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An angry Netanyahu is good for Iran negotiations

by Shmuel Rosner

May 21, 2012 | 9:06 am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Once again nuclear negotiations are taking place, and once again there’s a gap ‎between the gloomy tone of the Israeli observers and the optimistic, albeit guarded, ‎noises on the American side. It’s doubtful that anything concrete will come of Wednesday’s ‎talks with the Iranian leadership – that’s the message from Jerusalem. The more blunt ‎would add: the Americans, naive and without clear guidelines, are yet again falling into a ‎trap. In Washington the administration is broadcasting great caution, almost anxiety, over ‎the raised expectations.‎

There’s no chance that the issue will be resolved this week; the talks in Baghdad are just ‎the start, and essentially a test – of the Iranians of course. But in any case, tendrils of hope ‎are starting to creep in: The sanctions are undoubtedly working, and the Iranians are ‎awaiting with dread the oil embargo that comes into effect at the start of July; oil prices are ‎dropping, and for the time being theEuropeans aren’t blinking. Neither for that matter are ‎the Chinese or the Russians. And now the International Atomic Energy Agency is speaking ‎of progress in parallel to the talks with Tehran – a further sign that someone is looking for a ‎way to climb down from the tree.‎

And what of the warning voices of the Iranian leadership, what of the tough talk, the ‎arrogant public posturing? Even in this Washington sees a positive, a laying of ground for ‎capitulation - such vociferous barking could signal a lack of willingness to actually bite.‎

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Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who visited Washington last week to thank his American ‎counterpart Leon Panetta for funding to preserve Israel’s military edge in the region, did ‎not forget to bring up what Israel wants. Again, judging by public statements the gaps are ‎there: the Americans are hopeful, the Israelis skeptical; the Americans are ready for ‎compromise, the Israelis believe compromise is dangerous.‎

The issue is that when Washington talks about success, they mean an agreement from Iran ‎to halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent or higher. In Israel, the equation for success is ‎zero percent enrichment. When in Washington they talk about success, it means ‎inspectors at Iran’s nuclear facility in Qom; in Israel, it means dismantling the nuclear facility ‎in Qom. These are, without a doubt, significant differences. Israel believes that if there is ‎no insistence on red lines, it is likely that the Western position will be eroded, and the ‎Iranians can be expected to exploit a loophole that would allow them to carry on making a ‎mockery of the rest of the world until their aims have been met.‎

Washington sees Israel’s public position as unrealistic. If it’s a position for the purposes of ‎negotiations, one intended to make clear there will be no agreement to a dangerous ‎compromise (as officials in Washington believe it is), then this position can be ‎circumvented somehow. But if this is a fundamental position, and Israel will not agree to a ‎compromise that includes low level enrichment plus inspections, then expect problems - ‎not between the United States and Iran, but rather between the United States and Israel.‎

No one believes that Iran can be persuaded to compromise without any of its conditions ‎being met. Any Western compromise will include concessions that let Iran claim victory, at ‎least in part. For example, if the decision is made to allow low-level uranium enrichment, ‎then Iran can flaunt this as finally having won international recognition of its right to enrich ‎uranium. Given that from the outset the Iranians have rejected claims that they are ‎seeking to develop nuclear weapons, they can present this agreement as an achievement: ‎We did not give up anything – the West are the ones that understood they had no choice ‎but to allow us to enrich.‎

A vigorous Israeli opposition will contribute to Iran’s ability to present any compromise as a ‎victory. The unhappier Netanyahu is with an agreement, the easier it will be for Tehran to ‎find it acceptable. And so this is another dilemma the US is now facing: Is it worth upsetting ‎the Israelis in order to score points during negotiations? Maybe it’s better to coordinate in ‎advance, so that Israel pretends to be unhappy and the same advantage is gained but ‎without the danger of a genuinely angry Jerusalem deciding to take military action.‎

A pretense of this nature requires a high level of mutual trust – trust that might well exist ‎between Barak and Panetta, but hard to muster between Obama and Netanyahu. A ‎pretense of this nature would also demand absolutely no leaks, which is always difficult to ‎achieve. ‎

It could also be politically risky for both sides: a convincing display of dissatisfaction by Israel ‎could damage Obama’s chances in an election season, and a believably irate Israel that ‎does not act afterwards could raise questions domestically about Netanyahu’s own ‎credibility.‎

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