President Barack Obama’s discussions with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani — the first direct contact between Iran and the United States since 1979 — can be seen either as an opening for diplomatic progress or as simply more stalling tactics. In any case, they are of more than passing interest.
On the optimistic side, they may signal Iran’s willingness to permit Western inspectors to inspect all of its nuclear facilities and to dismantle those aspects related to the production of nuclear weapons. Iran is to attend the Oct. 15 meeting in Switzerland with the United States, Germany, France, Russia, and the England. Rou-hani also said Iran would bring an offer to the disarmament talks. That could be a positive development.
The sanctions imposed by the West are hurting Iran, which hopes the offer Rouhani makes will induce the West to scale back or halt sanctions. What Iran might offer is anyone’s guess. Will it be a serious step toward dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons program? Western specialists hope it will include a willingness to accept limits on the enrichment of uranium. This is the fuel that can be used either for power plants or nuclear weapons.
Or will this be just another comment by Iran that promises actions further later? If Rou-hani’s comments are just propaganda, that could be dangerous. That would put tremendous pressure on Obama to agree to use force to neutralize the Iranian threat. Not only will U.S. conservatives advocate even more strongly for the use of force, but even more pressure will come from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been one of the more strident voices calling for direct action against Iran, including Israeli air strikes.
It would not take much more for the United States to become involved in a Middle East war with unpredictable results. Such a conflict could easily turn into a nuclear holocaust.
The Israelis and Obama are on different paths. Tel Aviv wants all of Tehran’s nuclear facilities destroyed. The Israelis have warned against loosening sanctions on Iran until it gives up all of its nuclear facilities. The antagonism between Obama and Netanyahu appears to have worsened recently. The Israelis fear that Obama will try to accommodate Rouhani and end up giving the Iranians more time to develop nuclear weapons.
To placate those who worry about that, both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have strongly supported U.S. willingness to talk to Iran. Their defensive attitude toward such talks is not surprising. Given Obama’s history of not making good on his threats, why should an observer believe anything the Obama administration says or does with regard to the Middle East — and Iran in particular?
Even if Tehran agrees to inspections, how open and thorough will they be? And what would Israel do? Netanyahu has already criticized Washington’s approach to dealing with Iran. He has warned that the West is now being fooled by Rouhani’s friendly face and calm words. Netanyahu reinforced that warning by saying that Israel would not be fooled by the new Iranians, and that if necessary, Israel would act alone.
The administration’s plan appears to be well thought out — assuming that Obama is willing to use a stick as well as a carrot. If Iran holds back, then the United States needs to get its allies to agree to more sanctions.
The real question is how far Obama is prepared to go. In the aftermath of events in Syria and his repeated empty threats, few believe he is ready walk the walk. I hope they are wrong.