Analysis

Netanyahu Braces for a Warming of Ties Between Trump and Tehran

As the U.S. inches toward negotiations with Iran, Netanyahu forgoes his title of 'Mr. Iran' and discusses cameras at polling stations instead

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017.
\ Kevin Lamarque/ REUTERS

Benjamin Netanyahu’s snap visit to Britain over the weekend could be succinctly summarized by the words of a classic Israeli song, written by the late playwright Hanoch Levin: London was not waiting for him. At the height of a political crisis in the kingdom, on a day when no less than the host’s own brother resigned from his cabinet, it’s a wonder that 10 Downing Street found 30 minutes to meet with the unexpected visitor from Israel.

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However, meeting Boris Johnson was apparently not the main impetus for the rushed visit. According to Netanyahu, he took off because he wanted a one-on-one meeting in order to continue a conversation about Iran he had begun a day earlier with U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. This mysterious claim, according to which Netanyahu just had to rush over to a third country in order to meet someone more junior from a closely allied government, only became more mysterious when it turned out that the meeting, supposedly the main purpose of the visit, did not include any photo-op or comments to the press.

What’s more, Netanyahu – who sees the campaign against Iran’s nuclear program as his flagship issue – persisted, from the moment he left until he returned, in talking about something completely different: the campaign to install cameras in polling stations and the claim that someone, unnamed, was trying to steal the election from him.

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This enigmatic behavior around the meeting with Esper became somewhat clearer the next day when Esper said at an event in London that Iran was inching towards the possibility of negotiating with the U.S. In other words, after President Donald Trump said he was leaving the door open for a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and that the problem could be resolved “in 24 hours,” the defense secretary was admitting that this possibility was getting closer. This quote, along with reports of progress in efforts to mediate and bring about such a meeting, which could take place close to the UN General Assembly meeting in two weeks, concern Netanyahu, who arrived in London with another message: “This is not the time to negotiate with Iran but to exert more pressure on it.”

Since Esper continued promoting the strategy of negotiations after his meeting with Netanyahu, one could perhaps conclude that Netanyahu’s London voyage did not bear much fruit. Netanyahu’s despair was not lifted. No encouraging words were said in public about the “defense pact” he wishes to sign with the U.S., another reason speculated for his sudden trip. And thus, “Mr. Iran” preferred to focus the public conversation on the cameras, rather than on his visit. This demagogic drama, which was supposed to scare voters into coming to vote while sowing mistrust in the entire system, succeeded brilliantly. The opposition, brimming with generals, could probably have presented an alternative, or made some snide comments on the topic of Iran, but instead devoted all its time to the latest spin.

After a long period of tension between the U.S. and Iran, prompted by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear accord and increase sanctions, Netanyahu must now prepare for the increasingly likely possibility that we soon see Trump shaking Rohani’s hand ahead of a second version of the nuclear accord. This is a horror scenario Netanyahu can only pray does not happen before the election. All this is happening as Iran intensifies its threats. Thus, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, reiterated Rohani’s vow that Iran would soon start using faster and more advanced centrifuges.

In this complicated bind, in which Netanyahu is caught between his opposition to talks and a reality determined by his political friend, the prime minister has no choice but to present Trump as a preferred mediator. Suddenly, Netanyahu, who claims that this is not the time to negotiate with Iran, is dropping hints that he relies on his friend to conduct such talks better than his predecessor. In a briefing with correspondents in London, Netanyahu admitted that there is a possibility that such discussions would take place, saying that he “obviously does not tell the U.S. president whom to meet and when,” hastening to add that he’s sure Trump would bring to the talks “a tougher and more sober approach than the one that prevailed previously.”

In the same breath in which he expressed his complete confidence in talks led by Trump, Netanyahu repeated his condemnation of French President Emmanuel Macron who is working to promote such talks. “I thought that Macron’s invitation to [Iran’s foreign minister] Zarif on the day Iran was planning attacks on us [referring to an invitation to the G-7 summit] is patently unseemly, and I told him so. More pressure on Iran is required.” It was as if Macron was serving as a means for a proxy war against the idea, without directly assailing Trump.

Furthermore, in his words to Johnson, Netanyahu also had to relate to the reality unfolding before his eyes. “What I told Boris Johnson was that this was the time to put pressure on Iran, and that if it comes to negotiations, these should be comprehensive and include a cessation of the development of ballistic missiles, predicating the entire agreement on Iran stopping its aggression around the world.” It’s true that Netanyahu previously danced around his “non-opposition” to a theoretical new accord, but the conditions he is setting are particularly unrealistic. Thus, for example, Netanyahu is hoping that if the U.S. seeks a new accord it will not retract the 12-point speech given by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which he laid out tough conditions for Tehran. It’s hard to imagine such an accord taking shape. In any case, it’s ironic to describe a scenario in which we may see Netanyahu in the not-too-distant future praising a new accord with Iran. Perhaps even in Congress, who knows?