President Barack Obama perhaps fortuitously did not shake hands with his Iranian counterpart at the United Nations General Assembly meeting last week, but his brief phone conversation with Rouhani should encourage just a ray of optimism that Washington's most bloviated foreign policy issue of the past 30 years might somehow be resolved. The green light for Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss the Iranian nuclear program should also be seen in positive terms, even if Kerry is an unlikely Great White Hope given his ineptitude relating to the Middle East Peace talks and Syria, as hitherto Washington has eschewed any direct talks with Tehran. To his credit, Obama has made his move in the face of heavy opposition from the Israel Lobby and its friends in congress and the media, which have begun to do battle over the issue.
As many informed observers, including former senior government intelligence analysts Paul Pillar and Flynt and Hillary Leverett, have noted, closing a deal with Iran is actually quite simple and everyone in Washington and Tehran knows what must be done. The problem is that hardliners in Iran are resistant to any rapprochement with the west and, more importantly, the Israel Lobby conditions and even dictates the positions that the United States is able to take.
Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is entitled to develop nuclear technology, including enrichment, for peaceful purposes like the generation of electricity and creating isotopes for medical applications. The Iranian people strongly support that right and find it bizarre that they are being subjected to a barrage of Washington-inspired United Nations Security Council resolutions that condemn it for behaving like every other NPT signatory that has a nuclear energy program. The country's nuclear facilities are inspected by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency and the inspectors have reported that there has been no significant diversion or loss of enriched uranium that might be used in a weapon. Indeed, Iran has recently de-weaponized much of its nuclear fuel by converting it into plates fit only for medical purposes.
If Washington truly wants to come to an understanding with Tehran it knows it has to accept that Iran has a right to a civilian nuclear program. Indeed, both the Bush and Obama Administrations have on occasion conceded that to be the case though sometimes also suggesting that a secret, more insidious nuclear program might simultaneously exist. If Tehran wants a deal with Washington it too knows what is required: a transparent and inspected program that will satisfy the White House that no weapons are being planned or developed. This might well include no capability to enrich nuclear fuel at all, requiring it instead to buy the fuel from others. Tehran has already indicated it might be willing to go down that road when it discussed such a possibility both with the Turks and Brazilians and also with the Russians before Washington characteristically changed its mind and rejected such an arrangement.
Tehran and Washington then have to agree to opening up the Iranian nuclear program to outside inspectors while also simultaneously easing the current international sanctions on Iran. That way there would be something that Rouhani can present to his people as a net gain in helping is devastated economy to recover while Obama can claim that a rigorous inspection regime will prevent Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon. Everyone wins, except Israel and its powerful lobby in the United States, which have constantly moved their red line but now oppose any Iranian nuclear program of any kind.
As Paul Pillar notes, "Benjamin Netanyahu will not support any agreement between the United States and Iran. Or to be more precise, he will not support any agreement that is at all reasonable...and thus has any chance of being negotiated...He is doing what he can to destroy the prospects for an agreement." The Lobby's attempt to derail the negotiations started almost immediately. Rouhani's unscripted response to a question about the Holocaust, in which he said he was a politician not a historian, was immediately cited by the punditry as Holocaust denial, which it clearly was not. Not that the issue is relevant anyway, but Foreign Minister Zarif chose to address it more directly on the weekend, confirming that the Holocaust had taken place and that it was a "heinous crime" and a "genocide." His explanation was predictably ignored by most of the mainstream media.
Typical of the level of invective unleashed against Iran was a September 27 op-ed by leading neocon Charles Krauthammer entitled "The real Rouhani" for the Washington Post, which was full of false information intended to poison the waters if anyone should even attempt to negotiate with Tehran. Krauthammer claimed that there is no such thing as an Iranian moderate, that Iran has no right or need to develop nuclear energy, that it has nearly enough nuclear material on hand already to construct a bomb, and that the entire Rouhani appeal is a trick to have sanctions lifted with no concessions by Tehran in return. Oh yes, and their favorite refrain is "Death to America" while they are denying the Holocaust and plotting to "eradicate" Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) could not have said it better and might well have provided Krauthammer with these "talking points."
