How far can the West go to entice Iran to talk?

Negotiations are Trump’s goal. Still, the threat of war against Hezbollah in Lebanon illustrates the high price of appeasing Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

According to press reports, Israel’s government got a scare last week during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France. If a story broadcast on Israeli television is to be believed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urgently called President Donald Trump in order to warn him to avoid a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had been unexpectedly invited to the conference by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Netanyahu supposedly never got through to Trump, but he needn’t have worried. Iran has good reason to consider negotiating with Trump now rather than following the advice it received from former Secretary of State John Kerry, who advised the regime to wait for the Democrats to win the 2020 presidential election. Trump has a reasonable chance of being re-elected and, more to the point, the damage that U.S. sanctions are doing to Iran’s economy makes it questionable as to whether Tehran can wait another 16 months for a liberal savior to arrive in the White House to deliver relief to the Islamist regime.

Yet despite the signals it has sent about a willingness to start talking, Zarif made it clear in France that he was there to be appeased—not to surrender to American demands to renegotiate the weak deal former President Barack Obama gifted to the ayatollahs. As if to justify this stance, Macron announced that, in the same spirit in which Trump’s predecessor enriched and empowered Iran because of his desperation for a deal at any price, France was seeking to extend a staggering $15 billion letter of credit to Tehran. The money would be a bribe in exchange for which the regime would promise to abide by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The French, along with most of the rest of the European Union, has fallen for Iran’s bluff, in which it has sought to persuade the world that if the United States doesn’t rescind its sanctions, it will race to build a nuclear weapon. If the Iranians do that, then the Europeans would have little choice but to join with the Americans in tightening the screws on their already tottering economy. That would also mean running the risk of forcing the West to choose a regime-change scenario that the Tehran theocrats dread and for which Trump also has no appetite.

Though Trump may be willing to consider a loan after Iran agrees to a new and better nuclear deal, France’s attempt to pay off the Iranians now is outrageous. It exemplifies the unhelpful role that the Quai d’Orsay—France’s foreign ministry—has played in the Middle East since Charles de Gaulle betrayed Israel on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War and in which it has consistently sought to appease the most extreme Islamist elements in the region in a vain attempt to win back influence in a region it once dominated along with Britain. Trump has, to his credit and very much out of character for this most unconventional president, striven to maintain good relations with Macron. But the French government’s behavior is unconscionable.

What makes France’s appeasement even worse is the context of the current situation. It’s not just that Trump’s sanctions have given the West a second chance to curb the aggressive behavior of Iran. It’s that the legacy of the nuclear deal and Obama’s supine policy on Syria that encouraged Tehran to think that it could finally establish its long-held dream of a land bridge to the Mediterranean is bringing the region to the brink of war.

Iran’s Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries operate with impunity in Lebanon, as well as in Syria. But Iran is not content to have secured that devastated country for its ally. It has aided Hezbollah’s efforts to secure even more dangerous armaments to add to an already substantial arsenal of missiles aimed at Israel.

Last week, Israel shifted its attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria to one focused on Lebanon, going ahead with an airstrike. The object of Israel’s concern was the construction of a manufacturing site where Hezbollah can build its own precision-guided missiles, a dangerous escalation in the area’s stakes.

Israel’s government was right to seek to foreclose the possibility that Hezbollah will no longer need to depend on shipments of arms from Iran, which the Israel Defense Forces have sought to interdict.

While the exchange of fire over the Israel-Lebanon border with Hezbollah after this strike did not result in the kind of escalation that could lead to war, the margin for error was very small. Had a Hezbollah rocket not narrowly missed an IDF vehicle, the resultant deaths might have led to exactly the kind of path to war that’s not in the interests of either the Lebanese Shi’ite terror movement or Israel.

The motives of Iran in this drama, however, are also part of this equation. They are hoping to raise the temperature on Israel’s northern border in an effort to intimidate not merely the Jewish state, but also America and Europe, which rightly fear the unintended consequences of a Middle East war that no one (except perhaps Iran) wants.

Trump’s goal of forcing Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal is a good one, and his efforts to advance that have, to the consternation of both Tehran and the Democrats, been successful up until this point. But even if Iran changes its mind, as it very well might, and starts talking to the United States in the coming months, the end goal must be broader than just a new nuclear deal. The objective must be, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told JNS in an exclusive interview last week, to “behave like a normal country.”

That must mean an end to Iran’s illegal missile production, its support of terror, and its dangerous meddling in Syria and Lebanon. The alternative isn’t merely a resumption of appeasement in the manner preferred by Obama and the French, but rather the creation of a situation in the region that will lead inevitably to further bloody conflict, which should be avoided at all costs.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of a JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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