On Eve of Iran Nuclear Talks, International Coalition Struggles to Present Unified Front

No side can expect to take away from the negotiations all of the things it sought at the beginning.

Is it important? New? Is it diplomacy? Politics? Is Israel standing its ground or showing flexibility?

It's not surprising that, based on media reports here and there, many are wondering what exactly is going on within the Iranian-American-Israeli triangle ahead of the opening of the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany's talks with Tehran – talks which have a scheduled time (this Friday and Saturday) but as yet have no scheduled location.

The emerging conclusion is that what is happening is not so new, but is quite important. Essentially, indirect negotiations are taking place between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the one hand, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the other. In the absence of a direct channel of dialogue (as far as is known, and perhaps not all is known), the Israeli side's negotiator is U.S. President Barack Obama.

Iran students praying, Isfahan nuclear plant - AFP

The declared American position is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, less obstinate than the French-German position but more than the Russian-Chinese position. For Nikolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel it is easier to be aggressive than it is for Obama – the confrontation, if it happens, will occur well after or before their elections.

Obama is bound by his own commitment to prevent Iran's military nuclearization, backed by Israel's threats. He is conducting negotiations with an ultimatum lingering in the background. This complex method can be termed ultimatum/negotiations, or in the style of the election slogans of Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, "Obama to Iran: Cooperate or pay the price." Cooperate or risk attack, because if you don't accept our conditions within a reasonable amount of time, we will use – or let Israel use – military force.

Alongside the great competition with Iran, there is another smaller competition, between the Washington Post and the New York Times. David Ignatius of the Post is the son of Paul Ignatius, who was a senior official at the Pentagon – he served as the Secretary of the Navy – in Lyndon Johnson's Democratic administration. Ignatius the son has good sources in the Pentagon and in Obama's Democratic administration.

Some two months ago, following a briefing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Ignatius reported that Panetta is concerned that Israel will attack Iran in "April, May or June." April is already here and the emphasis now is on talks, and Ignatius struck again over the weekend in a report on the message sent by Obama to Khamenei. The Times was less enthusiastic about the story and put the official reaction to it near the bottom of their report about it on Sunday morning.

It seems the New Yorkers are right. It's interesting, but not revolutionary, that Obama asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pass along a message to Khamenei on his visit to Tehran. Not because Erdogan is no longer close friends with the Iranians (their friendship has gone downhill since 2010, when Erdogan agreed to host an anti-missile radar system on his territory, and later when he positioned himself on the forefront of the opposition to Bashar Assad's regime in Syria, which is close to Khamenei), but because the content of the secret message is identical to the stated policy of the government, according to Obama and his officials. Last week, for example, the Americans' willingness to allow a "peaceful nuclear program" – as opposed to a military program - in Iran was clear from Hillary Clinton's interviews.

Ahead of last weekend, between Clinton's interviews, Ignatius' column and the Times article, a piece of analysis published by Dennis Ross was published. Until a few months ago, Ross managed the Iranian file for Obama and Clinton. Ross is not only knowledgeable regarding the administration's negotiating positions, he helped formulate them during previous rounds which did not result in productive bilateral talks.

In a piece published by the Washington Institute, Ross detailed an identical list of conditions, reservations and difficulties to the one presented by Obama, and in Ehud Barak's announcements: closing the facility at Fordo, halting enrichment of over five percent, limiting the number of centrifuges and lower-level enriched uranium to be left inside Iran, tight international supervision and the conclusion of an agreement within a few months, lest the negotiations period be exploited to achieve irreversible military progress.

These demands also appear in Barak's statements, which deny that Israel is willing to show flexibility. This, in his eyes, could be considered giving in to Iranian pressure and demands by Russia and China (without whose approval, the UN Security Council will not give its approval to the agreement).

But this is just an opening position, and as such it has two weaknesses. First, no side can expect to take away from the negotiations all of the things it sought at the beginning. The Americans and their allies will need to give up on a quarter, or maybe half, of their wishes – in terms of the level of enrichment, the number of kilograms or centrifuges, in the extent of penetration into Iranian sovereignty and in the period of time granted to the negotiations. All of this is happening on the eve of elections, with Obama preventing Israel from acting until the negotiations are exhausted.

The Americans have other demands as well, regional demands, which are not directly connected to the nuclear issue (in addition to disconnecting relations with the terrorist groups that could acquire and use nuclear weapons), but they only highlight the second weakness in their negotiating position: the Iranians will present their own demands.

For example, they could restate the old demand to apply equal standards to Israel's nuclear project. Obama is not authorized to reject such a demand out of hand, while his superpower partners are not committed to the understandings reached between Richard Nixon and his successors with Golda Meir and her successors. The Iranian demand will be passed along, without Erdogan's services, to Netanyahu.

In such a case, the ball will move from Iran's to Israel's court - if the Iranian nuclear project is perceived as such an existential threat by Israel, it should be willing to pay a high price for its removal. Netanyahu and Barak will have to reveal their positions: what is the value of closing Fordo, Nantanz and Isfahan in comparison to the future of Dimona. As such, Obama's ultimatum/negotiations are directed at more than one capital city, more than one government, in the Middle East.