Are we serious about talking with Tehran?

For the life of me, I can't figure out what the Obama administration is thinking about Iran. And I can't tell if the administration is more confused than I am. Let me explain.

The first part of the puzzle was a column by the Washington Post's David Ignatius last week, which reported that "President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claims that his nation 'will never pursue nuclear weapons.'" Ignatius' story was obviously based on testimony from administration insiders, and the leaks were probably intended to send the message that diplomacy was working and that military force wasn't needed. In a similar vein, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on April 3 that "it's our very strong belief, as President Obama conveyed to the Israelis, that it is not in anyone's interest for them to take unilateral action. It is in everyone's interest for us to seriously pursue at this time the diplomatic path" (my emphasis).

So far, so good. But then came Sunday's New York Times story supposedly laying out the P5+1 negotiating position. Like the Ignatius story, it was based on leaks (that is, on conversations with unnamed "senior U.S. officials"). It reported that the U.S. and its allies will insist that Iran shut down and eventually dismantle its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, as part of supposed deal intended to keep Iran as far away from a bomb as possible. The story quotes an unnamed official saying that the "urgent priority" is to get Iran to give up its supply of 20 percent enriched uranium, because it could be further enriched to weapons grade (>90 percent) relatively quickly. But they also quote NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor saying "Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions."

But here's why I'm confused. I can see why the P5 +1 would like Iran to agree to these demands, just as I'd like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to each write me billion dollar checks. But I don't expect either of them to do this, yet the U.S and its allies seem to think this deal-breaking demand is a reasonable opening bid. In fact, their position sounds like a complete non-starter to me, and seems more likely to derail negotiations than advance them.

Remember: Iran has invested millions to build a protected underground enrichment facility, which is what any sensible government might do it it were constantly being threatened with a preventive strike. It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for them to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it. Have you seen much evidence that the highly nationalistic Iranians would accept this sort of humiliation? Moreover, if Iran's main goal is not to have a nuclear weapon, but rather to have the capacity to get one quickly if it ever needed it, then it is unlikely to accede to our demands about its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in the absence of some very big inducements.

The Times' story quotes a U.S. official saying "We have no idea how the Iranians will react... We probably won't know after the first meeting." In fact, the initial response from Tehran was both prompt and predictable. Guess what? They rejected it.

So here's why I'm puzzled. If you're the Obama administration, the last thing you want is a war. Certainly not before November, and maybe not ever. (It's bad enough that sanctions on Iran are adding about 25 cents to the price of gallon of gas.) But if that's the case, then the obvious course of action is to get the diplomatic track rolling and make a genuine effort to see if an acceptable deal can be had. So why start with an opening demand that Iran was virtually certain to reject? All that does is confirm Iranian suspicions that the United States and its allies aren't really interested in a negotiated settlement and give war hawks another reason to demand the use of force. If the U.S. and its allies soften their position on Fordow, however, the GOP will accuse Obama of appeasement and the war hawks at home and abroad will clamor that time is running out and that force is the only option.

It is possible, I suppose, that there's something more subtle going on here. Maybe the real P5+1 position will be a bit more reasonable, and these news stories will be forgotten. Maybe Iran's leaders are feeling the heat, and will be more forthcoming than I suspect. Maybe there's a tacit U.S.-Israeli deal reflected here, where they've agree not to launch a war and we've agreed to put forward a very tough line that leaves options open for the future. Maybe the demand to close Fordow is just a bargaining chip, and we will in fact get a deal on the 20 percent enriched uranium.

A lot of maybes. But from where I sit today, our approach looks like a good way to sabotage the negotiations before they start. What good does that do anyone?


Stephen M. Walt

Staying up to date on Israel-Palestine

I haven't commented on Peter Beinart's new book The Crisis of Zionism for the simple reason that I haven't read it yet. It's on my list, but will probably have to wait till the end of the term. In the interim, here are a few things you ought to read if you believe that the Israel-Palestine issue is at least as important as our current obsession with Iran.

