In a previous essay, “King Abdullah’s bombshell,” (November 13, 2013), I explored some implications of the rejection by King Abdullah of a seat for his Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the United Nations Security Council (October 18, 2013.) Since then, the very thing that Abdullah had sought to prevent by this petulant action – getting up from the table, and tipping-over the game-board – has happened. Following breakneck negotiations at Geneva — “breakneck,” that is, as compared to a decade of chin-wagging under UN auspices – the United States, the UN, and major western powers have surrendered to Iran the right to retain a “nuclear enrichment” programme that makes sense only as a precursor to acquiring nuclear weapons. Under the same Accord they have wound down the economic sanctions that had hitherto inhibited Iran’s progress along that same path.
Now I need to back up a few months in time and widen the lens of the geographic view-finder a few degrees in order take in a larger perspective than I considered when our focus was on Saudi Arabia and its diplomatic quandary. In this present essay I consider the effect of the Geneva Accords upon Israel, In an essay to follow, I shall consider how the Accords have affected Saudi Arabia and other regional players.
The Prospect of “Breakthrough” Over the Iranian Nuclear Standoff (September, 2013.)
After President Putin made his ice-breaking proposal for U.S.-Russian cooperation for the purpose of compelling Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons the word “Breakthrough” lept spontaneously from the lips of political leaders and from editorial pens. Scarcely had we had time to absorb the “Breakthrough” in the context of the Syrian crisis than the same word began to appear in connection with another story of even more ancient pedigree – the story of the efforts, beginning in the Clinton Presidency, to get Iran to refrain from acquiring weapons-grade nuclear material and long-range rockets with which to deliver doom and destruction to Iran’s imagined enemies.
On September 27, 2013, the world was told by President Obama that he had just had a telephone conversation with the recently-elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani — “the first direct contact between the leaders of Iran and the United States since 1979,” noted the New York Times. “Mr. Obama called the discussion an important breakthrough after a generation of deep mistrust,” noted the Times, “and [Obama] suggested that it could serve as the starting point to an eventual deal on Iran’s nuclear program and a broader renewal of relations between two countries that were once close allies.” [“Obama Says He Spoke to Iran’s President by Phone,” New York Times, September 27, 2013.] “Breakthrough” now became the editorial leitmotif of the month of September, 2013.
Proof that this one swallow might indeed herald a Spring was quickly found by optimists in the speech that President Rouhani made a few days later to the UN General Assembly. In it there appeared stock reference to Israel’s subhuman character as reflected in the inhumane conditions inflicted on the innocent people of Palestine; but Rouhani’s rhetoric did stay short of the defamatory level typical in official Iranian set pieces in international forums since 1979. Likewise, Rouhani recalled the sins of the United States — “a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices over the past three decades [that includes] the arming of the Saddam Hussein regime with chemical weapons and supporting the Taliban and Al-Qaida” — and he explained that these had all been employed as an excuse “to harp on the so-called threat of Iran.” But in fact, he said, “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region.” (http://publicintelligence.net/iran-un-speech-2013.)
Editorial opinion following Rouhani’s speech revealed how keen the world was to embrace signs of Spring. Only a minority of cynics and realists (the two camps always overlap) rehearsed grounds for mistrusting Rouhani and spoke against imagining that he represented an alternative to the actual policies pursued in the Ahmadinejad years.
