Posted by on June 08, 2012 in Blog

The New York Times reported this week on the efforts of current and former Obama Administration officials to reassure Israel about its continued resolve to prevent Iran from successfully building a nuclear weapon. This type of reassurance, coming during a crucial period in international efforts to defuse the crisis, is both necessary for mediation to succeed and potentially toxic to the delicate diplomatic dance between Iran and the international community. The key for the Obama Administration will be to strike the right balance between these two needs.

The Times reports that Obama Administration officials like the Treasury Department’s David Cohen and US Ambassador to Israel Michael Shapiro have recently reassured Israeli audiences that the US remains committed to pressuring Iran through sanctions and the threat of military strikes. Ambassador Shapiro even publicly acknowledged that the US has military strategies for attacking Iranian nuclear sites, an admission rarely made in public by American officials. This type of belligerent language is a marked contrast to the diplomatic approach with which American officials are addressing the Iranian issue at home, where they’ve tried to lower tensions and give diplomacy a chance to work. In Israel, however, the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany) talks have been prejudged as a failure, or at best, an Iranian stalling tactic. Thus, a steady stream of belligerent promises from American officials is necessary to keep Israel from making provocative, unilateral moves while the international community makes a last-ditch effort to resolve the standoff peacefully.

American officials must be careful to balance these promises to the Israelis with a real willingness to negotiate with Iran. The latest round of P5+1 talks, in Baghdad, ended in stalemate after Iran refused to agree to restrict its nuclear program to only 20% enrichment of uranium. According to press reports, Iranian officials were concerned that they would not receive any relief from American and EU sanctions if they did agree. As in any negotiation, both sides must be willing to cede some ground if they hope to see the other side do the same. In that spirit, American negotiators must be willing to rescind some of the sanctions against Iran in exchange for concessions on the nuclear question. The Obama Administration must be careful not to let the hardline rhetoric it uses to satisfy audiences in Israel, or on Capitol Hill, bleed into its negotiating strategy. If a comprehensive deal is reached, it will necessarily involve the basic equation of sanctions relief for concessions on enrichment, and it seems clear that the Obama Administration understands this. Such a deal would be pilloried by Republicans and many in Israel as a despicable concession to Iran. The agreement will be portrayed as a 21st century Munich, and Obama a latter-day Neville Chamberlain. If Obama can keep these two audiences separate and achieve a historic breakthrough with Iran, he will have avoided a catastrophic war and made a major stand for peace in a war-torn region. That would the real victory.     

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