Why Israeli Challenges to Netanyahu on Iran May Help Obama’s Nuclear Diplomacy

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Atta Kenareatta / AFP / Getty Images

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi speaks during press conference in Tehran on April 29, 2012.

The steady torrent of criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran rhetoric by some of the most senior figures in Israel’s security establishment may be causing consternation within the Prime Minister’s office, but it’s not necessarily bad news for the Obama Administration. That’s because the willingness of the Israeli Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, as well as the most recently retired heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet security services, to publicly challenge Netanyahu’s assessments of the Iran threat effectively pull the rug out from under the hawkish Iran posture adopted by the Prime Minister and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, at the very moment when Israel’s political leaders have been ratcheting up political pressure on the Obama Administration to maintain a hard line when negotiating with Iran. And that’s precisely the sort of the political cover President Obama will need if he’s to achieve a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, whose realistic best-case outcome is likely to fall short of the bottom-line demands long articulated by Netanyahu, and which is likely to be challenged on Capitol Hill as putting Israel at risk.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has spent the past year challenging Netanyahu’s alarmist rhetoric on Iran, saying it exaggerates the threat posed by the Islamic Republic’s current nuclear efforts and branding as foolhardy the suggestion that Israel consider starting a war with Iran in response. Then, in an interview last week with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Gantz poked two large holes in the assessment of the Iran threat typically presented by Netanyahu. The Prime Minister likes to tell Israeli and American audiences that Iran is led by irrational religious extremists who are building nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel and can’t be reasoned with or deterred because of the suicidal nature of their thinking. But Gantz insisted that Iran is led by rational men, and he added that given the stakes, the pressures at work on them, and the consequences of crossing the threshold towards weapons development (Obama has vowed to take military action if Iran tries to build a bomb), he doubted that Iran would try to use its nuclear program to build weapons. That essentially amounted to the public endorsement, by the head of the Israeli military, of the Obama Administration’s assessment that Iran has not actually decided whether to use its capabilities to build a bomb, and that its leaders will make rational choices based on cost-benefit analysis.

(MORE: For Israel, the Problem with Iran Diplomacy Is the Prospect of Nuclear Compromise)

The dust hadn’t yet settled in the furor over Gantz’s remarks when the respected former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Yuval Diskin, piled on and began metaphorically pummeling Netanyahu and Barak. “I have no faith in either the Prime Minister or the Defense Minister,” said Diskin. “I am very mistrustful of a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic senses… I’ve seen them from up close. They’re not messiahs, either of them, and they are not people whom I, on a personal level at least, trust to lead the state of Israel into an event of that scale [a war with Iran] and also to extricate Israel from it. I am very worried that they are not the people whom I truly would want to be at the helm when we set out on an endeavor of that sort.”

Diskin castigated Netanyahu and Barak for creating an impression that Iran was racing to create a bomb and could only be stopped by Israeli military action, and warned that military action by Israel would more likely accelerate Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. The efforts of the securocrats to dial down the Netanyahu-fueled Iran panic in the Israeli public — and, presumably, also in those sections of the American public inclined to take their cue from the Israeli leadership — were reinforced last weekend by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who insisted there was plenty of time for a diplomatic solution with Iran and warned that Netanyahu and Barak’s rhetoric was “creating an atmosphere and a momentum that may go out of their control.” After all, an Israeli leader consistently telling his public that there’s a new Hitler plotting their extermination on the horizon will, eventually, be expected to take action against such a specter.

(MORE: Five Tips for President Obama on Nuclear Negotiations with Iran)

But there’s also momentum on the diplomatic front, of course, with clear interest being expressed both in Western capitals and in Tehran in reaching a compromise that avoids a potentially ruinous war. Iran analysts have noted that the Iranian leadership has put a very positive public spin on the negotiations currently under way, stressing the fact that these reflect an acceptance of Iran’s nuclear rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and therefore a victory. That has many analysts concluding that the leadership in Tehran may be preparing its own public for a nuclear compromise.

But the operative word is compromise, which is not the same thing as surrender. There’s no sign, despite the most extensive sanctions ever imposed on Iran, that Tehran will simply bow to longstanding Western demands — particularly those that go beyond the requirements of the NPT, such as insisting that Iran forego the right to enrich uranium, even for peaceful purposes. Still, Tehran is signaling that it may be willing to accept new measures that strengthen verifiable international safeguards against it developing nuclear weapons in exchange for Western powers easing sanctions. Thus the willingness of both sides to negotiate on the basis of the NPT and a principle of reciprocity.

While an outcome based on the NPT would compel Iran to display a level of transparency and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency that is has thus far refused to do, it would also require that Western powers be willing to accept an outcome that falls short of the demands by the U.S., France and Israel that Iran forego all enrichment, because even a peaceful enrichment program provides the infrastructure for a potential weapons program should Iran abandon the NPT.  Thus, as the Los Angeles Times reported last Friday,  “a consensus has gradually emerged among U.S. and other officials that Iran is unlikely to agree to a complete halt in enrichment [of uranium]. Maintaining an unconditional demand that it do so could make it impossible to reach a negotiated deal to stop the country’s nuclear program, thereby halting a military attack.”

(MORE: The Menu of Options in the Iranian Nuclear Talks)

The zero-enrichment demand is plainly a non-starter for Iran and it’s not consistent with the NPT, which has been accepted as the framework of the talks. That’s why, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Obama Administration officials are moving discreetly towards a position where relinquishing the zero-enrichment demand, with various caveats, could be discussed. “There is a growing recognition that zero-enrichment is not a feasible solution,” former U.S. non-proliferation official Mark Fitzpatrick, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Reuters, in comments published Monday.

While that might be a tough sell in U.S. domestic politics, where the hard line is reinforced by the messages Netanyahu directs at the American public, it may be the only deal on offer. The zero-enrichment demand is not, in fact, a consensus position of the P5+1 group (the Western powers plus Russia and China) which is handling the negotiations. Instead, those talks appear to be focused on an immediate confidence-building deal to end Iran’s enrichment to the 20% level, possibly shipping out Iran’s stockpile of that uranium enriched to higher levels and making it a shorter process to turn it into weapons-grade materiel. They are also reported to be considering terms on which Iran would accept the “Additional Protocols” of the NPT’s Safeguards Agreement, which would, among other things, allow impromptu visits by inspectors to a wider range of facilities. And in exchange for such steps, Iran would expect a reciprocal easing of sanctions.

Should such a compromise prove attainable in talks with Tehran — which is far from clear at this stage — it would likely take time to emerge and would be a tough sell for Obama during an election season in which he’ll faces charges of being soft on Iran. Obama will need all the help he can get to create the political space necessary to make an Iran deal. And he may just be getting some of that help from Israeli officials, current and former, who are tamping down the apocalyptic rhetoric of their political leaders.

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