Lost amid the understandable focus on the fighting in Gaza was a major Middle East news story. On July 18, the U.S. and its Western allies agreed to extend the Iran nuclear talks for four months. But rather than the fighting between Hamas and Israel allowing the negotiations to continue under the radar, the events unfolding in Gaza ought to make it harder rather than easier for the Obama administration to evade its obligation to deal with this threat.
The leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee groused in public yesterday about the way the Iran talks are proceeding with little public accountability. Both Democratic Chair Senator Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Bob Corker expressed dismay about the way the supposedly finite period for negotiations with Iran had effortlessly transitioned into injury time with every possibility that the four-month period could be extended again in November. There was no appetite on the committee for a rerun of the bruising and losing fight Menendez waged against the administration on behalf of tougher sanctions on Iran in order to strengthen the West’s hand in the talks. Yet the frustration about the P5+1 process is clear.
While their comments didn’t get much attention, Menendez and Corker are right to be worried. More to the point, the Gaza crisis ought to be causing more concern about the Iran talks rather than allowing Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating team a free pass to continue to work toward an agreement that will both legalize Tehran’s nuclear program and fail to curb its support for terrorism.
It is important to understand that without Iran much of what is happening in Gaza wouldn’t be possible. Iran supplied Hamas with advanced rockets and money for years enabling it to create the infrastructure of terror that has plunged the region into conflict. Iran and Hamas had a very public spat in recent years when the Islamist terrorists chose to oppose Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war. But the breach between the two may be over. Yesterday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he supported replenishing Iran’s arsenal. If, due to international pressure and the desire of the Obama administration to halt the current fighting, Hamas is left standing and in control of Gaza, the odds are good that Khamenei will make good on his pledge.
Economic sanctions on Iran made it harder for the regime to divert money to Hamas as well as to Islamic Jihad, which has stayed in Tehran’s good graces these past few years. But if Kerry gets the deal he is looking for, the sanctions that were weakened in the interim deal concluded last November would be eviscerated. At that point, Hamas may be able to count on refinancing and resupply from Iran as well as from their ally Qatar.
What has this to do with the nuclear talks?
The assumption on the part of most foreign-policy observers is that these are two separate issues. But that belief is a mistake. Iran’s status as the leading state sponsor of international terrorism through its support of Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and perhaps Hamas again makes it imperative that the P5+1 process not limit itself to talks that ignore the threat that Tehran’s auxiliaries pose to the West.
Kerry signed a weak deal with Iran last fall because, as he publicly admitted, the secretary decided sticking to the West’s demands for Iran to dismantle its nuclear program was not possible. Instead, he appeased Iran and granted tacit recognition to their “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for concessions that do little to retard the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions. The willingness of the West to go into overtime with an Iranian negotiating partner that has clearly signaled their unwillingness to agree to measures that would make it impossible for them to build a weapon may herald another retreat by Kerry. If so, that will bring us closer to the day when Iran will not only be able to threaten the West with a nuke after a brief “breakout” period but also hasten the moment when it can extend a nuclear umbrella over its allies in Lebanon and Gaza.
While the prospect of such a dismal outcome to these negotiations raises the possibility that Israel will decide at some point to act on their own to stop the Iranians, it also raises the stakes in Gaza. The U.S. decision not to keep its word about limiting negotiations with Iran makes it even more imperative for Israel not to allow Hamas to escape the current fighting with its arsenal and control of the strip intact. Just as Iran’s nuclear dream poses an existential threat to Israel, the American willingness to kick the can down the road on the nuclear issue makes it more vital that Israel finishes off Hamas now before an end to the blockade and Western appeasement of Tehran changes the strategic equation in Gaza and the Middle East.