If my friend Larry Cohler-Esses, who’s the assistant editor of the Jewish Forward, is right, Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama have already made a significant and substantive breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations. The critical word above is “if.” Since I respect Larry’s work a great deal and I’d like to be an optimist about the chances of a nuclear deal, naturally I want to believe he’s right. But the devil’s advocate in me is withholding judgment until there is further proof.
The premise for all this is that Larry attended Hassan Rouhani’s eighty-minute press conference at the UN just before he departed for the airport. You’ll recall that just following this event, while he was riding to the airport, Pres. Obama called him and they had that first historic direct conversation since 1979. Larry’s description of Rouhani’s demeanor during the press conference was dramatic and worth recalling:
From the moment the white-turbaned cleric strode into the reception room at New York’s One UN Hotel for the final press conference of his recent New York visit, he projected the air of a man who knows very well what the deal on the table is. And he seems eager to take it.
The process on which he is embarking, he told reporters, will “ensure that the Iranian people can enjoy their rights, and at the same time build confidence in the international community that those rights are being used for peaceful purposes.”
“Within a very short period of time there will be a settlement of the nuclear issue,” he said. “And step-by-step [this will] pave the way for Iran’s better relations with the West, including the expansion of economic ties, the expansion of cultural ties and the expansion of relations between the Western nations and Iran.”
…Rouhani understands quite well what the basic price will be for the end to Iran’s isolation, which is what he seeks. Asked if Iran was “ready to immediately open up its [nuclear] facilities” to put to rest the world’s concerns about their use to build nuclear weapons, he replied promptly that the negotiations “have been set up to serve this purpose.”
That open acknowledgement of the goal is new. Its fulfillment, if achieved, would reverse years of resistance by Iran on this score.
In tandem with this, the United States and other Western countries will come to the Geneva understanding quite well what Iran’s price is for them. And Rouhani was not shy about stating it.
But there was also an Iranian red line:
…He seemed adamant to say that Iran’s price for an agreement is an end to the demand for “zero enrichment” of uranium.
The Israeli position, of course, which Obama has fudged on for several years, is that Iran must have no uranium enrichment at all and not even a remote semblance of a nuclear program. This demand is one of the key differences which set Iran and the west apart on the subject for years.
Now, here is where Larry has developed an interesting idea, if true. He believes that Pres. Obama’s statement that followed the phone call contains a ground-breaking concession to the Iranians:
“I have made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations,” Obama said in the statement. “So the test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.
What’s on the table now is not a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment but the terms and conditions for international monitoring of that enrichment, some significant limits on its extent and protocols for international inspections to ensure that whatever enrichment is agreed upon will not enable Iran to divert uranium for nuclear weapons or quickly “break out” into nuclear weapons production.
The key to this statement are those words in italics and how you parse them. Do they mean, as Larry believes, that Obama has conceded Iran’s right to enrich uranium and develop civilian uses for nuclear energy; or do they mean that Obama is only offering Iran “access” to nuclear energy? If he means the latter, then he may only be offering Iran access to other countries’ enriched uranium, which it might use to fuel its own nuclear reactors. If that’s the case, then Iran would not have a uranium enrichment program and would only get the relatively small amounts of fuel it needed from abroad. This is one proposal advanced in the past to bridge the positions of both sides.
I tend to be a skeptic on these matters. There has been so much water under the bridge and so much bad blood, that the idea that both sides may already be offering conciliatory concessions before talks proceed is almost unthinkable. But I do so hope Larry is right. What’s happened over the past few weeks on this score has been grand. Is it too much to hope that our dreams may be realized and forty years of hate and violence may be nearing an end?
In an e-mail, Larry reminded me that Rouhani has bet his presidency on reaching this agreement. I fully agree. Unlike Obama or Bibi or almost any other political leader of the past few decades, Rouhani has a single political goal and has staked his reputation (if not his life) on attaining it. For this reason, he deserves great admiration and respect. If he and Obama do reach a deal, I have no doubt it will be Rouhani standing before the lectern in Oslo next year winning a Nobel Prize. And he, unlike the last recipient, will deserve it.
Larry also correctly notes that if he’s right, Israel will left holding the bag. As I wrote above, its position has been crystal clear and adamant. If Obama has abandoned the Israeli position it would be a remarkable break between two allies between whom there “isn’t an inch of daylight” as Congress’ Aipac water carriers like to say. This could be the break that many of us had hoped for, but never dared believe was possible.
If this is the case, then the howling and screaming from the Israel lobby will be even more harsh than I predicted in my recent posts. Be prepared for a campaign like none you’ve ever seen before from Aipac and its minions. In fact, I’m certain the meeting with Congressional sources have already begun.
Not to mention that Israel too has the ability to launch its own independent attack on Iran. It might be a relatively ineffective one–but that never stopped the IDF before. Indeed, this passage in Alex Fishman’s latest column in Yediot chills the bones:
It is situations like this which give rise to extreme Israeli decisions. If this is the [peace] dynamic at work in Washington next week, this could be precisely the development that leads to renewing the winds of war.
But at this point, one has to wonder–if Israel decides to go to war in the midst of this peace campaign, whether Israeli decision-makers have lost their minds. It would rain down immeasurable opprobrium on Israel and cause enormous sympathy for the Iranians. Could Bibi be that stupid (don’t answer!)?
Returning to Israel’s role, Rouhani has laid down his own card directed at that country. If Iran makes a nuclear deal with the west, then it will be in a position to demand that Israel sign NPT and adhere to the same protocols all signatory nations follow. Rouhani said as much during the press conference. This certainly would be anathema to Israel.
In fact, the Obama administration has been an enabler of Israel’s rejectionist approach on the subject. Several years ago, the U.S. and other NPT nations announced a conference of Mideast signatories at which the subject was to be discussed. Obama’s representatives have torpedoed two attempts at organizing the conference out of fear Israel would be singled out. After a successful deal, the rug will be pulled out from under such machinations. There will have to be a meeting and Israel will have to publicly face the music. Eventually, Israel will either have to join NPT or be rendered even more of a pariah from the world community than it already is.