It is becoming difficult to accept that the Obama Administration, though apparently serious in its desire to come to an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, is willing to do what it might take to come to a compromise solution. Repeated warnings that talks with Iran are proceeding but fraught with difficulties can be interpreted as so much smoke to conceal what is actually taking place, but there are also signs that Washington is adopting positions that would have to be considered incompatible with any negotiated solution to end the standoff.
Gareth Porter has described how the White House is now embracing an expansion of the agenda for the ongoing Geneva talks to include an Israeli demand that the Iranian ballistic missile program also be part of the discussion. Knowing that the Iranians will balk at any widening of the negotiations to include any and all of their military capabilities, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and such stalwarts as John Bolton have also picked up on the theme, citing the need to address possible delivery systems for a bomb that does not currently exist and may never come into being.
Israel’s friends in Congress also have taken note of the opportunity to scuttle the talks completely, signaling their intention to pressure Iran to relinquish any capability to develop a weapon while also abandoning any development or deployment of ballistic missiles that might conceivably be modified to accommodate a nuclear warhead. They are also arguing categorically against Iran’s deployment of any missile with a range greater than 500 kilometers, meaning that they intend to deprive Tehran of any capability to either act offensively against Israel or retaliate against an attack by Tel Aviv.
The issue of the ballistic missiles is far from inconsequential as Iran, supported by Russia, insists that it is not part of the discussion. Porter speculates that the Obama Administration might be hoping to strike a deal over the nuclear program, which would make the missiles “almost irrelevant.” The problem is with the “almost” as the supporters of the Israeli position in congress, which includes most of the Republican Party and some key Democrats, clearly are looking for wedge issues that will make the negotiations over the nuclear program fail or, alternatively, provide a pretext for a new round of saber rattling.
A recent New York Times op-ed by the president and chairman of the board of AIPAC illustrates how it all works. The focus is, to be sure, on Iran’s alleged “nuclear weapons program,” but a number of other issues are also raised in such a fashion as to suggest that dealing with Iran without that country submitting to a broader disarmament regime that would strip it of any offensive capability should somehow be considered unacceptable. The op-ed cleverly begins by supporting President Obama’s poorly expressed stated intention to “make it impossible” for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. “Making it impossible” can obviously be interpreted in a number of ways – does it mean merely taking away a key component such as nuclear enrichment or does it mean eliminating Iran’s peaceful nuclear program as well? The op-ed demands that Iran “dismantle” its nuclear program, which supports the suspicion that the phrase will be exploited for maximum value by those who favor a military strike on Iran.
As it is always useful to pretend that Iran threatens the United States directly, AIPAC also tosses in a couple of red herrings, including the claim that the long range ballistic missiles being tested by Iran will be able to “reach American military bases in the Middle East” while Iranian warships are now heading for the Atlantic Ocean “close to the maritime borders of the United States…” Both claims are irrelevant to the negotiations over how to create a comfort zone around Iran’s existing nuclear program.
Hidden in all of the bluster about what must be done to tame Iran is the Israeli hand. Mossad intelligence officers have been briefing American Senators and contradicting the analysis provided by the DNI, CIA and DIA regarding the nature and magnitude of the Iranian threat. The Senators involved, most particularly Mark Kirk, have chosen to believe what they are hearing from Israel rather than from America’s own $80 billion dollar per year intelligence community. Their decision to do so is based on their own political aspirations bolstered by Israel Lobby funding, not on any actual American vital interest.
Israeli governments have long been playing a hypocritical game with the support of Washington. Tel Aviv decries the Iranian nuclear program but is reported to have in excess of 200 nuclear devices in its own secret arsenal as well as both land and sea based missiles that can deliver them on target. It is the only nuclear power in the region though its program is both secret and derived from technology and enriched uranium stolen from the United States. It clearly does not want to see any rival nuclear power emerging as that would serve as a check on its own monopoly of power. The Israeli view of the threat from Iran might therefore be seen as Tehran serving as an inhibitor of Israeli arbitrary behavior rather than its harboring any aggressive intent.
Israel has been regularly calling for a military strike on Iran for the past twenty years, always citing as a casus belli the country’s alleged nuclear weapons program and frequently warning that the Mullahs are six months or a year away from having a bomb. The bomb has yet to arrive. To be sure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regards Tehran as either a regional competitor or a threat, though there have been contradictory signals from his own intelligence operatives regarding what they really believe, a number of retired officers having dismissed Iran’s ability to actually harm Israel. But the Iranian threat to the United States or to its vital interests is somewhat more elusive, unless one regards protecting Israel as a national interest, which appears to be where many in the US Congress come down.
AIPAC is demanding “clarity” in dealing with Iran, by which it means that the threat to use military force must be the only visible alternative to capitulation to every demand being made by Washington and its European partners in the negotiations. Disarm or else, Iran must be told according to the AIPAC formula. That reduces the negotiations to a zero sum game in which Tehran must lose while Washington and Tel Aviv win.
But that approach is basically flawed in that a compromise settlement can produce a win for both sides. Indeed, one might argue that without a compromise there will be no solution. Iran gets to keep its peaceful nuclear program while foregoing the building blocks of a possible nuclear weapons program. Iranian oil again enters the marketplace freely, reducing the costs of energy for everyone. Both Israel and the US can stand down on the threat of a new nuclear power in the Middle East. Sanctions that have been mostly harming the Iranian people rather than the country’s leadership will be lifted. America can then move to re-establish normal relations with Iran.
And then there are the intangibles: a compromise agreement would mitigate the perception that the United States is only willing deal with other countries through military intervention. It would also lessen tension throughout the entire region and enable Washington to reduce its presence and level of engagement. It might also morph into a historic readjustment in which engaging Iran could lead to genuine progress in resolving issues relating to Syria and Palestine. But it all has to start with the Obama White House ignoring the special pleading of Congress, the media and AIPAC and doing what is right.