State Department

Everyone Is Posturing on Iran (and Everyone Wants a Deal)

The Israelis, French, Americans and Iranians have to save face, but reports of their dissension are greatly exaggerated. By Michael Hirsh

Benjamin Netanyahu is posturing on Iran. The Israeli prime minister is fulminating over a prospective nuclear deal and appears to be threatening to scuttle the already-stumbling talks with the Palestinians if Secretary of State John Kerry agrees to ease sanctions on Iran. Ever since he first met then-candidate Barack Obama in mid-2008, Netanyahu has lumped the Iran and Palestinian issues together and insisted they be solved sequentially—Iran first, then peace and statehood. "If Iran became nuclear it would mean the victory of the militants in Hamas and Hezbollah and undercut the moderates," Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's then-national security advisor, explained to me then. So Netanyahu now has an excuse to put off the issue of Palestinian statehood yet again, even though doing so might be shooting himself in the foot, demographically speaking. (A one-state solution, however satisfying to hawks, still turns Israel into a Middle East version of an apartheid state.)

And whatever threats Netanyahu might make about Israeli military action against Iran, he knows that's not going to happen in the middle of these negotiations. Nor is it likely to any time soon: the Israeli PM's martial bluster can't hide the fact that most of Israel's defense/intelligence apparatus is resisting a strike—because an attack could, in the end achieve the precise opposite of what Israel needs. It might damage Iran's nuclear facilities only partially, marginalize the moderates in Tehran, and send Iran racing at an even greater rate toward a bomb, many Israeli officials fear.

The French, too, are posturing on Iran. Paris gets piqued when it's not fully consulted on major Middle East issues, especially since it has taken a muscular lead in addressing recent flashpoints from Libya to Mali. French President Francois Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, were unhappy about America's apparent eagerness to spearhead a deal with Tehran, following Obama's unexpected and embarrassing reversal over attacking Syria just a day after Hollande had supported U.S. action. The French led previous efforts to negotiate suspension of enrichment with Tehran going back to 2003—long before Washington joined the process—so U.S. efforts to dictate policy today in both Syria and Iran are seen as an affront to restored Gallic pride. And the French relish their newfound influence in the region; they knew they could curry favor with the Saudis and their new buddies, the Israelis, as well as anti-Iran Gulf states, by playing the hard guys.

Yet Kerry, in remarks made in Abu Dhabi on Monday, said the differences between the American and French positions were exaggerated, and a French official agreed that for the most part the two countries were still presenting a "united front." "[We were] unified on Saturday when we presented a proposal to the Iranians," Kerry said, "and the French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal. There was unity, but Iran couldn't take it at that particular on moment, they weren't able to accept that particular thing.''

(Related: Only Diplomacy, Not Force, Will Prevent Nuclear-Armed Iran)

The Iranians are posturing, too. No matter how badly the sanctions are biting, New President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are on a very short leash when it comes to concessions they can make, a point punctuated by the latest mutterings of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other hardline officials and Rouhani's defensive insistence on Iran's "right" to uranium enrichment. Khamenei could yank that leash summarily if Rouhani and Zarif give up too much at once, including the ongoing construction of the heavy-water Arak reactor, for a gradual easing of sanctions that does not quickly deliver a boost to Iran's tottering economy.

So despite some real issues at stake, the failure to reach agreement over the weekend in Geneva was really about the fact that there were just too many political sensitivities at stake for the quick resolution of a ten-year-old conflict. The Americans need time to appease their most nervous allies in the region, especially the Israelis; the French need to satisfy their pride; and the Iranian negotiators need to assuage the Islamist militants at home who are snarling at their backs. "After ten years, we can wait another ten days," said one diplomat, referring to the scheduled resumption of talks on Nov. 20.

Nonetheless, the signs are that all sides badly want this deal, which will likely entail a six-month freeze of Iran's enrichment to weapons-grade uranium in exchange for partial easing of sanctions, and that it will probably happen in the coming months, as Kerry boldly suggested. Reports Monday suggested that a new deal with U.N. inspectors could open Arak to monitoring, which might be enough to paper over the differences on that problem.

The much bigger issue is what will come after a temporary deal is struck.