On the eve of Iran talks, Mideast allies bewildered by US policy

While Obama reaches out to Tehran, he turns on Egypt, which has been fighting Islamist terror. Israel isn’t the only country in the region scratching its head

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany on Thursday, September 26, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jason DeCrow)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany on Thursday, September 26, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jason DeCrow)

Finally, a reason to celebrate. Not only because, starting Tuesday, Iran will participate in negotiations in Geneva with the P5+1 over its nuclear program, but also because Tehran agreed to hold direct talks with representatives of the American government. This stands in stark contrast to the familiar Iranian policy that shirked any official contact with representatives of the “Great Satan.”

The End of Days must be upon us.

And yet, as Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi’s words Monday night made clear, there has been no substantive change in Iran’s nuclear position that would alleviate concerns over its intentions to produce a nuclear bomb or to become a “threshold state.” Indeed, Araqchi made clear that Iran “will not agree to cease the enrichment of uranium, even for one day.”

Regarding the enriched uranium stores Iran already possesses, including quantities enriched to 20%, Araqchi, who is also the deputy head of Tehran’s nuclear negotiating team, was adamant that “we will not agree to transfer even one gram of enriched uranium out of Iran.” He added that his country would be ready to negotiate over the level of uranium enrichment in the future, but Tehran repeatedly makes clear that the talks are contingent on the partial removal of Western sanctions as a goodwill gesture.

Why the West needs to show goodwill toward Iran is not clear. Tehran may hint that it is ready to show some flexibility on its nuclear program, but that flexibility is not enough, or shouldn’t be — not for Israel and not for other countries in the West and in the Arab world.

The persistent storing of enriched uranium, even at the 3.5% level, while Iran maintains its enrichment capacity through advanced centrifuges, combined with Tehran’s dubious record regarding supervision of its nuclear facilities, leave serious suspicion that Iran will try to secretly produce a nuclear bomb in the future.

And still, some American media outlets have evidently been mesmerized by President Hassan Rouhani’s smile. The New York Times seems to be directing a campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said sanctions on Iran must not be removed and warned about the Islamic Republic’s true intentions. Certain Western journalists are possibly driven by the hope — and, perhaps, some degree of naivety — that the crisis will not require the use of force.

But the anti-Netanyahu campaign misses (or ignores) the fact that the wary Israeli government, not surprisingly, enjoys the support of many Arab countries — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — which are not naive about Iran.

On Sunday, the Saudi-owned newspaper a-Sharq al-Awsat published an editorial calling for Iran to be barred from enriching uranium altogether. Numerous WikiLeaks documents dealing with the Gulf States suggest that, with all due respect to the Palestinian question, what truly keeps Arab rulers awake at night is the fear that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon, and will undermine their rule with terror attacks and orchestrated demonstrations. “Cut off the head of the snake,” as Saudi King Abdullah reportedly put it.

These are not paranoid visions or the brainchild of Netanyahu. These are real concerns of past and present American allies in the region, who gaze with wonder and bewilderment upon Washington’s foreign policy and struggle to understand why the US president rushes to telephone the president of Iran while almost simultaneously announcing that military aid to Egypt will be frozen.

The voices from these states express concern again and again in light of the lack of coherence from the United States and what they perceive as its lack of understanding of what is really happening in the Middle East.

How is it possible that precisely when Egypt’s government declares war on radical Islam, on terror, Washington prefers to flirt with its enemies — Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood? For Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and other capitals, the Obama administration — in negotiating with Iran and suspending aid to Egypt — is shooting itself in the foot, and wounding its allies in the process.

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