Iran: What Now?


Approaching this holiday weekend, as we ponder the next steps in the troubled U.S.-Israel relationship, we’re reminded of the story of the hen and the turkey checking the farmer’s menu the night before Thanksgiving. It called for a grand luncheon the next day of “scrambled eggs followed by the traditional festive meal.” Sadly, the turkey turned to the hen and said, “From you he wants a contribution; from me he wants a total commitment.”

In a sense, that’s the difference between the perspectives of Washington and Jerusalem in assessing the six-month deal designed to slow Iran’s nuclear program. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted this week that the agreement presented “minimal” risks for the U.S. In the short term he’s right. America is the world’s most powerful country and thousands of miles from Tehran. For an administration reflecting a national weariness with war, it’s understandable that there is satisfaction in an agreement to put Iran’s nuclear efforts on hold while attempting to negotiate a permanent arrangement that would prevent its achieving nuclear arms.

For Israel, though, as the prime target of Tehran, the world leader in terrorism, with sophisticated, well-armed militias in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas), the price to pay for a failed nuclear agreement is “a total commitment.”

Not only is it understandable that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the campaign against what he and many others in the Mideast neighborhood considered “a bad deal,” but he deserves credit for finally galvanizing the U.S. and the West to impose the tough economic sanctions that brought Iran to the table in Geneva. It’s clear, though, that Israel and Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, fearful of a more muscular and confident Iran, were unable to prevent the deal. And they are feeling doubly disappointed, if not betrayed, in learning that Washington, despite repeated, adamant denials, was holding secret talks with Iran for months.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have sought to assure Jerusalem that the deal is in Israel’s interest, making it a safer place to live. No doubt that was their intention, but Netanyahu boldly asserts that Israel is not bound by the agreement, fueling the notion that the deal makes an Israeli military strike necessary and inevitable.

Since both the U.S. and its Mideast allies agree that the primary goal is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threat, the question now is how to proceed over the next six months (which, it should be noted, is also the time frame for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks). Should Netanyahu continue to lead the public charge against being duped by the Iranians, or is it time to sit down and try to make the best of the deal at hand, assuring that aggressive monitors do their job and that the eased sanctions do not collapse altogether?

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but we think it’s time to tone down the steady barrage of public criticism, at least for now, and concentrate on the details of the deal, going forward. In addition, an idea being advanced that calls for the U.S. to sign security treaties with such countries as Israel and Saudi Arabia, pledging to defend them if they are threatened, deserves discussion, though sadly such U.S. assurances have lost credibility in recent days.

Supporters of the deal point out that it offers the best and only alternative to a nuclear arms race in the Mideast and could prevent a war. Critics invoke the Munich pact of 1938, when the British played into Hitler’s hands, and the 1994 North Korea agreement on nuclear arms, which Pyongyang promptly ignored.

It all comes down to determining if Iran is motivated by a desire to do business with — or fool, and perhaps defeat — the West. Until now there was every reason to believe that the devil is not in the details but in the seat across the negotiating table. After all, Iran’s revolutionary government is guided by a supreme religious leader advocating Islamic hegemony, it is responsible for a long list of terror attacks around the world, and a multibillion-dollar program to build nuclear arms amid calls to remove the Zionist regime. Not exactly confidence-builders in going forward with a lasting agreement. That’s why the approach now should be one that comes from strength, not weakness, insisting on demands that would oversee the dismantling of the Arak plutonium plant and of centrifuges that could produce nuclear weapons. If it is successful, more power and credit to the administration. But anything short of that and Washington should walk away from the table, having learned a tough lesson about the limits of diplomacy — hopefully before it’s too late.