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.”
Thomas Joscelyn, a leading analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, echoed Pletka. “There is no evidence the Iranians are willing to agree to [the] goals for the talks set forth by the Obama administration and its allies,” he wrote in the Weekly Standard. “Iran’s top negotiator, Saeed Jalili, has even rejected the prospect of a quid pro quo, saying after the talks that ‘suspending Iran's nuclear activities in return for the removal of sanctions is a literature which belongs to the past.’ Perhaps this will change, but there is no reason as of now to believe the Iranians are willing to come to any meaningful agreement.”
But Joscelyn hit precisely on the greatest fear among right-leaning opponents of a U.S.-Iran deal, namely, that Washington and Tehran will reach an agreement to slowly reduce or ease economic sanctions on Iran in return for step-by-step Iranian concessions. At the Istanbul talks, both Catherine Ashton of the European Union and Saeed Jalili, representing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran, suggested that gradually establishing confidence-building measures might include easing sanctions.
“We are ready to solve all issues very quick and easily, even in the Baghdad talks, if there is goodwill,” Salehi said. “It is possible to discuss in the talks percentages of uranium enrichment. If they guarantee supplying us with fuel of various enriched levels, the case will be different…The West should begin trust-building in the field of sanctions.”
Said Ashton: “We have agreed that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement, to ensure all the obligations under the NPT are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. We want now to move to a sustained process of serious dialogue, where we can take urgent practical steps to build confidence and lead on to compliance by Iran with all its international obligations. In our efforts to do so, we will be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity.”
That word – reciprocity – sends shivers down the spines of right-wing opponents of an Iran accord.
For years, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, has insisted that even if Iran were to abandon its nuclear program, sanctions ought to be maintained because of Iran’s human rights record and its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other anti-Israel groups. In a piece written for Foreign Policy this week, Clawson reiterated that idea, instead insisting that the goal in Iran ought to be regime change.
“Why gamble for the sake of a modest and temporary agreement that does not resolve the many other U.S. complaints about the Islamic Republic – such as its state sponsorship of terrorism – when the alternative is to gamble on a democratic movement?” he wrote. “Instead of focusing on a nuclear deal, why not continue to use sanctions and covert action to slow down Iran's nuclear program while stepping up political pressure regarding Iran's human rights violations and providing more support for Iranian democrats, primarily through covert programs?”
The right’s objections to a deal with Iran have far greater impact now, of course, because they’ve been echoed by Mitt Romney, Obama’s presumed Republican challenger in November. Were the president to forge ahead on an accord, later this year, it would spark a head-to-head confrontation with Romney. But if the polls on Iran are to be believed, this is actually a battle that Obama could win.
The question is whether Obama would seize such a chance or, as is more likely, merely use the negotiations with Iran to ease tensions and avoid war, picking up the talks more seriously in 2013 if he triumphs in November.