Representatives of the international community – led by the United States – have agreed to extend their initial negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program until late November. This coming September’s opening of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) will set the stage (and the backstage) for the final phase of negotiations.
The extension was announced last Friday, July 18, also the 20th anniversary of the Iranian-sponsored bombing of Argentina’s Jewish community headquarters, which killed 85. This is incidental to the decisions affecting Iran’s uranium enrichment, and that is the point: We should have no illusions about the complexity of Iran’s multiple threats, or about the scope of the nuclear talks.
Two major misconceptions about the Iran talks have helped feed skepticism among Israelis and Americans: First, that anything less than a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program will rate as “a bad deal”; second, that sanctions should not be lifted as long as Iran continues to be a “bad actor” in other ways, such as terrorism, regional meddling, and obstructing Arab-Israeli engagement.
The nuclear talks are best known as “P5+1,” for the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. It was through the Security Council that presidents Bush and Obama were able to secure increasingly “crippling” international sanctions against Iran.
Unlike unilateral US measures, such as blocking Iranian banks from using dollars, the more sweeping multilateral sanctions could have been vetoed by Russia or China. Those two nations acceded to the sanctions because they were limited to compelling Iran to negotatiate and bring its program under international control and supervision – not to completely eliminate its nuclear capabilities, nor to address other issues of concern.
Two years ago in New York, displaying his now-famous cartoon bomb, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to the UNGA. He emphatically drew a red line short of eliminating all Iranian enrichment capacity – “Before Iran gets to a point where it’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.” While hardly assured, Netanyahu’s 2012 demand appears to be within reach now.
When Netanyahu addressed last year’s UNGA opening session, the interim deal for negotiations had just been announced. This time, he told the delegates: “There are those who would readily agree to leave Iran with a residual capability to enrich uranium…” – as though he hadn’t proposed exactly that only a year earlier. Netanyahu quoted Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, who in 2005 had said: “A country that could enrich uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent.” Therefore, Netanyahu concluded, only a complete dismantling of Iran’s centrifuges and other technology would be acceptable.
Netanyahu is wrong about the complete dismantling, which is both unnecessary and unachievable. The P5+1 agree the entire program should be subject to international monitoring and verification, and without the interim deal, Iran might anyway be in a position to deploy a nuclear weapon. If Iran breaches the final agreement, renewing and toughening the sanctions would be easier than before. And no Iranian leader could ever accept a zero-enrichment regime, essentially a surrender of sovereign rights and national pride. Most importantly, this new demand seems to contradict his earlier calls for limiting – but not eliminating – enrichment.
US officials report the temporary agreement for suspending and reducing Iran’s capacity – even in advance of a final deal – seems to be holding. And the provisional sanctions relief falls well short of Iran’s expectations, as trade and access to capital remain tight.
Because the threat of a nuclear Iran is so menacing, there has been little opportunity to take on its other strategic challenges to the international system. Alone among recent world leaders, only the late President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina ever devoted a UNGA speech to combating and punishing the terrorism being funded and directed by Iran. In 2007, he did so right before then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran took the podium.
With some justification, Israeli leaders have chosen to focus on Iran’s nuclear potential instead of its ongoing terror activities. Rather than joining Kirchner’s call to take on Iran’s global terror network and its direct support for Hamas in Gaza (currently suspended) and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria – which imminently threaten Israel – Netanyahu has generally used Iran’s terror record to “just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu has yet to call for specific multilateral efforts that take on Iran’s extracurricular activities, other than to use them as a reason to keep the pressure on Iran’s nuclear file. But these arguments won’t convince Russia and China, each of which has significant business and strategic interests with Iran.
In the next round of talks, it could be worth also addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program, since the delivery system is what makes weapons of mass destruction dangerous. But moving the goalposts after Iran has agreed to the original parameters, especially by seeking new measures against its terror networks, can only set back the chances for meeting Israel’s security goals – and Israel’s security establishment has warned against launching a unilateral military strike.
It should be a priority to stop Iran’s opportunistic efforts to attack civilians, undermine regional stability, and leverage confrontations from the Gulf to Latin America. The nuclear talks are not the right venue for this, but a functional agreement there could prove to the West whether Iran can be trusted, and demonstrate to Iran’s rulers that scaling back the Islamic Revolution will lead to gradual normalization and restored prosperity.