U.S. and Israel Split Over Iran Talks

Progress With Tehran Means Growing Tension Between Allies

Progress and Pitfalls: Talks with Iran are making progress. That means trouble between the U.S., which is pushing for a deal, and Israel, which believes Iran is fooling the world.
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Progress and Pitfalls: Talks with Iran are making progress. That means trouble between the U.S., which is pushing for a deal, and Israel, which believes Iran is fooling the world.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 24, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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Ross, who spent endless hours speaking to Israeli officials about Iran in his previous position, indicated that Israel’s strong opposition to this kind of compromise could change with time. While Barak’s statements opposing enrichment on Iranian soil were harsh, the Israeli government, he said, had also voiced other positions showing some openness to the idea of allowing enrichment under strict limitations.

“This is a well-known Israeli sales technique,” agreed Meir Javendanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst who teaches Iranian politics at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center, which is located in Herzliya. “You double the price of what you want to sell, so that even after giving a discount, you still make a profit.” Javendanfar warned, however, that an Israeli “zero enrichment” approach entails dangers, since it will allow Iran to blame Israel if the talks fail, and it will discourage Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from making any compromise of his own.

The United States has long been consulting with Israel intensively on this issue. And the pace only picked up as the date for the Iran talks drew near. One week earlier, Barak held talks in Washington at which he repeated Israel’s red line of allowing no enrichment.

Barak has assumed the unofficial role of Israel’s top contact point for discussions with the Obama administration on Iran. “We have a decades-long relationship,” Vice President Joe Biden said of his ties with Barak when meeting with Jewish leaders on May 22. “None of us has ever deliberately misled the other.”

The administration’s embrace of Barak is but one avenue through which it hopes to address Israel’s concerns and to defuse Israeli threats to attack Iran unilaterally. The administration will brief Israeli leaders again when results of the Baghdad talks become clear.

The Obama administration is also actively reaching out to the Jewish community on the Iranian issue — most recently on May 21, when dozens of leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations spent the day at the White House hearing from Biden and other officials.

Administration speakers, according to participants in the meeting, stressed Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The speakers also highlighted Obama’s successful efforts in ramping up international sanctions on Iran. The administration says that pressure is now showing results in Iran’s willingness to negotiate. Biden also repeated a statement he made previously that recognizes Israel’s right to take any action it believes is needed to protect itself.

But one contentious moment in that meeting highlighted an important but subtle gap between the administration on one side and Israel, and at least some top Jewish communal leaders, on the other. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, asked Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough why the administration opposed legislation calling on the White House to prevent Iran from obtaining “nuclear capabilities” as opposed to obtaining “nuclear weapons.”

“This is a total red herring,” McDonough responded angrily, according to participants. “It’s a made-up controversy.”

Nevertheless, it is a point that has been raised in past months by Republicans and by some pro-Israel Democrats critical of Obama’s approach to Iran.

But McDonough later added: “I talk to the President every day about Iran. No one is more committed than he is.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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