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Israel Is Going About Iran All Wrong

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Very little of what happened in the second round of nuclear talks between the world powers and Iran in Geneva this weekend should surprise. The sequence of events was almost entirely known in advance.

There were two clear assumptions on the eve of the talks’ resumption: That Rohani was elected to get the Iranian economy back on track by removing the pressure of sanctions at the smallest possible cost to the national nuclear project, and that the Obama administration has no interest in being dragged into a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Both parties have a vested interest in reaching a compromise, even if temporary, to allow each of them to uphold their original goals.

Robert Einhorn, a senior member of the United States negotiating team, accurately predicted the developments in a recent interview with Haaretz. He said that an effort would be made to formulate an interim arrangement by the end of this year, in which Iran would stop enriching uranium to the high level of 20% in exchange for a slight easing of the sanctions. During the interim period, he said, there would be discussions on a permanent settlement, though the chances of signing such an agreement are not clear. The Americans are somewhat more optimistic, he said, while the Europeans are skeptical.

Israel has reason to be suspicious. Washington's eagerness to cut a deal and the intelligence displayed by the Iranians during the negotiations, give the impression that the interim agreement being drawn up does not bode well for Israel. Based on leaks coming from Geneva, the Americans and Europeans (France being the only exception) are prepared to consider considerable relief from sanctions now, not just a limited release of frozen Iranian assets and the suspension of marginal sanctions, as Israel had been told. Nor does the proposed interim arrangement roll back anything with regard to Iran’s enrichment capability, leaving Iran theoretically within a few months of the production of a bomb, should they decide to do so.

Still, it seems that the blatant attack by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the United States (“it’s a bad agreement,” he said on Friday, which spurred a soothing nighttime call from President Barack Obama) came a little too early. Netanyahu was both referring to an interim agreement that hadn’t even been signed and brandishing an unloaded gun. While the Israeli threat to attack Iran, combined with the sanctions, largely contributed to bringing Tehran back to the negotiating table, now that the entire international community supports a compromise with Iran an Israeli military action would come at the price of extreme isolation.

Diplomacy now seems like the only game in town. After their last-minute success at avoiding an attack on Syria, the Americans apparently believe they can reach a similar achievement on the Iranian track. The possibility of Israeli military action against Iran may only come up again next spring, if attempts to reach a final agreement fail. Moreover, many experts say that Iran has made enough progress on its nuclear project that no significant damage would result from an Israeli attack, unless other countries participate.

If Netanyahu still has any options for pressuring the Americans, they lie in two indirect paths. One is through Congress, by prodding the bipartisan base of support for Israel into making life difficult for the administration, and the second is via the Palestinian channel, where the prime minister can thwart the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to achieve progress in the bilateral talks, if Washington ignores Israel’s demands in the Iranian context.

But, in both of the cases, it is difficult to assess the strength of Israel’s bargaining position. Washington’s reluctance to pursue military action in Iran is broad and is shared by many in both major American political parties. As for the Palestinian issue, leaving aside Kerry’s awkward and superfluous threat about the outbreak of a third intifada, it is doubtful whether prolonged stagnation and diplomatic inaction serve Israel in the long run.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in GenevaCredit: AP

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