May 18, 2012
Washington Notes: Three questions on next week’s Iran talks
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.
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.