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Iran nuclear program diplomacy: Dishonor, war, or both?
By Ben Cohen/
From the brink of war, the Middle East has moved at dizzying speed to the cusp of peace.
Or so we are led to believe.
The issues at hand are Iran and Syria—and incidentally, there is good reason to feel some
relief from that fact, since it’s a timely reminder that Palestinian opposition to Israel’s
legitimacy is not the core dispute in the region, but a sideshow in the larger civil war with
Islam that has engulfed much of this neighborhood.
In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad claims, under the watchful eye of the Russians, to
be submitting vital data on its chemical arsenal, in advance of a November deadline to
disarm itself of these monstrous weapons. If the Obama Administration is looking to save
face from its shabby climb-down in the face of Syrian brutality and Russian duplicity, it
can always assert that the Syrian disarmament process is yielding positive effects in
neighboring Iran. The White House can argue that the renewed impetus for a deal on
Iran’s nuclear program is the result of a credible threat of force against Assad, Tehran’s
key regional ally. Confront these dictators and tyrants with the prospect of an American
assault, the White House might say (off the record, of course), and they will bend.
But I suspect that the White House is going to have trouble selling this line on Iran,
especially when you take its to-ing and fro-ing over Syria into account. For one thing,
betting on the ability of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, to deliver a deal is a
seriously risky business. Rouhani says that Iran does not intend to build a nuclear
weapon, but there is no solid evidence of his sincerity. Even if he is sincere, there is no
solid evidence that he can carry the rest of the Iranian regime with him, particularly given
that, as president, he is subordinate to both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
What strikes me, in fact, is that for all the gushing attention paid to Rouhani’s charm
offensive, which has been astutely timed to coincide with his arrival in New York for the
United Nations General Assembly meeting, nothing has really changed—and I’m not just
referring to Iran’s state doctrine of Holocaust denial, about which Rouhani, when asked
by NBC’s Ann Curry whether he believed that the slaughter of six million Jews was a
myth, replied, “I’m not a historian.”
For years, straight-faced Iranian diplomats have been turning up at meetings of the U.N.
Security Council to offer assurances that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes
only, and that it abides by the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Invariably,
these announcements are compromised by reports from the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) complaining of Iran’s refusal to cooperate, as well as the occasional
discovery of yet another nuclear installation whose existence the Iranians simply forgot to
Take the underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom. In
2009, the Iranians were forced to admit Fordo’s existence to the IAEA, after western
intelligence services exposed its activities—already, not a good start. Last week, a report
in the German magazine Der Spiegel that Rouhani was willing to close down Fordo in
exchange for the lifting of international sanctions was quickly denied by Ali Akbar
Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. Salehi, who served as foreign
minister under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, underlined that no such
statement was made, and that he was unaware of any agreement to shut Fordo under the
supervision of U.N. inspectors. Then, in the same breath, Salehi added, “Iran is ready to
enhance and strengthen engagement with the IAEA.”
You could put that another, more cynical way: Iran is doing what it has always done,
using diplomatic engagement to buy time for its nuclear program. After all, whether or
not Rouhani’s pledge not to build a nuclear weapon is genuine, the Iranian regime is
either very close to obtaining one, or has already done so.
Even more important than Salehi, neither Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor the IRGC have
explicitly backed Rouhani’s conciliatory noises. Khamenei has talked vaguely about
“heroic flexibility” while emphasizing the importance of the regime sticking to its “main
principles.” You could spend a lifetime trying to extract a solid meaning to these words,
and that's precisely what Khamenei wants you to do. Meanwhile, the political and
economic leviathan that is the IRGC, a military unit that has viciously repressed
opposition at home while supporting the aggression of both Assad and the Islamist terror
group Hezbollah abroad, is hardly in the mood for a historic compromise, even if it
concedes the tactical necessity of adjusting the tenor of Iranian statements so that they
sound more soothing to western ears.
Should the Obama Administration become heavily invested in a diplomatic track with
Iran, skepticism and dismay will emanate from two main sources. Firstly, the
conservative Sunni monarchies in the Arab Gulf, who dread the thought that Shi’ite Iran
might one day dangle a nuclear weapon over their heads. Secondly, Israel, which has
poured scorn on Rouhani’s words, and for whom the following points remain nonnegotiable: a complete halt to uranium enrichment, the removal of enriched uranium from
Iran, the dismantling of underground nuclear facilities, and an end to any efforts to use
plutonium to produce a nuclear bomb.
That’s why, when Khamenei speaks of Iran’s “main principles,” we should remind
ourselves of ours. The real dilemma posed by nuclear weapons is not who owns them, but
who is prepared to use them. For decades, Israel’s nuclear weapons, which don’t
officially exist, have served as a fundamental guarantor of regional peace and stability: If
that vital military edge is removed by an Iranian bomb, the Middle East will be more
perilous than it has ever been. Just as worryingly, if Israel judges that any negotiations
between the U.S. and Iran are going nowhere, Jerusalem could take the radical step of
pre-emptively striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, in order to eliminate what continues to be
a very real existential threat.
Ultimately, the stakes are highest for the United States. President Obama’s allergy to
even limited military operations that don’t involve boots on the ground may well yield a
much deadlier local conflict, in which the U.S. has little leverage.
When the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact with Adolf
Hitler, Winston Churchill told him, “You were given the choice between war and
dishonor. You chose dishonor and you shall have war.” If Obama cares about his legacy,
he must now do all he can to avoid a similarly penetrating barb that will haunt him for the
rest of his life.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and
Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post,
Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.
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