After years of working hard to stay on the same page on the Iranian nuclear issue, the United States and Israel could be nearing their moment of truth with each other.
While a deal is not yet in hand, American officials are cautiously optimistic that Iran may have turned an important corner and is now willing to seriously discuss a nuclear agreement. The possibility of this deal coming to fruition looks likely to increase frictions between the two allies as talks continue between Iran and its international interlocutors.
Iranian officials’ most recent talks were held on May 21 in Tehran with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and in Baghdad on May 23 with delegates from six nations, including the United States, that are charged with negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. In Baghdad, for the first time since negotiations began, the two sides exchanged suggestions dealing directly with Iran’s nuclear program and agreed to discuss measures aimed at building confidence between the parties.
Israel’s harsh reaction, just prior to these talks, to the prospect of a deal based on the compromise offers being discussed made clear the Netanyahu government’s dissatisfaction with these offers. In particular, the Israeli stance highlighted differences between Jerusalem and Washington on the key issue of allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium on its own soil under any future agreement.
“Israel still demands a complete stop to enrichment activities in Iran,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in remarks made May 22 at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. He argued that Iran was trying to fool the international community by appearing to be willing to compromise without actually stopping all enrichment activity.
The Obama administration has avoided stating its own specific positions. America’s broad view remains that a stringently enforced deal could allow Iran to pursue civilian nuclear capabilities as long as there is a verifiable way to ensure that it does not serve as a stepping stone to a military program. Under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, countries party to the treaty are allowed, under appropriate safeguards, to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear power use.
“The administration deliberately has not sought to be too definitive when it comes to red lines,” said Dennis Ross, a former top White House adviser on Iran and now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ross described this U.S. position as “wise,” explaining that avoiding explicit red lines allows more flexibility in negotiations with Iran.
Still, press reports and leaks from officials involved in the negotiations have outlined the contours of an American-supported offer that would assist Iran in building its civilian nuclear program in return for halting enrichment in its Fordow facility, where uranium is currently being enriched to a level of 20%. From that level, experts consider it a small leap technically to enrich uranium to the level required for nuclear bombs.
The press reports have indicated that the United States and its partners in the group of six nations conducting the negotiation (Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) will allow Iran to enrich uranium to a lower level of 3.5%. The agreement they envision would include strict monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency and IAEA access to all nuclear facilities.
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 email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.