Israel’s Response to Rouhani’s “Charm Offensive”
Somehow, the Israeli delegation had managed to secure for Prime Minister Netanyahu the last position at the podium of the UN General Assembly for the annual parade of Heads of Government or their foreign policy chiefs. Getting immediately to the matter on everyone’s mind — the twofold Breakthrough opened up (apparently) by newfound common interest between Russia and the United States, coupled with the election of a new leader in Iran — Netanyahu reminded the world that an elected President of Iran was in no position to deviate from the policies imposed by “the dictator known as the Supreme Leader.” Moreover, Rouhani had, in fact, served at the very heart of that regime almost from the beginning. He had been head of Iran’s National Security Council when Iran had been responsible for the bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish club and for the attacks that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soldiers at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, among many other acts of state-directed terror. Also to be kept in mind, Netanyahu insisted, was the fact that throughout the entire period of Rouhani’s service as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator he had, by his own subsequent confession, been using diplomacy to stall for time. Rouhani brags about this in a published memoir about this time: “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan” (where the work was done on the last stages required for transformation of an ostensibly peaceful project into a facility for production of nuclear weaponry.) Also to be kept in mind, Netanyahu urged, was the example afforded by the history of negotiations on the same issue with North Korea – to which the New York Times, for example, had pointed as proof that “diplomacy can work,” not long before Pyonyang detonated its first nuclear weapon.
The climax of Netanyahu’s address came with a vow that “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.” [See, “Transcript of Netanyahu’s UN General Assembly Speech,” http://www.haaretz.com, October 1, 2013; “Netanyahu: Israel Won’t Let Iran Get Nuclear Arms,” TIME, October 1, 2013.]
Exercising its right of reply, Iran’s delegation noted the general understanding of the nations that Israel has its own nuclear arsenal and that Israel has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dilemma cannot be overstated. Every decent person, contemplating the apocalyptic implications of the situation building in Syria and the obvious danger of its spilling out into the entire region, and everyone able to appreciate the implications of Iran’s undeterred campaign to acquire nuclear weapons, wanted there to be a breakthrough. There would have to be something wrong with anyone who did not feel this. How could Netanyahu dare to stand up in the international arena and throw cold water upon the best hope of mankind?
This thought appears in one form or another in countless editorials following upon Netanyahu’s speech of October 1. For example, the New York Times, chastised Netanyahu for “[using] sarcasm and combative words to portray Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, as a smooth-talking charlatan … a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” While conceding that “Mr. Netanyahu has legitimate reasons to be wary of any Iranian overtures,” the Times warned that “it could be disastrous if Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters in Congress were so blinded by distrust of Iran that they exaggerate the threat, block President Obama from taking advantage of new diplomatic openings and sabotage the best chance to establish a new relationship since the 1979 Iranian revolution sent American –Iranian relations into deep freeze.” [“By the Editorial Board: Netanyahu Pushes Back on Iran,” New York Times, October 1, 2013.]
To grasp Netanyahu’s dilemma, it might help to transpose this drama into the small change of family life. Every adult of a certain age will have lived through a moment when he has been in a minority of one in the family – when everyone else is caught up in a surge of hope about something. Are you really sure that you are right and everyone is wrong about that guy that is courting your daughter? Shouldn’t you be giving the benefit of the doubt to youth and love? If this is too painful, perhaps an episode in which money or economic security is at stake will do just as well. Think of that golden opportunity to invest in real estate in Florida. Why are you standing alone in the way of everybody’s happiness?
Netanyahu’s isolation increased over the next several weeks, as channels opened for diplomacy between Iran, on the one hand, and the United States and the United Nations on the other. Clearly, Rouhani’s “charm offensive,” as skeptics dubbed it, had paid off fulsomely. A meeting between Secretary of State Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister, proved unexpectedly genial; this led to a conference of the Five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, with Germany dealt in as well (“P5+1”, became its acronym.) This conference opened in Geneva early in November, 2013. After much dramatic lurching-around backstage, and after the holding of many press conferences in which senior diplomats took back or nuanced what they had said in previous press conferences, a deal was announced at 3 a.m., November 22, in the Palace of Nations in Geneva.
