With the price of gasoline rising, and President Barack Obama’s reelection prospects sinking, delaying a showdown with Iran and ratcheting down regional tensions has become a political necessity for this administration. The question is: can the Israel lobby scuttle revived negotiations?
That the participants came out of the 12-hour Istanbul meeting with reports of progress – and an agreement to meet again, on May 23, in Baghdad – is good news that must be taken in context. It’s been over a year since negotiators met, and the last round ended with both sides engaging in public recriminations, leading to the present impasse. This time around, the Iranians seemed fully engaged, and quite specific about what they are willing to discuss: and while such hot topics as the enrichment issue and increased IAEA access to Iranian nuclear facilities were politely danced around in public, all parties praised the meeting as "constructive."
Most important, from the Iranian perspective, is that the talks are to go forward within the context of the Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory – and Israel, its chief antagonist, is not. Under the terms of the NPT, Iran has the right to create a peaceful – i.e. energy-oriented – nuclear program, which is what they have been insisting has been their goal all along. An agreement within this framework would underscore the Israelis’ unwillingness to sign the NPT, or to even admit the existence of their substantial nuclear arsenal.
It was only a matter of hours before the Israelis responded with typical peevishness. Meeting with Sen. Joe Lieberman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a swing at Obama and the Europeans:
"My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie. It’s got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition."
As if Iran could create a nuclear weapon in five weeks time, even if it wanted to do so. This is par for the course for Netanyahu and Israel’s political leaders, whose constant harping on the alleged "existential threat" of an imaginary Iranian nuke has been a single note of hysteria sounded throughout the past few years, like an annoyingly defective car alarm the neighbors have learned to ignore. Time and again they have announced Tehran is "on the verge" of acquiring a nuclear arsenal: in two years, a year, in six months – the ticking of this purported time-bomb has been going on so long it has become just so much background noise. The Israelis have cried wolf once too often.
The Iranians refrained from lecturing Western diplomats in Istanbul, and their chief negotiator reportedly hinted at significant concessions on the key issues of enrichment and IAEA access. For their part, Western negotiators – particularly the Europeans, who are leading the effort – are apparently for the first time taking the Iranian Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nukes seriously. The P-5-plus-1, represented by EU foreign policy honcho and former CND’er Catherine Ashton, opened the meeting with a declaration affirming Iran’s right under the NPT to develop peaceful nuclear applications.
Ashton is hated by the Israelis, and they are likely to open their propaganda campaign against the negotiations by going after her as biased against the perceived interests of the Jewish state. The usual suspects will no doubt attribute darker motives to her stance.
The optimism that greeted the conclusion of the Istanbul talks is encouraging, but a realistic assessment must confront the politics behind the diplomacy. With all-too-likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney geared up for a foreign policy offensive, and the Israel firsters in both parties ever on the lookout for deviations from the bipartisan pro-Israel line, the political constraints on a settlement in an election year bode ill for the cause of peace. Not that Romney is proposing anything significantly different than the policy the Obamaites are now pursuing – draconian sanctions, relentless diplomatic and political pressure, and covert efforts at regime change. Yet the President and his advisors are walking a tightrope: the slightest wind in either direction could tip them over into the Scylla of appearing weak or the Charybdis of being provoked into war.
Like the Americans, the Iranians are constrained by politics: they refused to meet in bilateral talks with the US representatives for fear of being perceived back home as kowtowing to Washington. Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili, a former deputy foreign minister, appeared at a news conference in front of a poster of the four assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists. The news the US has trained operatives of an anti-Iranian group on American soil – a group our own State Department has long classified as a terrorist organization – is unlikely to inspire trust: that and continued terrorist attacks carried out by Jundullah in Baluchistan and the Kurdish Pejak guerrillas are US bargaining chips rarely mentioned in Western news reports of the diplomatic back-and-forth: both groups have, at one time or another, received some American assistance, and they are surely getting aid from the Israelis.
While the Israelis aren’t shy about fighting a low-intensity covert war against the regime in Tehran, an all-out frontal attack is out of the question, in spite of their public posturing. The alleged threat of Israeli military action is a phony issue being ratcheted up by both Washington and Tel Aviv purely for dramatic effect: we are supposed to believe the Israelis are straining at the leash, and it’s only the Americans who can rein them in. In reality, Netanyahu hasn’t got the political support at home for a unilateral Israeli strike, and he knows it.
Aside from that, Israeli bombs over Tehran would violate the great unspoken rule of Israeli military and strategic doctrine: always get the Americans to do the fighting and the dying. It worked in Iraq, when Israeli-supplied "intelligence" tricked an all-too-willing-to-be-tricked Bush administration into fighting Israel’s war against Saddam. They hope to pull the same stunt in Iran, and the apparent success of the Istanbul conference is now a major obstacle in their path, albeit far from insurmountable.
Operating on two fronts – in the US, and in the region – the Israelis can do plenty to muck things up before the May 23 session convenes. Syria is at the boiling point, with the civil war spilling over the border into Lebanon and Turkey. By providing "non-lethal" aid to armed opposition groups in Turkey and within the country – and facilitating the provision of arms by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other interested parties – Washington is already fighting a proxy war against Iran in Syria. If the Israelis can succeed in turning Washington’s cold war against Syria into a hot one, they can introduce fresh complications into what should be a straightforward and focused negotiating process. While Bashar al-Assad looks like he’s firmly in power for the moment, increased diplomatic and political pressure on a staunch Iranian ally could well play into a scenario in which Tehran withdraws out of anger at the prospect of losing its only ally in the region.
Another wild card is the nature and scope of Israel’s covert activities in Iran: assassinations, carried out by the Israeli-supported Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) terrorist outfit, have humiliated the Iranians and provoked an internal security crackdown. Also not to be ruled out is a widening of the scope of the attacks to include high officials as well as scientists. That Israel has tried to pass off its recruiting of Jundullah terrorists operating in Baluchistan as the work of the Americans is the kind of provocation that could not only torpedo the negotiations but actually get us involved in a shooting war with the Iranians – which is precisely the goal of the Israelis.
In the end, the battle for a diplomatic solution to this manufactured "crisis" must be won, not in Istanbul or Baghdad, but in Washington. D.C. Yet the Imperial city is the stronghold of the powerful Israel lobby, which has annexed Congress the way the IDF has effectively annexed the West Bank, and which exerts a decisive influence on the leadership of both parties when it comes to foreign policy.
No matter how much it hurts our real interests to go to war with Iran over Tehran’s nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction," that is precisely what will happen unless war opponents can manage to exercise some political clout on the home front. While polls show Americans overwhelmingly want to avoid such a war, and support the negotiations, that this translates easily into the realm of policy is a naïve assumption: alas, too many people think "democracy" means majority rule rather than "the squeaky wheel gets the worm." When it comes to securing Israel’s interests over and above those of the US, the Lobby has the resources, the will, and an unbroken record of success.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I note, with a sigh of resignation, the "news" that Rep. Ron Paul has supposedly come out for moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in recognition of the Israeli claim to that city as its capital. I also note that the only sources for this "news" are 1) Business Insider, a site that has never been friendly to Paul and has consistently engaged in baseless speculation about a "deal" with Romney, and 2) Doug Wead, a Republican operative and advisor to Paul whose secret recording of conversations he had with President George W. Bush – and their subsequent release – earned him near-universal distrust. The Paul campaign has issued no official statement of this new policy, and there is nothing on their web site about it as of Sunday afternoon, when this column is being written. Perhaps Mr. Wead will release his secret recording of the alleged conversation Paul had with evangelicals leaders, where he allegedly made this pledge.