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Washington Notes: Three questions on next week’s Iran talks

by Shmuel Rosner

May 18, 2012 | 12:42 pm

Hillary Clinton and Ehud Barak talk to reporters ahead of their meeting in Washington on May 17, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Having spent at least half my time in Washington talking to people ‎about Iran (that is, if you consider officials, former officials, experts and ‎those working on Capitol Hill as “people”), I’m not ready to outline the ‎three big questions hidden behind all the talk about next week’s negotiations ‎with Iran. And no, this is not about “is Israel going to attack Iran?” – but ‎about the more subtle questions upon which success or failure of the ‎Baghdad talks relies. ‎

‎1. ‎Does the world has the will to be tough with the Iranians, or is it just ‎looking for a ladder with which to climb down the sanctions tree? ‎

When Prime Minister Netanyahu commented following the Istanbul ‎talks that “Iran has been given a freebie”, he did not mean it as a ‎compliment. In Israel, officials tend to believe that Americans are ‎willing to compromise with Iran more than is necessary, and that the ‎Europeans are even more likely to jump on the first opportunity for a ‎face-saving settlement with the Iranians. Hence, the “freebie” – the ‎acceptance of a round of talks without having Iran in return suspend ‎enrichment until talks are concluded. ‎

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Are these Israeli suspicions justified? President Obama responded to ‎the freebie admonition by stating that, “I’ve been very clear to Iran and ‎to our negotiating partners that we’re not going to have these talks just ‎drag out in a stalling process. But so far at least we haven’t given away ‎anything”. Israel, unconvinced, sent Defense Minister Ehud Barak to ‎Washington yesterday not just to thank the Obama administration for the ‎additional military aid, but also to make sure Israel’s position is ‎understood. But two questions remain: Will Obama be as tough as he ‎says he will? And supposing he is, will his other partners go along with ‎him? ‎

‎2.‎ Will Iran be choosing an in-your-face tactic of no-surrender to test the ‎will of the international community, or will it be ready to make some ‎compromises in the hope sanctions will be postponed or canceled?

Note this: I did not meet any person in Washington who believes that ‎the Iranians are already in such trouble that a deal can be cut next ‎week. And Europeans apparently have a similar view of the talks: “We ‎are unlikely to get an agreement signed and sealed in Baghdad but we ‎don’t have huge amounts of time to play with this.” So the only real ‎question related to next week’s talks is whether Iran is going to blow it ‎off in a way that will force the other side to declare that talks were a ‎failure – or show some willingness so that talks can continue. ‎

‎3.‎ What are Israel’s real red lines?‎

What Israel officially says is clear: no enrichment. The Iranians, ‎somewhat similarly, make enrichment the none-negotiable casus belli: ‎‎“’Insisting on a halt to enrichment is a deal breaker,’ said Tehran-based ‎political analyst Behrooz Shojaei. ‘It is Iran’s red line’”. In Washington ‎people would like to believe that Israel is the one bluffing on this one, ‎because the deal that most observers believe might be possible (“most” ‎‎– namely, the majority among those observers that believe a deal ‎actually is possible) involves an international license for Iran to enrich ‎uranium, but not to weapons-grade levels. Thus far, Israel has given no ‎public indication that it might be willing to show some flexibility on the ‎issue of enrichment. ‎

As far as I can tell – having spent the last couple of days in Washington ‎‎– such an indication has also not been given privately. This could mean ‎one of two things: Israel is not bluffing, and the possible deal still might ‎not stop it from acting militarily against Iran. Or, Israel doesn’t trust ‎anyone and is bluffing even its American ally, believing that such an ‎uncompromising position is the only way to toughen up the Obama ‎administration.‎

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