If Iran Sets the Agenda

Without proper preparation and study of the record, the U.S. runs the risk of being led by Iran rather than taking the lead.

Seven months into his presidency, still very little is known about Barack Obama's plans for dialogue with Iran. Successful negotiation strategies require careful advance planning, but as far as we know, plans have not developed much beyond the image of the outstretched U.S. hand. Nor do American policy statements or actions suggest that lessons have been learned from past European failures, or that the administration understands the tactical need to ensure conditions that will maximize prospective U.S. gains. Rather, all that seems to matter to the Americans is their expressed intention to talk.

They couldn't be more mistaken. Without proper preparation and study of the record, the U.S. runs the risk of being led by Iran rather than taking the lead.

If the United States and Iran do eventually sit down to talk, Iran will almost certainly force two issues onto the agenda: maintaining a uranium-enrichment program, and demanding a discussion of Israel's nuclear program. While it is generally expected that uranium enrichment will be part of any negotiation, reference to Israel has been mentioned only by Iran.

How will President Obama address the latter demand? His recent embrace of the nuclear disarmament agenda, with its indiscriminate standard of equality in the nuclear realm, could make him dangerously susceptible to the Iranian argument that Israel's nuclear program must be discussed as well. A closer look at the situation in the Middle East highlights just how misguided this would be.

At the most basic level, the Iranian demand for "equal treatment" is nothing more than a well-worn tactic to deflect attention from its own illegitimate military nuclear activity, which it has carried out despite being a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Since the early 1990s, whenever it was suspected of having military nuclear intentions, Iran invariably denied the charges while pointing an accusing finger at Israel instead.

This is not the first time a regional player has demanded Israel make nuclear concessions in the context of negotiations. The most prominent example occurred during the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks in the early 1990s, when Egypt tried to focus the multilateral discussion on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), with Israel's presumed nuclear capabilities topping the agenda.

The experience is instructive. Egypt set out on its campaign to force Israel to join the NPT and to discuss a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone as part of an ongoing regional dialogue on arms control, more than 10 years after the two countries signed a peace agreement. As much as Israel opposed the immediate nuclear demand, and even though the topic created considerable tension with Egypt, concomitant progress was nevertheless evident on other issues, most notably confidence- and security-building measures. The negotiating context was vastly different from the blatant rejection and virulent rhetoric that characterizes Iran's attitude toward Israel today.

Facing deep, and in Israel's eyes incomprehensible, Iranian hostility and hatred, Israel's rationale for nuclear deterrence is underscored and enhanced as compared with the ACRS talks, when Egypt tried to convince Israel that it no longer faced existential threats in the region.

By the early 1990s, Egypt had lived with Israeli nuclear deterrence for years. Therefore, dialogue was conducted in the context of a relatively stable situation - no party had anything new or existential at stake; the goal was to create greater stability in a region rife with WMDs. While success (however defined) could have been a positive development, failure did not bear severe consequences.

The situation today is far more serious, with a new and concrete threat rapidly emerging. The reality of this threat is underscored by the stances taken by regional players beyond Israel. In the face of Iran's drive to develop nuclear capability, its attempt to focus on Israel is not gaining regional ground - even with Egypt. Arab states fear what they see developing in Iran more than what they suspect Israel has. Egypt in particular is concerned that Iran could pursue a hegemonic role in the region.

From a regional perspective, the Iranian challenge must be dealt with on its own, without problematic and irrelevant linkages. Iran is not going nuclear because of Israel, and will not become less dangerous if Israel is placed in the limelight. More likely, the opposite will happen. The U.S.-Iran talks will be more challenging because unlike in the ACRS talks, failure spells an immediate and critical deterioration in regional security. While this is all the more reason for swift action, America's strong interest in reaching a deal with Iran - alongside Obama's embrace of nuclear disarmament - could obfuscate the regional picture and render the United States dangerously vulnerable to Iranian rhetoric and pressure.

Preparation is essential to avoid this pitfall. Western NPT-based norms that advocate equal treatment of all nuclear states, regardless of their significant differences, must be qualified in light of a hostile regional hegemon. The United States would be well advised to listen carefully to the voices coming from the region, even if they sometimes speak softly. Regional states understand where the real danger lies, and the urgency of dealing with Iran's regional threats - as soon as possible.

Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University. She teaches arms control at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa.