Though the negotiations are with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, it’s clearly the US view that matters since we’re the driving force behind sanctions on Iran. I don’t think most lay-persons have the chops to judge how effective the inspections/controls might be, in any case, they haven’t been finalized. That hasn’t stopped talking heads from pontificating, obfuscating or reciting talking points (thousands of centrifuges! multiple facilities! stockpiles!).
What we, as non-experts in nuclear proliferation, should develop an appreciation for is the Iranian regime’s view of its own interests and how that informs their negotiating position. Thankfully, it seems like Obama gets it, which is why the deal seems to be getting done. Obama’s interview with Thomas Friedman was illuminating in this respect. Since Israel and Netanyahu are the perennial domestic backdrop to these negotiations, Obama had to preface his comments with the requisite genuflection towards Israeli concerns:
Obviously, Israel is in a different situation, he added. “Now, what you might hear from Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, which I respect, is the notion, ‘Look, Israel is more vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of testing these propositions the way you do,’ and I completely understand that. And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security.
what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.
None of this should be news to anyone. There’s a hint in here of a formal mutual defense treaty that might be considered new. There have been rumors in the past Israel may be permitted to join NATO. That cannot happen without a resolving the Palestinian issue and I’ll let you figure out what the probability of that happening on Bibi’s watch is (hint, starts with “Zee”, ends with “Ro”).
Or maybe Netanyahu is so upset because he doesn’t want to pay the billions Iran is demanding for it’s share in oil pipelines and tankers Israel and Iran jointly built in the 1970s (along with oil shipments that haven’t been paid for).
Friedman made a lot of hay over how “personally difficult” it is for Obama to hear allegations that he “has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest”. Sure, the guy who’s ordering drone and aircraft strikes every other week is having a tough time dealing with the fact that right-wing talking heads and their cronies in Congress don’t have his back. In other news, the Easter bunny dropped off some candy for me yesterday.
What I did find interesting is the degree to which Obama put himself in Iran’s shoes and lent his voice to express Iran’s strategic interests and their very legitimate suspicions of the western powers. Now this might well be an attempt to sell the deal within Iran. But much of it is sincere:
I think that it’s important to recognize that Iran is a complicated country — just like we’re a complicated country. There is no doubt that, given the history between our two countries, that there is deep mistrust that is not going to fade away immediately. The activities that they engage in, the rhetoric, both anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, is deeply disturbing. There are deep trends in the country that are contrary to not only our own national security interests and views but those of our allies and friends in the region, and those divisions are real.
And now here’s something you won’t hear from the foreign-policy and constitutional law experts serving as US Senators of the GOP persuasion:
part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war. So part of what I’ve told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.
The Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government throughout the Iran-Iraq war. A war Saddam started. Though to be fair, Reagan’s team did also facilitate the sale of weapons to Iran, oops Iran-Contra).
Reagan continued to provide support to Saddam Hussein while he was conducting a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, and dropping mustard gas on Iranian civilians. The CIA provided recon assistance for Iraqi chemical weapon attacks, knowing full well Saddam would use illegal chemical weapons. (I know, who’d have thought Saint Reagan’s administration capable of such perfidy).
Under Reagan, the US exercised a veto to prevent the Security Council from adopting the following resolution “members are profoundly concerned by the unanimous conclusion of the specialists that chemical weapons on many occasions have been used by Iraqi forces against Iranian troops, and the members of the Council strongly condemn this continued use of chemical weapons in clear violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibits the use in war of chemical weapons.”
The US Navy protected Iraqi shipping, we provided laser-guided bombs to Saddam. And then as if the cake didn’t have enough icing, a US naval ship shot down Iran Air 655 from within Iranian territorial waters, killing 290 civilians, including 66 children. Which may be why they like saying “Death to America”. Imagine what we’d be chanting if the Iranian navy managed to kill 66 American children.
And it wasn’t just us, virtually every major Western power supplied Iraq with weapons and supported Saddam.
And finally as exhibit 5,826 in Iran’s “You can’t trust the West” file, we have a letter from 47 Republican Senators reminding them some American politicians are perfectly willing to renege on American promises. This is the same crew of “conservatives” who brought the US to the brink of default on its full faith and credit debt.
Obama gets why so many Iranians, of all political persuasions, might view nuclear weapons capability as the only sure-fire way to ensure their country doesn’t become road-kill in the next episode in our continuing mission to sprinkle freedom and democracy in their neck of the woods. Which is why he says:
what we know is that this has become a matter of pride and nationalism for Iran. Even those who we consider moderates and reformers are supportive of some nuclear program inside of Iran, and given that they will not capitulate completely, given that they can’t meet the threshold that Prime Minister Netanyahu sets forth, there are no Iranian leaders who will do that. And given the fact that this is a country that withstood an eight-year war and a million people dead, they’ve shown themselves willing, I think, to endure hardship when they considered a point of national pride or, in some cases, national survival.
My own read is that the Iranians likely want to develop their nuclear capability to the point where they can put together a bomb in relatively short order if they needed to. I would compare their position to Japan’s towards nuclear weapons.
Senior Iranian clerics (including Khamenei) have deep moral objections to nuclear weapons which they have voiced repeatedly. When faced with an existential threat, these qualms are likely to be pushed aside (they did develop a chemical weapons program int he end). But they likely understand that threshold capability could assuage their moral qualms while serving as an effective deterrent. They’ve had a traumatic experience where the self-proclaimed defenders of the freedom and goodness actively assisted a military dictator massacre Iranian and Kurdish civilians (who were their allies) by the tens of thousands, with weapons deemed illegal under International law. Did someone say vicious “proxy war”?
So Obama’s quite right to suggest that some risks need to be taken to help the Iranians overcome their deep distrust:
We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” the president said. “You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.
For this type of engagement to work though, the inmates need to be kept from burning down the asylum while pretending to run it. Or as the Vulcan in the White House put it:
“The bottom line,” he added, “is that we’re going to have serious debates, serious disagreements, and I welcome those because that’s how our democracy is supposed to work, and in today’s international environment, whatever arguments we have here, other people are hearing and reading about it. It’s not a secret that the Republicans may feel more affinity with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s views of the Iran issue than they do with mine. But [we need to be] keeping that within some formal boundaries, so that the executive branch, when it goes overseas, when it’s communicating with foreign leaders, is understood to be speaking on behalf of the United States of America, not a divided United States of America, making sure that whether that president is a Democrat or a Republican that once the debates have been had here, that he or she is the spokesperson on behalf of U.S. foreign policy. And that’s clear to every leader around the world. That’s important because without that, what you start getting is multiple foreign policies, confusion among foreign powers as to who speaks for who, and that ends up being a very dangerous — circumstances that could be exploited by our enemies and could deeply disturb our friends.”