Would direct U.S.-Iran talks be bad for Israel?

October 22, 2012

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting in Kermanshah. (Office of the Supreme Leader, via AP)

The full story behind The New York Times report, that the United States and Iran have agreed in principle to direct nuclear talks after the elections, may not come to light for some time. We covered the responses, the speculation, and the reasons for and against believing that talks are actually happening

Conversation over the story is today coalescing around the question of what it all means for Israel. That discussion hits on some of the same issues that have surrounded American response to Iranian nuclear efforts, and reveals some of the foundational ideological differences that may inform how President Obama and Mitt Romney diverge on Iran, Israel and American foreign policy.

With the presidential foreign policy debate Monday night, some Republicans are using the story to reinforce a long-standing charge that Obama is too reliant on diplomacy and weak on supporting Israel. "If it’s accurate, it sounds like the U.S. is taking a position that we’re likely to jettison our allies," GOP Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) said Sunday. "The last thing we would want to do is abandon our allies on this and to make it a one-on-one negotiation." Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) called the talks “a ploy by the Iranians” to buy time for uranium enrichment. Unnamed Israeli officials told the Times that they were "open" to direct talks, but the Israeli ambassador to the United States has since come out against them, calling them a "reward" for Tehran.

Given that seasoned foreign policy watchers can't even agree on whether or not the leaked story helps Obama, Iran, and/or the likelihood of such talks succeeding, it's difficult to ascertain the degree to which secret U.S.-Iran negotiations would be good or bad for Israel. But, as politicians begin to roll out categorical positions for or against, it's worth exploring some of the implications.

Ultimately, the case as to whether direct U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations are good for Israel comes down to whether or not they can succeed. If they can, securing Iran's affirmative willingness to suspend nuclear development uranium enrichment would be perhaps the surest way to protect Israeli security. If they can't, critics charge that talks would allow Iran more time to develop enough nuclear potential to reach what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called a "zone of immunity" in which the country could effectively deter an Israeli or American strike. 

There are good reasons for the United States to prefer winning Iran's acquiescence to ending nuclear development over forcing the country to do so against its will. It's easy to see why President Obama and George W. Bush before him have pursued economic sanctions and military threats (but not military action) to deter Iran while also working through diplomatic channels.

Bush joined the "P5+1" multilateral negotiations with Iran in 2006; Obama has continued them, though they haven't been successful. As many analysts have noted, a military strike would likely delay Iran's nuclear development by only a few years, while also strengthening the country's resolve to acquire a nuclear deterrent. In the past, Iran has enriched uranium in secret facilities, suggesting that it fears a military strike but still desires a nuclear uranium enrichment program. Ending that desire in the first place -- convincing Iran that nuclear development is not in the country's interests -- may be the surest and least costly way of ending the Iranian nuclear program.

But convincing Tehran to stop enriching uranium almost certainly requires meeting with the country's representatives. And it might require allowing Iran certain concessions, such as the right to enrich uranium that would be sufficient for nuclear power or research but not for a weapon. After all, as long as Iran believes that nuclear uranium enrichment is within the country's interests, it is likely to continue, and Israel's long-term security will continue to be threatened. If Iran believes that it can protect its national interests without a nuclear weapon -- interests that likely include self-defense as well as the push for the world's respect that has informed Iranian foreign policy since the 1979 revolution -- then, presumably, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would rather lead a stable, peaceful, middle-income country than an impoverished, isolated, nuclear-armed one. Convincing Khamenei to make this choice may well be the only peaceful way to secure Israel's long-term security, which would seem to make direct U.S.-Iran negotiations a potential boon for Israeli interests. 

The case against this sort of diplomatic solution begins with the idea that Iran will never truly agree to nuclear disarmament, even if it's within the country's rational interests. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has characterized Iranian leaders as akin to Adolf Hitler, a portrayal that suggests that Iran's ideology makes conflict inevitable. In this line of reasoning, the sooner that conflict happens, and the more decisively Israel can end it, the better. Though any conflict with Iran would be extremely costly, the argument goes, it would only become costlier once Iran crosses the "zone of immunity," which might also set off a regional nuclear arms race. This means that direct negotiations would only allow Tehran more time to enrich and could also bolster's the regime's legitimacy at home, making internal regime change even less likely than it is now.

The question of whether U.S.-Iran talks are good for Israel seems to boil down, then, to the question of whether or not Iran's leadership is rational and can be convinced that nuclear cooperation is within its interests.

Determining what makes a country "rational" is notoriously difficult. After all, if Iran were a fully rational actor, would it have taken steps toward developing nuclear weapons in the first place? If its leaders were irrational, would they really still be holding control over a nation of 80 million in the middle of a deep economic crisis? How do you tell the difference between a country with a distinct-but-rational worldview vs. a country that is affirmatively irrational? These aren't new questions. The Cuban Missile Crisis was fueled in part by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's ideology, which led him to dangerously misread U.S. intentions in Latin America, a moment of irrationality that nearly ended the world. But the crisis ended in part when Khrushchev made the rational choice to stand down in exchange for concessions from U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Is the 1962 crisis a lesson in the dangers of a nuclear-armed irrational dictator, or in the ability of rational actors to deescalate even the most dangerous international confrontation? How you answer that question may inform your view of U.S.-Iran nuclear talks.

Romney is likely to argue at Monday night's foreign policy debate that direct negotiations with Iran would be bad for Israel and good for Iran. Obama will likely reaffirm the White House's denial of the story but emphasize the effectiveness of sanctions in bringing Iran's acquiescence, which would be good for Israel. Who is right depends on, among other things, what goes on inside the head of Khamenei thousands of miles away. You have to wonder whether or not he'll be watching.

Update: This post originally conflated Iranian "nuclear development" in some places with uranium enrichment. The former may include nuclear energy programs, which the U.S. does not necessarily oppose and are allowed under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which Iran is a signatory. The Bush administration, for example, had supported a 2005 plan to allow Iran to maintain nuclear power plants but required the fuel to be enriched in Russia. The issue of whether Iran may be allowed to enrich nuclear fuel just enough for peaceful energy purposes is likely to feature in any international negotiations with the country.

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Max Fisher · October 22, 2012