Brian Williams on NBC's Friday prime time news also did his bit to make the American viewer understand that Iran is a perfidious place given to lying about its secret weapons of mass destruction, asserting on national television that Iran's leaders are "suddenly claiming they don't want nuclear weapons," adding that "Skepticism is high and there's a good reason for it." Williams does not write his own scripts but clearly someone with an agenda did have a hand in telling him what to say. The fact is that no Iranian leader has ever called for nuclear weapons and the only skepticism comes from people like Williams who know what they are expected to report to hew to the conventional wisdom on Iran.
On the following day the Washington Post featured the headline article on its front page, "Obama, Iranian president speak by phone," asserting in the third paragraph that Washington was seeking "...a deal over Iran's uranium-enrichment program, which the United States, Israel and other nations believe is cover to develop nuclear weapons." What the Israeli government actually believes can certainly be questioned and its moral high ground for condemning anyone, considering that it is a secret nuclear power, is a bit shaky, but the US intelligence community has concluded that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it.
In the judgment of both the Agency and even Mossad, Tehran has not made the essentially political and economic decisions to develop a weapon, so asserting a general view among the "informed" that Iran is developing nuclear weapons is more than a bit of a stretch. According to President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, their country has no intention of doing so, and they note that the Iranian religious leadership has issued a fatwa condemning such a development.
A former intelligence officer friend of mine, reacting to the Obama-Rouhani phone call, predicted that there would be Washington Post op-eds by Senators McCain, Menendez, and Graham attacking Iran in response. A Menendez-Graham piece "Unseduced by Iran's charm offensive" did indeed appear on Sunday, stating that the U.S. should "take whatever action necessary" to prevent Iran from acquiring a "nuclear weapons capability" that would be "threatening the very existence of our ally Israel."
It might be noted that Israel is no ally, that many in Israel admit that Iran is no existential threat, and that Iran already has a nuclear "capability." So that leaves "take whatever action necessary" as the core message, doesn't it? Nor is there any mention of how Iran might actually threaten the United States, possibly because Iran does not threaten the United States.
The Menendez-Graham op-ed was followed up on Monday by a blog by neocon Jennifer Rubin, "On Iran, a bad call," which describes the phone call between the two heads of state as "deeply worrisome" because the event was greeted with enthusiasm by the "chattering classes." Rubin as usual doth protest too much as she is a poster child for everything that is wrong with the chattering classes that she denigrates. Her own newspaper, the Post, has repeatedly featured op-eds, editorials, and news pieces slamming Iran and opposing any attempts at rapprochement, so it is not as if there is a widespread wave of "chattering" enthusiasm greeting the news of talks between Iran and the US, at least if one judges from the mainstream media.
And then there is, of course, this week's visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the UN and to Washington. It was preceded by the phony news of the arrest in Israel of an Iranian "spy" who was allegedly carrying photos of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, a crude attempt to influence American opinion by suggesting that Iran was planning to attack a US diplomatic facility.
On Monday, Netanyahu met with Obama and warned him that already harsh sanctions should be further tightened in light of Iran's nuclear program, noting that a "credible military threat" must back up any negotiations. He demanded that Iran's nuclear program be dismantled. At the United Nations on the following day, he asserted that "Rouhani doesn't sound like Ahmadinejad. But when it comes to Iran's nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the eyes -- the wool over the eyes of the international community." He describes Rouhani as smiling "...a lot because smiling never hurts; pay lip-service to peace, democracy and tolerance; offer meaningless concessions in exchange for lifting sanctions; ensure Iran retains sufficient nuclear material and infrastructure to race to the bomb at a time that it chooses." And a big lie unsupported by even a shred of evidence never hurts: "... in the last three years alone, Iran has ordered, planned or perpetrated terrorist attacks in 25 countries on five continents." For Netanyahu, nothing ever changes.
For Netanyahu, Krauthammer, Rubin, Menendez, and Graham -- apart from complete surrender on all issues and total disarmament -- there is absolutely nothing that Iran could possibly do to confirm that it is actually seeking some kind of accommodation. And even then they would object that it is all a trick and that Tehran has a secret program to attack Israel.