With one day left before the deadline for an agreement on the contours of an Iranian nuclear deal, negotiations look set to go “down to the wire”, in the White House’s phrase – or possibly past it. Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi reported no progress on Monday, according to journalists on Twitter, and spoke of a resolution having to wait for Tuesday or Wednesday. Persistent points of disagreement remain – including on the timeframe of technical restrictions and the schedule for lifting sanctions – in addition to a new one: on Sunday, news broke that Iran has balked at shipping its existing stores of enriched uranium abroad. From The New York Times:
For months, Iran tentatively agreed that it would send a large portion of its stockpile of uranium to Russia, where it would not be accessible for use in any future weapons program. But on Sunday Iran’s deputy foreign minister made a surprise comment to Iranian reporters, ruling out an agreement that involved giving up a stockpile that Iran has spent year and billions of dollars to amass.
“The export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our program, and we do not intend sending them abroad,” the official, Abbas Araqchi, told the Iranian media, according to Agence France-Presse. “There is no question of sending the stocks abroad.”
It’s not clear how much of a hurdle this presents. U.S. officials now say the Iranians never agreed to parting with the uranium, and that the fuel, even if it stays in-country, can be diluted and inspected, keeping it below military grade. But the retention of the country’s uranium stockpile would certainly be presented by critics of a deal as yet another untenable concession by feckless Western negotiators.
The most prominent such critic is staying on the offensive. “The emerging agreement in Lausanne sends a message that there is no price to pay for aggression – on the contrary, Iran gets a prize for its aggression,” Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Monday. “Moderate, responsible countries in the region, primarily Israel but other countries as well, will be the first to be harmed by this agreement.” Netanyahu expressed incredulity that progress toward a deal should continue in the face of Iranian belligerence in Yemen: “But we [in Israel] are not closing our eyes, and we will continue to act against any threat.”
One observer unimpressed with Netanyahu’s histrionics is Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel, who writes that the Israeli prime minister’s boorishness has marginalized his country on this critical issue:
Israel’s role in the drama is limited to expressions of skepticism and reprimands from the sidelines. With his loud bickering with the Obama administration, culminating in his speech to Congress earlier this month, Netanyahu has inadvertently positioned himself as someone the Americans won’t take seriously.
Now Netanyahu has only two cards left to play – public warnings of destruction arising from an agreement, and indirect political pressure through congressional Republicans. Practically speaking, senior Israeli officials half admit that under the circumstances that have emerged, they would oppose any pending deal with Iran, regardless of its details.
Although Harel believes “Israel is right to be concerned about the looming agreement” – a natural position for a defense reporter, since Israel’s nuclear arsenal is its military trump card with respect to Iran – he is cynical about the “horror stories” coming out of Jerusalem: “Experience shows that often, ministers’ pronouncements do not fully coincide with the positions of the relevant professionals.”
Harel doesn’t elaborate, but this sounds a lot like an allusion to the split between the intelligence establishment and Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon on Yassir Arafat’s culpability for terrorism and capacity to make peace. The arguments of aggressively anti-Palestinian officers, including then-chief of staff and current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, carried the day back then, with devastating consequences (a dynamic that has since been repeated between Israel’s political leadership and Mahmoud Abbas). Ya’alon assesses the Iranians in the same rigid, dyspeptic way he talks about the indigenous threat: at a cabinet meeting on Sunday he explained that “one does not have to be an intelligence agency member to know that Iran is lying without blinking, that today it is the biggest danger to the stability of the Middle East and the entire world”; to journalist Patrick Tyler he once recalled that in order to divine the Palestinians’ hostile intentions “I didn’t have to use my sophisticated intelligence sources. I just had to listen to Arafat, to his rhetoric. I had to look at the Palestinian textbooks, which I did, or to walk into the Palestinian classes, which I also did. I went to Nablus and Ramallah, and I was shocked.” The self-sufficiency of Ya’alon’s judgments may have something to do with the conflicting content of professional intelligence analysis.
Harel also reports that Netanyahu “contributed a new slogan” during his fulminations at Sunday’s cabinet meeting: “After the Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad axis, Iran is carrying out a pincer movement from the south to take over and occupy the entire Middle East. The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous to humanity and it must be stopped.” It sounds like a page out of David Frum’s rhetorical playbook, recalling the fateful phrase that ended U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan and set the stage for confrontation in Iraq and beyond, according to Dexter Filkins’ New Yorker profile of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani:
In January, 2002, [Ryan] Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, why told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the [Iranian] negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”
Thirteen years later, the U.S. and Iran are back on the verge of rapprochement, with Netanyahu obviously hoping to play a similar spoiler role. But this time there are powerful economic interests at work: the Europeans, who have long wanted to reintegrate Iran into the international system, are running out of patience with lost revenues. “Trade between Europe and Iran has plunged to about $9 billion from almost $32 billion in 2005 when sanctions began to be tightened,” according to Bloomberg. “[T]he disparity between U.S. and European economic engagement with Iran adds an incentive to reach an agreement and avoid a potential trans-Atlantic rift over expanded penalties.” So money may talk louder than either Israel’s leaders or Congressional Republicans.
On a delegation of six GOP senators to Israel and Jordan, Mitch McConnell stood beside Netanyahu in a gesture of solidarity against the White House. The Israeli government released a video in which the Senate Majority Leader outlined the U.S. hardliners’ recourse:
“The option if there is an agreement, is a bill that we intend to vote on that enjoys bipartisan support to require that agreement to come to Congress for approval. If there’s no deal then the view of this group, similar to your own, is that ratcheting up sanctions might be the best direction.”
“I want to assure all Israeli’s that the U.S.-Israel relationship is still — no matter what’s been said in recent weeks — in very very strong shape, on a bipartisan basis in the U.S. Congress.”
Netanyahu added that Harry Reid told him much the same thing when they spoke over the weekend, following the Senate Democratic leader’s retirement announcement.