The Joint Plan of Action, November 22, 2013
Under the Joint Plan of Action that emerged from the meeting on November 24 [“Accord Reached with Iran to Halt Nuclear Program,” New York Times, November 24, 2013; “Nuclear Accord with Iran Opens Diplomatic Doors in the Mideast, “ New York Times, November 25, 2013.] the negotiating parties were permitting Iran, for a limited period of six months, to pursue “a mutually defined enrichment program” –a right which had not been conceded before the meetings began. Iran, evidently, would stop enriching uranium beyond the level that (it was believed) was sufficient for increasing domestic energy production. Iran would dismantle or dilute its current stockpile of uranium and would discontinue the existing links between networks of centrifuges, thus (hypothetically) closing the door against further uranium enrichment.
Not surprisingly, it became clear subsequently that considerable differences exist between the understandings of the Americans on the one hand and those of the UK and France on the other regarding exactly what was being agreed to. As quid pro quo for this deal, the allied side was to provide $6-7 billion US in sanctions relief. Of this, roughly $4.2 billion would be oil revenue that has been frozen in foreign banks. As the New York Times noted: “This limited sanctions relief can be accomplished by executive order, allowing the Obama administration to make the deal without having to appeal to Congress, where there is strong criticism of any agreement that does not fully dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.”
Shortly after the agreement was signed, President Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office: “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure, a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.” In Geneva, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, expressed his hope that a “restoration” of trust between Iran and the United States was beginning.”
Israel’s Isolation Increased by the Geneva Accords
Glaringly obvious to Israel and to those critics of the Obama Administration who were already comparing Geneva of 2013 to Munich of 1938 was that Iran’s enrichment program had not been ended, but at best slowed down to a point where it might prove very difficult to renew it fully. Some American experts doubted that Iran’s Supreme Leader could ever have agreed to a deal that really did close the door on the nuclear option. Other critics noted that Iran had still not agreed to all of the terms for an intrusive inspection regime that the International Atomic Energy Agency had said was needed to ensure that the Iranian program is peaceful. [“Iran will still make a nuclear bomb’: Israel’s ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub argues the Geneva deal endangers us all, http://www.independent.co.uk, November 27, 2013; Daniel Pipes, “The Geneva Agreement with Iran: A Foreign Policy Disaster,” http://www.danielpipes.org, November, 24, 2013.] Jonathan S. Tobin (paraphrasing the argument of Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal) characterized the deal as “feckless”.
Obama’s desire for détente with Iran [is] far less defensible than British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s decision to trust “Herr Hitler” …. Bad as the Iran deal was, the real analogy to Munich is the way in which Obama and Kerry not only ignored the concerns of the nations endangered by an Iranian nuke – Israel and Saudi Arabia – but also excluded them from the negotiations. Like the Czechs who were told by Chamberlain they had no choice but to accept the dismemberment of their country, Israel and the Saudis have been callously told they can either like the deal or lump it. [Jonathan S. Tobin, “Iran and Munich: A Fair comparison?” Jewish Press, Dec. 5, 2013.]
As for opinion in Iran: Western television networks were able to show us the exuberant reception by crowds in Tehran of President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on their return from Geneva. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the Chairman of Iran’s Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Policy, saw the signing of the deal not as a victory for diplomacy but as a victory for the Islamic Republic over the West.
By now, the Islamic Republic controls all aspects of nuclear science. From A-Z, from the very beginning all the way to uranium enrichment… After ten years, we have emerged victorious over the west…. . The West has now officially recognized that Iran enriches uranium, he explained ….If there are new sanctions … we will not confirm the agreement, and will not abide by our commitments. “Iran: ‘After Ten Years, We Have Emerged Victorious,’” Autzsheva, November 28. 2013.]
Enemies of the agreement in the West could hardly have improved on this as evidence of the gap between the American Administration and the Iranian public on the meaning of the Geneva Accord.
At the same time that they have increased the distance between Israel’s policy makers and the American policy-makers, the Geneva Accords have increased the alienation and isolation of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States – a circumstance that has inspired much speculation about reconfiguration of geopolitical forces in the Middle East. I will take up this dimension of our theme in my next essay.