Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.
Despite not criticizing the extension, Netanyahu made it clear that he is appalled by the direction in which the talks are heading. Had the Iranians accepted the West’s current offer, “the deal would’ve left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atomic bomb while removing the sanctions.” He believes the only deal with Iran that makes sense is one that “will dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atom bombs,” a formula he takes to mean no uranium enrichment of any kind rather than the compromise put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry which would for all intents and purposes allow them to become a nuclear threshold state.
Seen from that perspective, the Israeli relief about the continuation of the talks seems misplaced. If Netanyahu doesn’t like the deal Kerry put on the table over the past weekend that Iran rejected, he should expect to be even less pleased with subsequent offers that the West will make in order to entice Iran to finally sign even a weak nuclear agreement that will give President Obama the sham foreign-policy success that he so badly needs.
Indeed, as Dennis Ross, the longtime State Department peace processor and subsequently a special advisor to the Obama administration on Iran and the Persian Gulf said today, Iran has showed no flexibility in the nuclear talks. The history of the last two years of discussions that led up to the interim deal signed last November (which relaxed sanctions and gave tacit recognition to Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for measures that did little to halt the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress) and the subsequent standoff in the current talks has been marked by a steady Western retreat from its positions. Throughout this period, the U.S. has shown “flexibility” rather than standing up for its principle and as a result has thrown away the considerable economic and political leverage it had over Tehran.
There’s little question that any negotiations in the seven more months that have been added to the yearlong quest for a final agreement are likely to yield even more concessions. Indeed, why should the Iranians who have stood their ground throughout this process, demanding and getting a steady stream of Western retreats on issues such as enrichment, the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and allowed other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism to be kept off the agenda of the negotiations?
So what possible good can come out of the delay?
One obvious possibility is that Iran is so now so confident in their ability to string Obama, Kerry, and company along that they will never sign any deal. In one sense that would be a disaster since it would mean the West had wasted two more years on futile negotiations while Iran got even closer to realizing its nuclear goal. However, another failure to get Iran to sign would force the president to come face to face with the fact that his policies had failed and drop his push for appeasement in the hope of creating a new détente with Iran.
Clearly, Obama would not abandon his hopes for a rapprochement with Iran without a struggle. But it remains possible that Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will never agree to any deal no matter how favorable it might be for his country. If so, that sets the stage for the imposition of the sort of tough sanctions—amounting to an economic embargo on Iran and the halting of all oil sales—that could bring the country to its knees.
But for that to happen, it will be necessary for Congress to ignore Obama and Kerry’s pleas and enact the next round of sanctions now in order to have them in place and ready when the negotiations fail. By piping down now, Netanyahu is rightly adding weight to the bipartisan majority in Congress in favor of increasing the economic restrictions on doing business with Iran. Moreover, by not publicly opposing the administration’s decision, the Israelis are making it clear to both Congress and the American public that their goal is not the use of force but rather an effort to recreate the strong position the West held over Iran before Kerry folded during the interim talks last year. Another pointless spat with Obama would be a needless distraction that would undermine support for sanctions.
A choice between a “terrible” agreement and a postponement that also seems to play into Tehran’s hands is not one anyone outside of Iran should relish. Yet a lot can happen in seven months. Though there is a very real possibility that the next round will yield more concessions and an even weaker deal, the chance exists that a combination of Iranian rejectionism and congressional action will create a turnabout that will force the U.S. to stop appeasing the Islamist regime and return to a policy based on strength and common sense. If so, Netanyahu’s decision to choose the lesser of two evils and keep his powder dry this week will turn out to be a smart move he won’t regret.