With less than a week before the March 31 deadline to finalize the outlines of a nuclear deal, the relative positions of Iran and the Western powers are coming into focus. The Islamic Republic’s leadership is said to express support for a potential agreement, as hardline factions are reportedly mollified by the level of Western concession so far. Among the so-called P5+1 – the UN Security Council’s five permanent members as well as Germany – France continues to play the bad-cop role, its UN ambassador warning on Tuesday that Iran still faces “difficult choices if it truly wishes to regain the trust of the international community.” Israel, which sees its regional nuclear monopoly hanging in the balance, sent a national security delegation to Paris on Sunday to press for fewer compromises. (France was of course instrumental in the early stages of Israel’s own clandestine nuclear program.) And the nascent U.S.-Israel breach continues to widen, as anonymous White House sources accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of using information obtained through espionage to lobby Congress against a deal.
The deadline for a final agreement is June 30, and the question of who will blink on outstanding issues – including centrifuge R&D, the lifting of sanctions, and inspections – is causing consternation among U.S. conservatives and their ideological allies. The likelihood of a transformational achievement in American foreign policy is especially ominous for Israel, even if its place in U.S. Middle East strategy seems secure for the foreseeable future.
According to the New York Times, the present stage of negotiations is a conflict between the U.S. desire for specificity and Iran’s strategic obscurantism:
Over the past few weeks, Iran has increasingly resisted any kind of formal “framework” agreement at this stage in the negotiations, preferring a more general statement of “understanding” followed by a final accord in June, according to Western diplomats involved in the talks.
Should that position hold – one of the many unknowns of the coming days – the United States and its five negotiating partners may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of describing the accord as they understand it while the Iranians go home to offer their own version.
This would obviously embolden the U.S. political opposition: “Persian perfidy” is their preferred argument against resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically. But as a German official observed to the Times, “We forget that the Iranians have politics, too. And theirs are at least as complicated as Obama’s.” In February, Ayatollah Khamenei declared there can only be one agreement, leaving it unclear what (if any) technical parameters the Iranian team could sign off on by Tuesday. And after 18 months of talks, a lack of specifics – on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges and the design of a plutonium reactor – could cause Congressional opponents of a deal to vote for more sanctions (which Obama says he will veto).
Coverage in the American media has been characterized by anxiety over the strong hand Iran enjoys at the negotiating table. As an Iranian political strategist recently told the Times, “We are steadfast and the U.S is compromising. We are not complaining.” The U.S. has no will for more elective war, certainly not against a country of nearly 80 million people, capable of projecting power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen. And for all the suffering caused by sanctions – and the grievous insult perceived to the national honor – Iran knows it can survive even under such punishing conditions. Getting the sanctions lifted – especially all at once, right away – would be a major victory, but coordinated assaults from the outside world have their usefulness too for an authoritarian regime. In any case, the White House clearly wants to get a deal done: according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, “This is probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is healthcare for us, just to put it in context.”
The American negotiating position has not been strengthened by ostentatious shows of internal discord, like the 47 Republican senators’ letter to the Iranian regime. (“We will have no letters or other nonsense that we are witnessing in the United States,” said the Iranian analyst quoted by the Times, who is reportedly close to Khamenei. “Iran speaks with one voice.”) Even Israel’s vigorous efforts to scuttle an agreement have played into the Iranians’ hands, by forcing Congressional Democrats to close ranks with the president. Citing “interviews with numerous Democratic senators,” Politico reports that the Israeli campaign “may have backfired”:
At best, several of them said, it’s made no difference and was simply a restatement of the Israeli government’s public antagonism toward a deal. In some cases, it appears to have made some lawmakers more sympathetic to the White House, given that the Israelis are decrying a deal that isn’t finished.
In the words of Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), “I’m not sure how you say it’s a bad deal. We don’t know what the deal is.”
A possible answer is provided by a recent report in The Wall Street Journal: “Israel Spied on Iran Nuclear Talks with U.S.” That headline sounds a bit dog-bites-man, as the AP’s State Dept. Inquisitor Matt Lee suggested to Jen Psaki: “I don’t understand what the administration is hoping to accomplish here by this anonymous whining about something that it shouldn’t be surprised is happening.” But what really has the White House riled up is their belief that Team Netanyahu shared the resulting intelligence during briefings with American lawmakers and their aides. In addition to including classified information on the quantity and quality of centrifuges Iran could be able to keep, these briefings are said to have omitted accompanying concessions asked of Tehran, giving a misleading picture. American spies reportedly discovered the snooping via “intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks.”
Chemi Shalev, U.S. correspondent for Haaretz, suggested on Twitter that the relevant U.S. counterespionage efforts may have netted even more inflammatory information: “Lost in WSJ spy story: US knows what Netanyahu says in private about Palestinian statehood – AND ABOUT OBAMA.” The Journal story includes a threat of lasting repercussions for the special relationship: ‘“People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.”’
For its part the prime minister’s office emphatically denied the accusations – a little too emphatically: “The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel’s other allies.” Anticipating the obvious counterexample, the Wall Street Journal article explains that Israel’s “intelligence agencies scaled back their targeting of U.S. officials after the jailing nearly 30 years ago of American Jonathan Pollard,” according to obviously impartial “current and former Israeli officials.” If they did so, America’s spies haven’t noticed: as of 2012, “The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency’s Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East,” according to the AP. While audacious provocations of its patron are nothing new for Israel, the Obama administration seems to have decided to start reacting more normally to Israeli behavior, which has historically been ignored.
Despite the backlash, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. is undeterred. “If anything,” the New York Times reports, “Mr. [Ron] Dermer is intensifying his efforts to thwart the nuclear deal with Iran that Mr. Obama is working hard to close within days.” Sacking Dermer, a former American Republican operative, has frequently been mentioned as a possible first step toward mending fences with the president, but Netanyahu seems loath to part with his Rovian confidant. And the ambassador, even as he defends his boss’s megalomaniacal stunt in Congress, is keeping his eye on the prize: “Above all, Mr. Dermer has been working to ensure that even as the United States and Israel feud, members of Congress continue to back generous military and intelligence support for Israel.”
We should follow Dermer’s focus. The Obama administration’s insistence that arms and money will continue to flow as usual, even as diplomatic policy shifts, underscores the basis of the special relationship: Israel’s role as Middle East gendarme. This is especially unlikely to change as the rest of the region disintegrates. But Israel is on alert for any threat to the material support that enables its militarism: in its indignant response to the Journal’s charges of espionage and subversion, Netanyahu’s office insisted, “These false allegations are clearly intended to undermine the strong ties between the United States and Israel and the security and intelligence relationship we share.”