Every Nation Is Just Posturing on Iran

Yes, there are differences, but they’re not as big as the diplomats have made them seem. And they probably won’t stop a temporary nuclear deal.

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a press conference closing three days of talks on Iran's nuclear programme, on November 10, 2013 in Geneva.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Nov. 11, 2013, 6:03 a.m.

Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu is pos­tur­ing on Ir­an. The Is­raeli prime min­is­ter is ful­min­at­ing over a pro­spect­ive nuc­le­ar deal and ap­pears to be threat­en­ing to scuttle the already-stum­bling talks with the Palestini­ans if Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry agrees to ease sanc­tions on Ir­an. Ever since he first met then-can­did­ate Barack Obama in mid-2008, Net­an­yahu has lumped the Ir­an and Palestini­an is­sues to­geth­er and in­sisted they be solved se­quen­tially — Ir­an first, then peace and state­hood. “If Ir­an be­came nuc­le­ar it would mean the vic­tory of the mil­it­ants in Hamas and Hezbol­lah and un­der­cut the mod­er­ates,” Uzi Arad, Net­an­yahu’s then-na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­visor, ex­plained to me then. So Net­an­yahu now has an ex­cuse to put off the is­sue of Palestini­an state­hood yet again, even though do­ing so might be shoot­ing him­self in the foot, demo­graph­ic­ally speak­ing. (A one-state solu­tion, however sat­is­fy­ing to hawks, still turns Is­rael in­to a Middle East ver­sion of an apartheid state.)

And whatever threats Net­an­yahu might make about Is­raeli mil­it­ary ac­tion against Ir­an, he knows that’s not go­ing to hap­pen in the middle of these ne­go­ti­ations. Nor is it likely to any time soon: the Is­raeli PM’s mar­tial bluster can’t hide the fact that most of Is­rael’s de­fense/in­tel­li­gence ap­par­at­us is res­ist­ing a strike — be­cause an at­tack could, in the end achieve the pre­cise op­pos­ite of what Is­rael needs. It might dam­age Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies only par­tially, mar­gin­al­ize the mod­er­ates in Tehran, and send Ir­an ra­cing at an even great­er rate to­ward a bomb, many Is­raeli of­fi­cials fear.

The French, too, are pos­tur­ing on Ir­an. Par­is gets piqued when it’s not fully con­sul­ted on ma­jor Middle East is­sues, es­pe­cially since it has taken a mus­cu­lar lead in ad­dress­ing re­cent flash­points from Libya to Mali. French Pres­id­ent Fran­cois Hol­lande and his for­eign min­is­ter, Laurent Fabi­us, were un­happy about Amer­ica’s ap­par­ent eager­ness to spear­head a deal with Tehran, fol­low­ing Obama’s un­ex­pec­ted and em­bar­rass­ing re­versal over at­tack­ing Syr­ia just a day after Hol­lande had sup­por­ted U.S. ac­tion. The French led pre­vi­ous ef­forts to ne­go­ti­ate sus­pen­sion of en­rich­ment with Tehran go­ing back to 2003 — long be­fore Wash­ing­ton joined the pro­cess — so U.S. ef­forts to dic­tate policy today in both Syr­ia and Ir­an are seen as an af­front to re­stored Gal­lic pride. And the French rel­ish their new­found in­flu­ence in the re­gion; they knew they could curry fa­vor with the Saudis and their new bud­dies, the Is­rael­is, as well as anti-Ir­an Gulf states, by play­ing the hard guys.

Yet Kerry, in re­marks made in Abu Dh­abi on Monday, said the dif­fer­ences between the Amer­ic­an and French po­s­i­tions were ex­ag­ger­ated, and a French of­fi­cial agreed that for the most part the two coun­tries were still present­ing a “united front.” “[We were] uni­fied on Sat­urday when we presen­ted a pro­pos­al to the Ir­a­ni­ans,” Kerry said, “and the French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and every­body agreed it was a fair pro­pos­al. There was unity, but Ir­an couldn’t take it at that par­tic­u­lar on mo­ment, they wer­en’t able to ac­cept that par­tic­u­lar thing.”

The Ir­a­ni­ans are pos­tur­ing, too. No mat­ter how badly the sanc­tions are bit­ing, New Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani and For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif are on a very short leash when it comes to con­ces­sions they can make, a point punc­tu­ated by the latest mut­ter­ings of Ayatol­lah Ali Khame­nei and oth­er hard­line of­fi­cials and Rouh­ani’s de­fens­ive in­sist­ence on Ir­an’s “right” to urani­um en­rich­ment. Khame­nei could yank that leash sum­mar­ily if Rouh­ani and Za­rif give up too much at once, in­clud­ing the on­go­ing con­struc­tion of the heavy-wa­ter Arak re­act­or, for a gradu­al eas­ing of sanc­tions that does not quickly de­liv­er a boost to Ir­an’s tot­ter­ing eco­nomy.

So des­pite some real is­sues at stake, the fail­ure to reach agree­ment over the week­end in Geneva was really about the fact that there were just too many polit­ic­al sens­it­iv­it­ies at stake for the quick res­ol­u­tion of a ten-year-old con­flict. The Amer­ic­ans need time to ap­pease their most nervous al­lies in the re­gion, es­pe­cially the Is­rael­is; the French need to sat­is­fy their pride; and the Ir­a­ni­an ne­go­ti­at­ors need to as­suage the Is­lam­ist mil­it­ants at home who are snarling at their backs. “After ten years, we can wait an­oth­er ten days,” said one dip­lo­mat, re­fer­ring to the sched­uled re­sump­tion of talks on Nov. 20.

Non­ethe­less, the signs are that all sides badly want this deal, which will likely en­tail a six-month freeze of Ir­an’s en­rich­ment to weapons-grade urani­um in ex­change for par­tial eas­ing of sanc­tions, and that it will prob­ably hap­pen in the com­ing months, as Kerry boldly sug­ges­ted. Re­ports Monday sug­ges­ted that a new deal with U.N. in­spect­ors could open Arak to mon­it­or­ing, which might be enough to pa­per over the dif­fer­ences on that prob­lem.

The much big­ger is­sue is what will come after a tem­por­ary deal is struck.