US talk of thawing Iran relations highlights rift with Israel

Differences over looming nuclear talks deadline likely to dominate Wednesday’s Obama-Netanyahu meeting

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their March 3, 2014, meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their March 3, 2014, meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Obama administration officials and Iran skeptics, chief among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are presenting starkly different outlooks of what the world would look like should negotiators meet a Nov. 24 deadline and strike a nuclear deal.

The topic is likely to dominate the meeting Wednesday between Netanyahu and President Obama.

A nuclear-free Iran could soon return to the “community of nations” as a constructive partner, US officials say. But those doubtful of Iran’s stated intentions counter that a nuclear deal would free up Iran to intensify its regional mischief and ultimately would not prevent a nuclear weapon.

“Far from being a ‘normal state,’ Iranian regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has helped shape legislation imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic, told JTA in an email. “Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons capability is a symptom of a larger disease, and that is the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime itself.”

After months of insisting that the nuclear talks were a discrete matter, aiming strictly for a nuclear rollback in exchange for sanctions relief, top U.S. officials are now casting a potential deal as a sea change in how Iran functions in the world.

“A nuclear agreement could begin a multigenerational process that could lead to a new relationship between our countries,” Philip Gordon, the top White House coordinator for the Middle East, said over the weekend at the annual conference of the National Iranian American Council. “Iran could begin to reduce tensions with its neighbors and return to its rightful place in the community of nations.”
Gordon cautioned that significant gaps remain before a deal is achieved.

“Iran’s leadership has not yet made the hard choices necessary,” he said.

Still, Gordon outlined potential benefits of thawed relations, including increases in trade, cultural exchanges and travel for Iranian students abroad.

Last week, the top negotiator for the United States, undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman, was effusive in outlining dividends for Iran in an interview with the Voice of America Persian service.

“I have to tell you as soon as we suspend our major sanctions, which will happen very early in the agreement, the world will flood into Iran,” Sherman told VOA.

Netanyahu in a speech Monday before the United Nations General Assembly made clear he regarded that outlook as naive, although he did not name the Obama administration specifically.

“Some still argue that Iran’s global terror campaign, its subversion of countries throughout the Middle East and well beyond the Middle East, some argue that this is the work of the extremists. They say things are changing,” he said, referring to the election last year of President Hassan Rouhani, who is seen as a relative moderate in contrast to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Don’t be fooled by Iran’s manipulative charm offensive.”

Instead, Netanyahu said, an agreement would “cement Iran’s place as a threshold military nuclear power.”

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close Pentagon ties, said talk of Iran ending its pariah status may be premature in part because the country’s conservatives, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, welcome the isolation.

“If anything, the last year has shown that while Khamenei and the Guards want the easing of sanctions and support Rouhani’s diplomacy, they are nevertheless strongly opposed to domestic reforms and a fundamental shift in foreign policy, including relations with the US,” Nader said.

Gordon in his address to the National Iranian American Council — a group that backs a nuclear deal and the removal of energy sector sanctions but favors sanctions targeting Iranian human rights abuses — said Iran has “been an irresponsible actor in the region, itself promoting extra-governmental militias that have fueled sectarianism in places including Iraq and Syria, Bahrain and Yemen and Lebanon.”

Nonetheless, Gordon hinted, as has Secretary of State John Kerry, that Iran and the United States could find common cause in dismantling the Islamic State, the Sunni terrorist group grabbing swaths of Syria and Iraq.

“Secretary Kerry discussed the threat posed by ISIL with [Iranian] Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif last week and we know that Iran also sees ISIL as an enemy and is committed to destroying it,” Gordon said, using an acronym for the group also known as ISIS.

The notion that comity around a common enemy, ISIS, could bring the United States and Iran closer has alarmed Israelis, and Netanyahu said in his UN speech that not much distinguished Iran from ISIS.

“To defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war,” the Israeli leader said twice.

Israel’s overriding concern about the nuclear talks has been the prospect that a deal would leave Iran with a uranium enrichment capability.

The United States and other major powers negotiating have suggested that they could live with an ability to enrich uranium to 5 percent, well short of weaponization levels of over 90 percent. Israel and a number of its allies here, including in Congress, have said that any enrichment capacity leaves Iran perilously close to bomb-making.

However, another stark difference has bubbled beneath Israel-US discord on the talks. Israel — as well as a number of other US allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia — fear that a nuclear deal could purchase for Iran consolidation of its regional hegemony.

“Nuclear compromise appears to be the get-out-of-jail card for a pariah regime despite administration assurances that a nuclear deal would not impact US policy regarding Iran’s other illicit activities,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that has consulted closely with Congress on Iran sanctions.

At the outset of the talks, US officials had insisted — including in off-the-record calls with Jewish community leaders — that talks with Iran would be narrow in scope.

“We’ve always said that the nuclear negotiations were totally separate from other issues,” a senior administration official told reporters in a January briefing. “We don’t discuss those other issues during the nuclear negotiations.”

The official was not named in the transcript of the briefing distributed by the State Department.

Gordon suggested in his talk to the National Iranian American Council that securing a nuclear-free Iran trumped other considerations.

“The nuclear issue is too important to subordinate to a complete transformation of Iran internally,” he said.

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