Iran nuclear program: We only have ourselves to blame

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: "The delicacy of diplomacy," by Nathan Moskowitz.

One of the most irritating aspects of the international efforts to deal with the Iran nuclear program lies in the unrealistic expectations that negotiations create, even among those—like the American Jewish advocacy groups who met with the White House Oct. 29 to discuss the nuclear issue—who have every reason to be cynical.

From Nov. 7-8, members of the so-called P5+1, which comprises the five members of the U.N. Security Council along with Germany, will meet with representatives of the Iranian regime in Geneva. These talks follow from preliminary discussions whose content has not been revealed, yet we are assured that they were “very intensive and very important” (Catherine Ashton, EU Foreign Policy Chief), and that the Iranians brought with them a proposal “with a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before” (Jay Carney, White House spokesman).

Hence, the sense we are getting is that one of the most intractable problems facing the Middle East is on the cusp of being resolved.

That’s why I’m going to break ranks by issuing a spoiler alert. These talks aren’t going to lead to a deal. Instead, they will function as they have always done, by allowing the Iranians to buy time, safe in the knowledge that the other options we are told are always on the table—from tighter sanctions to pre-emptive military action—are on the back-burner for now.

There are three main reasons behind my assertion. Firstly, the P5+1 cannot for a moment pretend to represent an international consensus. On the inside, you have the Russians and the Chinese, who have consistently backed Iran during the nuclear dispute of the last decade. And on the outside, you have Israel and the conservative Arab states, whose trust in the Obama Administration when it comes to Iran is close to evaporating, and who thus may well reject any agreement framework.

Secondly, all the attention paid to the apparently constructive atmosphere at the preliminary discussions, along with the public relations offensive unleashed by Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, cannot camouflage some very basic facts. For example, if Rouhani really does want to reach a deal, how come he won’t he explain why Iran’s nuclear program was, from the beginning, a clandestine enterprise? The answer is simple: he is faithfully parroting the mullahs line that Iran’s intentions were always peaceful, that the regime never intended to build nuclear weapons, and that anyone who thinks otherwise has fallen victim to an Israeli plot that seeks, in Rouhani’s own words, “to divert international attention not only from its own clandestine and dangerous nuclear weapons program, but also from its destabilizing and inhuman policies and practices in Palestine and the Middle East.”

Thirdly, we’ve already had the opportunity to test Iran’s peaceful intentions outside the scope of the nuclear negotiations, and the result is an unmistakable “F.” A recent BBC report included footage of Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting with the Assad regime in Syria, under the watchful eye of a commander named Ismail Heydari, who described Assad’s bloody onslaught against his own people as a war “of Islam against the infidels.” So rather than praising the Iranians over their willingness to talk about talking (about talking about talking...) about their nuclear program, we should be hauling them before the Security Council to demand answers over Tehran’s decision to cross an international border in order to defend one of the world's most monstrous regimes.

Yet it’s unrealistic to expect the Americans or the Europeans to raise any of these objections. After all, they shamefully folded over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, so why should Iran be any different? Moreover, even if they agree on a vague declaration of principles with the Iranians, these will collapse under the weight of details like the kind of monitoring regime to be put in place. For you can rest assured that whatever is acceptable to the Iranians will likely be unacceptable to the Israelis, the Saudis, and the Bahrainis, among others. And in any case, according to Olli Heinonen, a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector, the Iranians have very little more to do on the uranium enrichment front before reaching weaponization capacity.    

What’s needed now is a bold domestic voice to challenge the Obama Administration’s new-found confidence in Iran’s rulers. But if you’re looking to Jewish establishment organizations to play that role, forget it. Given that they’ve already been persuaded by Obama to drop support for further sanctions for now, it’s unlikely that they will push for the stronger measures that will be necessary down the line. Remember that line about the all-powerful “Israel Lobby?” If only it were true. If only.

Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications. 

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Posted on November 1, 2013 and filed under Opinion, World.