October 1, 2013
Two good Iran scenarios and another more likely one
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s options were quite limited. By the time he left Israel to "ruin the Iranian charm offensive party,” the party was already over, and the guests of honor were already gone. He is smart and experienced enough to realize that talks with Iran will go forward, that the exploration of a possibility for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis will be pursued.
Netanyahu could either criticize President Barack Obama’s decision to talk with Iran – a move that would not have much influence on the possibility of talks, but which might infuriate the Obama administration. Or he could praise the decision to talk– but doing that might send the wrong message, implying that Israel has lost its zeal on this matter. Or he could continue doing what he has been doing so far -- looking dire and make an implicit threat. “If Israel is forced to stand alone”, he said Tuesday in his speech at the United Nations, “Israel will stand alone.” In the meantime though, Israel will have to wait to see what the Presidents -- of the United States and of Iran -- intend to do.
There are three possible outcomes to the talks between the U.S. (and the rest of the international community) and Iran. And two of them are actually good for Israel’s cause. If there’s a good agreement - one that truly and verifiably dismantles the Iranian nuclear program, including both the uranium and the plutonium components - Israel would be thrilled. That would be a great achievement for Obama, and no less so for Netanyahu, who would be able to argue that it was his pressure, his brinkmanship, that made the sides realize that the choice is stark, and that the stakes are high. Of course, Netanyahu, and almost everyone else in Israel, is highly skeptical that such an outcome is likely to occur. In his meetings with American officials this week, the Prime Minister attempted to convince them that the only possible road to such a solution requires an even more credible threat and even tighter sanctions.
The second possible outcome of the current round of negotiations is a quick and total failure. As with the first outcome – total success – total failure puts Israel in a better position than it is now in. It would add credibility to its contention that there’s no other choice but to make things worse with Iran in order for things to get better. If the Americans and the Europeans see firsthand that even with an extended hand, that even when there’s a so-called moderate Iranian leader in power, that, even then, a diplomatic solution is unattainable, Israel’s claim that the use of force should be considered more seriously would become much more difficult to dismiss.
What bothers Israel the most, though, is the third possible scenario -- the one that many around Netanyahu feel is the most likely to occur: the bad agreement/long negotiations scenario.
As you see, this third scenario has two sub-groups: One is postponement – a situation in which the two parties, amid protestations from Israel, pursue a prolonged process of talks while Iran continues moving forward with its nuclear program. The other is a bad agreement – which is Israel’s real worry.
When Netanyahu and Obama sat together in the oval office this week, and when their advisors have met in recent days, avoiding a bad agreement was Israel’s most pressing objective. Because postponement is somewhat easier to battle: postponement is something about which the public will be more sensitive, something that is visible to everybody.
A bad agreement is trickier. The large number of possible moving parts is varied, the technical terms are complicated, and the potential for both parties to present an agreement as a great achievement, one that will bring great relief to a world that is weary of this issue, is significant. Obama can declare victory and force Israel to live with an unsatisfying agreement – or to break all the dishes by ruining it for everybody.
In fact, some knowledgeable Israelis believe the chances of an Israeli military action against Iran declined to close-to-zero with the renewal of negotiations. Looking at the three possible outcomes, they'd argue that if scenario A – a good agreement – materializes, there will be no need for action. If scenario B– failure of the talks – materializes, Israel will not have to act on its own, as it will have other powers joining in or at least supporting its action. And if the outcome is C – bad agreement – Israel’s hands will be tied. That is, unless Israel feels certain enough in its decision to act that it is willing to risk a very serious breach not just with an American administration, but possibly with the American public, as well -- assuming that the public would have responded positively to a U.S.-Iran agreement.