February 4, 2014

Has Iran answered Netanyahu on nuclear deal?

Israel and Iran may have just broached a new rapprochement, and it shouldn't matter if each side has ulterior motives.

It would be hard for anyone to know all the reasons and ramifications regarding Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's decision to remain in the hall when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif delivered his presentation. But there's certainly room to calculate the stakes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of his cabinet maintain that Secretary of State John Kerry's current negotiations with Iran are a "historic mistake". Staying to listen during the annual Munich Security Conference - which tends to be more about military cooperation than political grandstanding - seems like a good place to push the envelope and show some nuance. 

For Ya'alon, who rather publicly dismissed Kerry's framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace, this was also an opportunity to show that 1) he is not averse to all diplomacy; 2) he doesn't need any American prodding to act like an adult; 3) even one of Israel's most forceful opponents of diplomacy may be ready to play for the right price; 4) Israel faces more pressing existential threats than the Palestinians, namely Iran. 

With Syria currently collapsing within itself, Israeli hardliners have nowhere else to deflect their intransigence vis-a-vis the Palestinians.Some Israelis may also recognize that Iran is integral to the Syrian conflict and will influence its outcome, regardless of whether or not it's included in any peace talks. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to oppose much of the U.S. diplomacy on Iran and Syria, but partly because it significantly limits his strategic options to successfully "go it alone" on either front. Being in the room, especially at the pragmatism-inducing Munich meeting, could become an increasingly valuable and necessary tool. 

Iran's calculus, especially for Minister Zarif's conciliatory comments at the Munich event, incorporates its overall goal of normalization within the region and at home. This doesn't mean democracy or an end to terrorism, but being accepted as a legitimate and important power. That was a large part of the premise for acquiring nuclear weapons, and - given favorable terms - it can be the incentive for suspending and eventually abandoning that quest.

By speaking forthrightly about the horrors of the Holocaust and separately proffering recognition of Israel as part of a Palestinian peace, Zarif may have given President Obama and Secretary Kerry a shot in the arm. Without a full-fledged reformulation of relations with the United States, he and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won't stand against hardliners in Tehran still calling for rejectionism.

Zarif's remarks, which Ya'alon heard from the first row in Munich, may reflect his government's intention to fulfill terms of its interim agreement with the West and to realize a lasting deal. Netanyahu and his supporters in the U.S. Congress have argued that abandoning a nuclear weapons program isn't enough to justify lifting sanctions; for years, Iran has been denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel's destruction. 

If Iran wanted to cut a separate deal with France, Germany, Russia and China, it might be enough to wait for Congress to enact new sanctions against Iran, which would give it an easy excuse to leave Washington out. But then Rouhani would have failed. Answering Netanyahu's eleventh-hour challenge may be the price for keeping talks on track.

The outcome of the Israeli-Iranian face-to-face may not be evident for a while, but the motivations are already significant.

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