negotiations into a stalled state, Hirsh noted.
“The deal that almost was, which was last friday in Geneva, broke down largely over the French coming in and taking a harder line than the U.S. and insisting the Arak heavy-water reactor, which can produce plutonium, be made part of the freeze, that Iranians pledge and verifiably so to cease all construction. That sent the Iranians back to consult amongst themselves and they decided they couldn’t sign off on that. So Kerry came out and blamed the breakdown of talks on Iran. So I think what we’re gonna see now beginning November 20th, and I think there are already talks beginning in back channels, is what can be given to the Iranians so that the Iranian moderates now negotiating can go back to their hardliners in Tehran and say, look, you know, this is a good deal for us. And you have to remember that’s part of it. These guys, Rouhani and Zarif, have to have some credibility because what their game is to win some kind of relief from sanctions that have really, really hurt their economy. That’s the whole reason they’re at the table in the first place. So I think we’re gonna see something like the old deal: six-month freeze in enrichment, perhaps with some guarantees of inspection by UN teams going into Arak and some these other facilities and we’ll have to see where, in the end, if there is a deal, Obama and Kerry can persuade Netanyahu and hardliners in Congress and others that this is workable.”
The French protests came from diplomatic angling in that country, too, Hirsh said.
“There’s a lot of political posturing here, it is part of the game. I think the French president was upset. He’s very unpopular. He was upset when Obama pledged military action against Syria and then the French backed that and suddenly, Obama moved away from that position and made a deal with Syria. I think that was very embarrassing to Francois Hollande, the French president. I think that the French wasted to convey the message to the Saudis and the Israelis and others that they’re trying to curry influence with in the region that they’re the hard-guys on this, they’re the hardliners, and that helps them. So there was some political posturing but I think there were also French concerns of substance about the Arak heavy reactor. But Obama and French President Hollande did speak on Wednesday by telephone, and Obama came out afterwards, U.S. officials came out afterwards and said they’re presenting a united front now again against the Iranians. So there is a sense that they’re back as part of the same team.”
A legacy of personal mistrust between the U.S. and Israeli leaders also plays into the complicated political calculations here, Hirsh said.
“There is a real split. It has a lot to do with this mistrust between Netanyahu and Obama. The two men have never really liked or trusted each other. We’ve seen numerous blowouts. There’s even a sense that Netanyahu may be tying the talks with the Palestinians, which have been faltering and which Kerry has also been pushing for, to getting his way on the Iranian issues. One the things that happened this week was that the Israeli Housing Ministry come out and announced an additional 20,000 units in the West Bank, which is of course exactly the kind of thing that has gotten the Obama administration upset in the past. The Israelis pledge to do something like this and the Palestinians walk away from the table. So there’s a sense that Netanyahu is playing a very sopnicsatced game here, saying, well if I don’t have much leverage on this Iranian issue and I don’t trust you on that, then I’m gonna hold the Palestinian talks hostage on that.”
Ultimately, these shadow deals with Iran are deals that the U.S. should openly move forward on, Hirsh argued.
“So many pieces of the puzzle in the Middle East are about Iranian positions: Iranian support of Hezbollah in Syria, for example. Iranian support of Hamas against Israel. If you don’t come to some kind of agreement with Iran on this and other issues, you’re likely gonna have Iranian interference for years to come across the board.”