Without delving into my own opinions regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United States Congress yesterday, I would like to ponder the possibility that there is more to the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) than meets the eye.
Much of Middle Eastern politics depends on projecting an image of strength. Jordan responds to the barbaric murder of a pilot with massive airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Turkey conducts ceremonies of state in the presence of guards costumed to represent various parts of the former Ottoman Empire, recalling the days when the Turkish sultan held the entire region in his grip. Egypt arrests and sentences hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members every couple of weeks in mass trials. Iran-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad kidnaps and slaughters the children of alleged rebels.
Iran is no different – the regime will not sign an agreement that makes it appear weak. In fact, Iran’s government is particularly averse to such a deal, as even many moderate Iranians continue to resent the United States for the ill-fated Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation that overthrew the democratically elected Mohamad Mossadeq in 1953 and installed the unpopular Shah as sovereign in his place.
That reality, however, does not make a deal impossible. In fact, it also means that the Iranian government is desperately afraid of losing a war to the United States and/or Israel, which would similarly undermine any semblance of legitimacy that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini boasts among the most radical of his supporters and would deliver a painful blow to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), the military and economic force that serves as the foundation of Khameini’s power structure. As a power-hungry despot, Khameini’s challenge is to stay out of a war without being shamed by a deal in which the United States is clearly a victor and Iran clearly a loser.
His best option, therefore, is a behind-the-scenes deal, one that unequivocally prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, coupled with a more publicly favorable deal from Khameini’s perspective, exactly like the one that American President Barack Obama has put forward. Similarly hushed negotiations were conducted between the United States and Saudi Arabia, for example, when the latter discreetly promised Israel an air corridor should there be a need to bomb Iran (that deal was revealed in Wikileaks, to the great dismay of the Saudi monarchy). The same occurred again in secret negotiations with Qatar, during which the diplomatically ambiguous Gulf State pledged to permit Israeli planes to refuel at a Qatari military base en route to Iranian nuclear targets.
A repeat of that process can happen now with Khameini. Obama should understand by this point the danger of a nuclear Iran. He knows that the “Islamic Republic” is perhaps the world’s most extreme exporter of terrorism; he has watched Iranian proxies violently take over the governments of Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen (they have controlled Syria and Gaza for even longer); and he is aware of the apocalyptic risk of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race (find more of my views on this here). I sincerely hope that Obama knows not to strike a bad deal and not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities.
Khameini can never reveal a “good deal” to his people, but perhaps he can strike a quiet deal with the P5+1 powers. It is what he should do, for his own sake, and it is what Obama should do as well, for the sake of American security interests, Israel’s existential safety, and regional stability. For all we know, those talks have already happened. While I feel strongly that the current deal publicly on the table is extremely dangerous (as has been noted many times by not only Netanyahu but also several Arab leaders), diplomacy behind the scenes still can and should pave the way for an agreement that protects the region (and the world) by preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, but that is also acceptable to Khameini.