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In the Trenches

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Mind the Gap on Iran:  A Time to Reassure Allies and Rebuild Trust
Israel appears to have come up with the short end of the stick in the just-announced Iran deal.
 
While President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are going to great lengths to say that Israel ought to feel safer, at least for the life of the six-month agreement, Israel’s top leaders clearly don’t agree.
 
In fact, official American and Israeli views couldn’t be further apart right now.
 
Washington believes that while the deal entails risks, it offers the first chance in years to move Iran in a more constructive and peaceful direction. The administration further challenges its critics to suggest an alternative path that would not lead inevitably to war.
 
Jerusalem, on the other hand, asserts this accord is an error of historic dimensions, likely to turn into a permanent arrangement that enshrines Iran’s right to enrich uranium and keeps intact the $100 billion-plus nuclear architecture that Tehran has been steadily constructing.
 
Obviously, only time will tell which side is closer to the truth.
 
Meanwhile, despite repeated American claims of unprecedented cooperation on the Iran issue between Washington and Jerusalem, it is evident there were limits.
 
Israel must now take into account that the U.S. held backchannel talks with the Iranians over many months, and barely, if at all, kept it in the loop as those talks proceeded. 
 
It’s also not clear how much the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, and other American allies were in the know, or, for that matter, our closest European partners.
 
Moreover, Israel – and the Gulf nations – must grapple with the fact that their oft-expressed concerns about the direction of the Geneva-based negotiations went largely unheeded, despite their belief that the U.S. considered them vital partners whose perspective was worth taking into account.
 
Having effectively been told to keep quiet and trust Washington, they must now feel quite abandoned. 
 
Former senior State Department official Nicholas Burns may have captured this realpolitik view best in the New York Times (Nov. 23), saying: “[I]t’s in the American national interest to try to make this negotiation work. If it’s not in the Israeli interest or Saudi interest, so be it.” 
 
Yet, how can Israel – and the Gulf nations – roll over and play dead when what happens affects them far more than any of the P5+1 nations?
 
After all, it is Israel that has been the most frequent target of Iran’s anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic venom. It is Israel whose very existence has been questioned by Iran’s current leaders. It is Israel that has felt the long arm of Iran through Iranian-backed Hezbollah. And it is Israel that Iran seeks to wipe off the world map.
 
Yet those who wish the Israeli prime minister to stop speaking up conveniently distort his government’s position.
 
First, had it not been for Israel’s perseverance, there might not have been the global attention to Iran’s nuclear program we see today. 
 
Second, if Iran was on the ropes because of crippling sanctions, this was in no small measure because Israel pressed for escalating measures, and called especially for targeting specific sectors of the Iranian economy. These efforts were, shall we say, not always universally popular in some P5+1 countries.
 
Third, Israel has not called for war against Iran. Those who suggest otherwise are reframing the Israeli position to serve their own interests. 
 
Rather, Israel has consistently said that, precisely to stop Iran’s nuclear program without a military strike, two elements are essential – tough sanctions and a credible threat of the use of force. As it watches the sanctions being somewhat relaxed post-Geneva, that remains Israel’s position, while, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, the credible threat of force erodes.
 
Israel’s position recalls Winston Churchill’s decades earlier.  The British leader wrote: “One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.”
 
In other words, Churchill believed the Nazis only understood strength. Yet, in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939, when he was out of power, they encountered eagerness, at times bordering on desperation, for a deal. Netanyahu doubtless views the Iranian regime similarly – it will only respond to a determinedly stiff spine, not a bout of bonhomie and acts of goodwill as advance payment from its adversaries.
 
Meanwhile, what lessons do the Saudis and other Gulf nations draw from the latest developments? 
 
Their options seem quite stark. 
 
They could band together in a secret alliance of convenience with Israel, and see where that gets them against their most despised enemy, Iran. Or they could use their wealth to go nuclear by turning to, say, Pakistan, triggering precisely the arms race that everyone fears in the Middle East. Or they could try to cut their own deal with Iran, improbable as that may seem. Or they could seek to diversify their foreign policy, relying less on the U.S. and more on others, including—gulp!—Russia and China. Or they could opt to place their full trust in Washington, but that seems increasingly difficult for them to do. After all, the U.S. handling of Egypt and Syria hasn’t exactly heightened the confidence of Gulf nations in America’s grasp of regional issues and policy direction.
 
So maybe we are at the proverbial fork in the road, and perhaps Ambassador Burns captured it best: America has its own national interest. If it doesn’t converge with nations we’ve called allies till now, even on issues of existential importance to them, so be it.
 

For many, though, it would be a tough pill to swallow. That’s why I hope Washington will use the coming days and weeks to reaffirm that Jerusalem and our Gulf friends, and the essential quality of American alliances, do continue to matter – and remain a fundamental tenet of America’s national interest.

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