You might read Isabel Kershner's New York Times piece on the eviction of an Israeli settler family from an illegal outpost in Hebron. The kicker, of course, is that the removal of one settler family was accompanied by an announcement that the Netanyahu government had authorized construction of 800 new homes in Har Homa and Givat Zeev, and intended "to seek the necessary permits to retroactively legalize three other West Bank settler outposts that went up without authorization." And lest you be confused about the Netanyahu government's intentions, here's what Netanyahu himself had to say about it (my emphasis):

"The principle that has guided me is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Today, I instructed that the status of three communities -- Bruchim, Sansana, and Rechalim -- be provided for. I also asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to see to it that the Ulpana hill in Beit El not be evacuated. This is the principle that has guided us. We are strengthening Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and we are strengthening the Jewish community in Hebron, the City of the Patriarchs. But there is one principle that we uphold. We do everything according to the law and we will continue to do so."

So Netanyahu's aim is clear: keeping control of the West Bank forever. And the reference to "doing everything according to the law" is revealing, because "law" here means the law of the occupation, which is the same law that has allowed a half a million Israelis to move onto the territories conquered in 1967 over the past forty years.

The next thing to read is Andrew Sullivan's extended reflection on Beinart's book, where he focuses laser-like on the critical issue: If peace is Israel's objective, why keep expanding settlements? He says it better than I could, so read him.

Then follow that up with Robert Wright's sober reflections on the imminent demise of the two-state solution (2SS).  A lot of people have correctly seen the 2SS as the best of a set of bad outcomes, but we have reached the point where "two states for two peoples" is either dead or on life support. As Wright puts it:

"My point isn't that we should blame the Israelis for the death or very-near-death of the two-state solution. It's not surprising that people with their history and geopolitical predicament would let fear get the better of them. (They're being no more irrationally fearful than Americans were in the wake of 9/11, which led us to launch two wars, one of them against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and that posed no threat.) By the same token, it's not surprising that the Palestinians wouldn't endure 45 years of subjugation, during which they've been denied basic human rights, without any eruptions of violence (which of course isn't to say I support the violence). That's the depressing thing about the Israel-Palestinian conflict: It results from the Israelis and Palestinians acting more or less the way you would expect people in their shoes to act.

But that's why it's crucial that those of us who live at a safe remove from the conflict, and can in theory summon detachment, should try hard to see the situation clearly, succumbing neither to paralyzing fear nor cozy illusions. And the most common cozy illusion is that, though the time may not be right for a two-state solution now, we can always do the deal a year or two or three down the road.

The truth is that a two-state solution is almost completely dead, and it gets closer to death every day."

And if you haven't given up in despair already, please revisit this piece of mine from 2009. I asked it then and I ask it today: Once the two-state solution is really and truly buried, then what position is the U.S. government going to take? For that matter, what position will the hardliners at AIPAC or the ADL defend, and what will so-called progressives at groups like J Street favor? Ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians to ensure a Jewish majority? Binational democracy and equal rights for all residents of a single state? Or permanent apartheid, with the Palestinians confined to self-governing enclaves under de facto Israeli control? Those are the only other options to the 2SS and every AIPAC rep, Christian Zionist, and supposedly "pro-Israel" Congressperson ought to be asked repeatedly which of these three options they now endorse. Ditto State Department and White House spokespeople, and anyone who aspires to be president, including the current incumbent.

And if they try to say that they are still in favor of 2SS, someone should ask why they still believe it is possible, and what they concrete steps they intend to do to make it happen. And while we are at it, someone might also ask them why they believe U.S. taxpayers should continue to subsidize settlement construction. And make no mistake: Because money is fungible, that is exactly what our aid package does. The 2SS has been the stated goal of U.S. policy under the past three presidents, yet U.S. policy actively subverts that objective, to the mutual detriment of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans alike.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images