There may have been some in Tehran, as well as in Washington, who viewed Monday’s announcement that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had accepted an offer to resume face-to-face negotiations with Iran with relief. While the Europeans have failed repeatedly in previous attempts to entice the Iranians to stand down from their bid for nuclear weapons, the new talks would at least accomplish one very important thing. As far as the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — the nations that Ashton has the brief to represent in the talks — are concerned, the main thing is so long as these negotiations are ongoing, Israel is highly unlikely to use force to forestall an Iranian nuclear program that represents an existential threat to the existence of the Jewish state. It is this specter of an Israeli strike that has driven the EU and the United States to threaten Iran with an oil embargo.
President Obama and many of his European counterparts, not to mention his even less enthusiastic partners in Russia and China, would not have gone so far with their sometimes half-hearted push for sanctions if they were not convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not hesitate to act on behalf of his country’s security. But as long as someone is talking to the Iranians, the reasoning goes, the Israelis would not dare to attack Iran, even though they rightly believe the ayatollahs haven’t the slightest intention of giving up their nuclear ambitions no matter how much the West offers in return. Yet the problem for Iran in this strategy is that they must do everything they can to drag out the talks because their failure will make it difficult if not impossible for Obama to continue to argue that the window for diplomacy must be kept open.
Israeli officials have made plain their skepticism about this latest initiative. As Shabtai Shavit, a former director of the Mossad, was quoted as saying yesterday in an interview with Israel Radio:
In the past, every time the Iranians agreed to talk, the reason for their agreeing was in order to buy time in order to advance the development of their nuclear program. They didn’t invent this ruse, they learned it from the North Koreans.
Only the most naïve diplomats can believe the Iranians have any other objective in mind in agreeing to such talks other than playing for more time for their nuclear program to get closer to weaponization.
But by agreeing to negotiations so soon after President Obama’s plea for more time to allow diplomacy to work, the Iranians have set a trap for themselves. The talks will provide a clear test for Obama’s theory about the window of diplomacy. If, after the threats of an oil embargo and tighter sanctions as well as the president’s vow that he will not be content to “contain” a nuclear Iran, these new negotiations are seen to have failed as ignominiously as past efforts, then Obama and others who have argued that Israel’s demands for action are too hasty will be put in an embarrassing position.
Once the Iranians play Ashton and her clients for fools, as they have before, the notion of a diplomatic window that must be left open will be seen for what it is: merely an excuse to avoid action to avert the peril of a nuclear Iran.
Iran may think it can string along its Western dupes for a few more months and then perhaps think of some other ruse to put off a confrontation. But unlike the North Koreans, the Iranians need to understand that Israel will jump on the next failure of diplomacy as a justification for the use of force, and President Obama will, despite his own reluctance to come to grips with the imperative for action, be left with little wriggle room if he is to make good on his own promises to put a halt to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In agreeing to these talks, the ayatollahs may have unwittingly cleared the path for an Israeli attack.