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Dennis Ross: Netanyahu, Obama at odds on Iran — and they’re both right

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Dennis Ross says it makes no sense at this point for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to concede that Iran will be allowed to retain a uranium enrichment capability.

Ross, who guided President Obama’s Iran policy for the first three years of his administration, also says it was reasonable for the major powers, led by the Obama administration, to concede a degree of enrichment to the Iranians, even in the interim talks.

Ross, speaking to me last week, was not arguing against himself: He was delineating the difference in interests between Israel and the United States, and how these were manifest in differing strategies — and how the strategies could even complement one another.

Insisting on zero enrichment makes sense for Netanyahu, Ross said, “partly to affect the character of the negotiations” but also because of a broader strategy to prevent proliferation.

Ross, now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained why he believed the Joint Plan of Action, the interim agreement that led to the talks now underway between Iran and the major powers, already anticipates a final deal that includes a degree of enrichment.

“The Joint Plan of Action basically says the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement is about finding whether there’s mutual acceptable limitations on enrichment,” he said. “So we may not have accepted the principle of enrichment, the right to enrichment for the Iranians, but we certainly have signaled the tactical acceptance of it already, not just us but the other members of the five plus one.”

“P5+1” refers to the five permanent, veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — and Germany, the grouping negotiating with Iran.

“So there is obviously a gap there,” between the United States and Israel, Ross said.

“But I would also say that even if Prime Minister Netanyahu was in the final analysis prepared to live with some kind of a form of enrichment, he wouldn’t say it now,” he said. “It may well be a principle with him, but also, from a practical standpoint, he has no incentive whatsoever to say it now, because he’d assume that what he would say in this regard wouldn’t be taken as the absolute end point, it would be accepted as the starting point.”

The enrichment issue has loomed large over the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. Before and after the two leaders met two weeks ago, Netanyahu said Israel could not accept any enrichment capacity for Iran. Obama administration officials — including the president — have said that a limited 5 percent enrichment capacity is likely.

“I believe that letting Iran enrich uranium would open up the floodgates,” Netanyahu told AIPAC on March 4, a day after he and Obama discussed the issue at length. “It really would open up a Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and around the world. That must not happen. And we will make sure it does not happen.”

Israel’s insistence on no enrichment acts as a spur on the P5+1 to intensify the intrusiveness of monitoring mechanisms that would keep Iranian enrichment within the bounds of peaceful use, Ross said — and that intrusiveness may inhibit other nations from launching any kind of nuclear program.

“You’re obviously better off if nobody is enriching and they’re getting their fuel from the outside, that’s the best outcome, from a nonproliferation standpoint that is the preferred best outcome,” he said. “If you can’t achieve that, then the next best outcome is one where the limitation on the numbers are significant and the scope of the verification measures is very intrusive. It may well be that other states will say we don’t that kind of intrusiveness, therefore we’ll accept getting our fuel from the outside.”

Did the negotiators give up too much, then, by mooting the likelihood of an enrichment capability?

“Would it have been better” not to anticipate a degree of enrichment? Ross asked. “Yeah of course, it would have been. But I think those people who were negotiating would say, ‘Look, would we like that? Yes, but our ability to achieve that was something that we thought was beyond what was possible. Looking at what was possible in a context of what’s also acceptable made sense.”

Acceptable to Israel?

“Can I envision a circumstance that [Israel] would maybe not like but accept the idea that Iran had a limited enrichment capability that was limited, in fact it was very limited in terms of numbers and had very extensive verification mechanisms to ensure that you had a very clear picture and were able to monitor the restrictions?” Ross asked. “It might not be enthusiastically accepted, but it certainly wouldn’t be the same as an agreement where they really were a threshold state.”

He rejected the notion that a limited enrichment capability would position Iran as a nuclear threshold state.

“It depends on how much you roll back the program,” Ross said. “If you roll back their program to where they have very small numbers of centrifuges, and a small amount of accumulated enrichment, they’re not very close. They’re not close to being a threshold state. They’re a threshold state only if they can maintain very large numbers of centrifuges or they can have significant numbers of advanced centrifuges.”

Ross said that Vladimir Putin’s interests in keeping Iran from going nuclear outweighed whatever utility that unsettling the Iran talks might bring the Russian leader in his face-off with the West over Ukraine — agreeing with the consensus of the experts I canvassed last week on the topic.

“The instinct Putin will have if we begin to impose certain kinds of penalties, or sanctions will be to try to show we have a lot to lose from that,” he said. “If we try to pressure him, he has opportunities to make life uncomfortable for us. The question is will he do that on something like Iran. Because in the end Iran is not a favor, P5 +1 is not a favor that he does to us. He has no real interest in having the Iranians with a nuclear weapons capability either.”

I asked Ross, a veteran of three decades of involvement in Israeli-Palestinian talks, what he thought of Obama’s decision, on the eve of his March 3 meeting with Netanyahu, to lambast the prime minister’s handling of peace talks — particularly regarding settlement expansion — in an interview with Bloomberg News.

“What he was clearly trying to do was to highlight that there’s a moment and if you lose the moment then the implication is where are you going to be,” he said — and, like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, Ross suggested that Obama should give a similar interview ahead of his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which took place Monday.

The equivalent to the president’s complaint about Israel’s settlement expansion would be a rejoinder to Abbas’ warnings that he would resume efforts to obtain statehood recognition in international bodies, absent peace talks.

“A comparable interview makes sense, because then you’re basically offering a judgment to both sides about a there’s a moment and there really isn’t a good alternative that’s available to either one of you,” Ross said. “The message to Abu Mazen would say, ‘Look, there’s a moment, you shouldn’t lose the moment and don’t think that internationalization is going to produce a Palestinian state because it won’t.’”

I asked Ross about Abbas’ rejection of recognizing of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Palestinians are being asked to accept [that] the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in a part of what was historic Palestine,” he said. “And in effect the equivalent is the Jewish people and the Israelis are recognizing that the Palestinians have a right to self determination in a part of historic Palestine. It’s pretty hard to understand how that’s something that in the end isn’t going to be a part of an agreement because without it you’re not going to have an agreement.”

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