U.S. optimism over nuclear deal with Iran is premature
Netanyahu will want to ramp up the 'Iranian threat' ahead of Israeli elections, while the Gulf states fear Tehran will refocus energies into undermining them if a deal is reached.
It would be wonderful if the upbeat tone of the reports coming from both the United States and Iran regarding the hopeful prognosis of the May 23 Baghdad talks with the P5+1 were based on anything more stable than bickering between former Israeli security chiefs and current leaders and cryptic utterances of mullahs and officials in Tehran. Certainly, Western diplomats can take heart in the fact that there is no consensus within the Israeli defense establishment regarding a preemptive strike and that the Iranians seem to be open to negotiations, but there is nothing new about that.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak made it quite clear at a briefing to foreign reporters in Jerusalem on Monday that he was unfazed by the recent criticism of his and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of the Iranian issue, saying that "parts of the world, including some politically motivated Israeli figures, prefer to bury their heads in the sand." Barak was never one to brook opposition, not even of the most senior defense experts, as he sees himself as the only real expert. Netanyahu is now observing a week's silence during the Shiva mourning for his father, but you can be sure that he was not swayed either.
Whether or not Iran's negotiators will prove more forthcoming is still to be seen in three weeks, but the optimism in Washington is premature and more than anything, it resembles their excitement at the stillborn nuclear agreement with North Korea less than three months ago.
Here are the three main obstacles still standing in the path of a deal:
Domestic Politics - The political timing for achieving a treaty that would limit nuclear development and uranium enrichment by Iran couldn't be worse. Iran is rapidly undergoing a realignment of its power structure as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enters the last year of his presidency and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is busy shoring up his support structure, perpetuating the control of his conservative allies and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Any concessions to the West on the nuclear program, a source of influence for the hardliners, will have to be balanced with additional powers, from whom Khamenei may be reluctant to depart. His negotiating team will have a very short rein - certainly not one that will enable them to satisfy U.S. President Barack Obama's representatives. Obama, facing his own presidential election will find it very hard to stand up to Republican (and internal Democrat) criticism, if he agrees to anything less than a total Iranian climb-down from enrichment.
As far as Israeli domestic politics are concerned, Netanyahu will have a clear interest in ramping up the Iranian threat in the months preceding the elections, now most likely to take place in September. The alternative to this is having a campaign that will focus on the Israeli middle class's dissatisfaction with its economic situation. Shaul Mofaz, in his first speech as opposition leader, lambasted the government's "despicable propaganda campaign aimed at deflecting and preventing the public debate on the question of our social identity." To maintain his current lead in the polls, Netanyahu will need to safeguard the crisis-atmosphere over Iran.
Gulf States – Netanyahu is not the only one concerned that an American deal with Iran could harm his prospects of power. The leaders of the Sunni Gulf states are also very aware that even if Iran scales back its nuclear development, the regime in Tehran will still stick to its strategy of undermining them. It will continue encouraging the Shiite communities in their countries to follow the Bahraini model and pursue an aggressive policy regarding border disputes. As I wrote here on Monday, the heightened tension between the UAE and Iran over three tiny islands near the Straits of Hormuz is only an outward sign of the increasing anxiousness of the Sunni kings and emirs from a region in which Iranian influence continues to extend. Iran doesn't need uranium to do that, but since the West is currently engaging Iran only on its nuclear program, not on human rights or regional hegemony, Iran's neighbors have a clear stake in scuppering the Baghdad talks.
Syria – It may be off the world's headlines for now, but the Annan peace plan is a total failure and dozens of civilians are still being massacred throughout Syria daily. While it could still go on for months, even years, the Syrian uprising is not going away and could blow up again at any moment, forcing some degree of intervention by regional and international powers. If Bashar Assad continues to hold on for the time being in Damascus, it will be easier for the Iranians to deal with the West, but if his downfall suddenly seems imminent, it is almost impossible to see how Iran could simultaneously deal with a double-blow to its prestige and influence.
An implosion of the Assad regime would almost certainly entail a hardening of Iran's negotiating positions.