Most of the world reacted with cautious optimism, and some relief, when the April 13 to 14 Iran talks in Istanbul ended on a positive note, with an agreement to hold a second round of more formal negotiations in Baghdad on May 23. World oil prices fell on the news, currency and stock markets in Iran rose, and in the United States, editorial writers and columnists expressed satisfaction that U.S.-Iran tensions appeared to ease.
But not everyone was thrilled. On the right, a chorus of strident voices in Washington and Jerusalem arose to demand that the administration of President Barack Obama avoid anything that eases the pressure on Iran.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and a coalition of hawkish and neoconservative think tanks and policy analysts responded with alarm to the idea that Washington and Teheran might strike a deal.
Their fierce objections, reinforced by allies in Congress and in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are probably strong enough to prevent Obama from making American concessions to Iran in search of a mutual, step-by-step plan to resolve the standoff over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. But make no mistake: what they fear is that an U.S.-Iranian accord, even a shaky one, would tilt the world’s focus away from the Israel-Iran conflict and back to the Israel-Palestine dispute. As Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Haaretz, an Israeli daily, wrote tongue-in-cheek, Netanyahu’s real concern is what Eldar imagined as the prime minister’s lament: “What are we going to do without the Hitler of Tehran? Who will we say is threatening us with a second Holocaust?”
So far, at least, Obama seems undeterred by Netanyahu and his American allies’ rumblings. One day after the Istanbul talks ended, Netanyahu delivered his verdict on the agreement to resume talks in May. “My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie,” he said. “It has got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition.” But Obama responded almost instantly, directly contradicting Netanyahu in decidedly undiplomatic language: “The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something,” said Obama, adding that the onus is on Iran in the next round. At the White House and the State Department, officials delivered surprisingly upbeat assessments of the Istanbul talks in briefings to the media, and, according to the New York Times, in the aftermath of the talks a senior U.S. official said, “We believe there is a conducive atmosphere, but we need to test it.”
But the Wall Street Journal summed up the right’s response to the U.S.-Iran dialogue: “Renewed negotiations between Iran and international powers over Tehran’s nuclear program this weekend already are facing fire from Israel and American lawmakers, who fear the Islamic Republic is seeking to use the revived diplomatic track to forestall additional economic sanctions while continuing to advance its nuclear work.” In Congress, there was agitation for yet another package of even tougher economic sanctions against Iran, and conservative analysts delivered scathing reviews of the talks.
“A careful reading of the history of nuclear diplomacy with Iran…provides little reason for optimism,” opined the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank founded by William Kristol of the right wing Weekly Standard, even before the talks were underway. “Iranian leaders not only have repeatedly used negotiations to buy time as they steadily improve their capability to make nuclear weapons on increasingly shorter notice – but will almost certainly do so again with the planned talks in Istanbul.”
At the American Enterprise Institute, another neoconservative think tank, its chief foreign policy analyst, Danielle Pletka, fretted anxiously that Obama had “signaled” his readiness for a deal with Iran and that Iranian officials, such as Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, envision one as well. And she, too, writing as the talks began, predicted outright failure: “Talks begin tomorrow between the P5 + 1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran. Today, the P5+1 group is having a prep meeting. Talks with Iran are destined to fail, not because I want them to, but because every piece is in place for failure.”