On Netanyahu, US, and Iran negotiations

One of the reasons for this Blog is to edit responses to student postings in online courses and repost them here. I read a comment by a student about Netanyahu’s speech about Iran; the exigencies of course grading and spring break are such that I did not read the student post until a few days after the recent Israeli election. This is edited from my comments.

I am not sure how important Netanyahu’s statement on Iran was for his reelection, although obviously the success or failure of attempts to "spin" the talk to his credit or detriment in Israeli politics played a role. Speaker Boehner is now going to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu, so the ramifications both for Israeli and US politics will continue.

Netanyahu said that he felt it was appropriate to address the Congress and the US Public on this matter of vital security to Israel. I do not know whether it was "right" to speak to Congress although I do not think there was any forum available to him that would have had the same impact. It is hard to imagine a politician like Netanyahu politely turning down an opportunity to speak to the US Congress!

What about US Iran policy?

My feeling is that the likelihood of an agreement that we in the US would consider to be a "good deal" is and always was low, despite presidential enthusiasm. I believe that we should be worried about making an agreement about nuclear power with Iran that focuses on Iran’s nuclear capacity without also focusing on the policies that contextualize it and their record on such things as human rights and exporting and supporting violence.

It’s hard for me to see Iranian nuclear development outside the context of Iranian attempts since 1979 (the Iranian Revolution) and especially in the last decades, to exercise and project their regional power. Part of this is projecting nuclear-weapon readiness.

I do not know if they needed Saddam Hussein to illustrate the power of ambiguity– but consider Saddam’s policy about weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Saddam successfully projected power and fear by obfuscating on weapons of mass destruction. Whatever you might think about whether the US and others were mistaken about WMD in the early 21st century, Saddam did not take steps to make it crystal clear that he had destroyed any WMD he might have had, and no longer was producing them. Instead, he protected his sovereignty, and took steps that made it difficult for inspectors. In my humble opinion, this was part of his policy of instilling fear in his populace—serving him far better than openness. After all, if WMD were clearly found or not found, either way, would have been worse for him—losing credibility or losing fear. He paid for this by having his country invaded and eventually his countrymen execute him.

Israel also has a policy of "nuclear ambiguity"–most experts assume that Israel has had nuclear weapons since the 1960s but neither confirms nor denies — and presumably this is a very successful part of its deterrence.

To return to Iran: I cannot see Iran backtracking in any public way that might imply that they were "losing" to the Americans or that they lacked the ability to become a nuclear-armed state in the very near future. The proposed 10-year limit is part of this plan, so are limitations on what they will give up in order to remove sanctions.

But for me the far greater problem is that Iran is supporting violence in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, and supporting Hizbullah and Hamas, mistreating its population, carrying out gruesome public executions, and carrying on with its anti-American rhetoric. I do not see progress in promoting narrow American national interests in any of these areas, with the possible exception of such narrow considerations as Iranian support for Iraqi military fighting the Islamic State–but Shi’a-Sunni strife is part of the reason that the Iraqi military is not as effective as needed, and the Iranians do not seem to have any interest in an effective Iraqi military for its own sake. I do not think the situation in Syria would be better if Bashar al-Asad simply went into exile, nor do I think the Iranians are the only ones supporting him, but their support for the Ba’th regime enabled it to commit atrocities.

Negotiations: I am attracted to Obama’s implication that negotiation is good. But I am not convinced this is true in the long run. President Obama himself has discounted the likelihood of some of the most important potential results of negotiating with Iran—for example Israel’s hope that they will stop threatening Israel and for that matter, hopes that they will change their public stance about the US—and even more important, that they will stop exporting terror and stop destabilizing governments (such as the Yemeni government that was friendly to the US).

In the Israeli sphere, negotiations in 2014 had the appearance of movement, and the continuation of negotiations led to a period of quiet. But all hell broke out in Gaza when the negotiations failed as they were probably destined to from the start. It’s not at all clear to me that negotiations in the Middle East that have no hope of actual success do anything more than allow more time for frustration to build up. I’m not convinced this is true either, but I am convinced that blind assumption that negotiating is good is no better than most other blind assumptions and might be a lot more dangerous in this case. I am not a prophet: I do not know what will result when and if current negotiations between the US and Iran fail, but I am not particularly hopeful that the negotiating process, regardless of its results, will succeed in creating a safer world.

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