Iran Nuclear negotiations and Purim foreign policy

Netanyahu is not Queen Esther risking her life to intercede for her people -- he's a politician up for re-election

There is a man in Shushan town
Who to my idols won’t bow down.
With this he cannot get away.
The price he will be made to pay!
Oy vey!

– Mrs Hisiger, my Grade 3 Hebrew teacher

PM Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011.
A standing ovation in the Capitol? What a surprise! PM Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Have you read the Purim Torah meme? It’s not a new thing. It recasts the story of the Book of Esther with Iran’s Supreme Leader in the role of Haman, the President of the United States in the role of Ahasuerus and the beautiful but sad Prime Minister of Israel in the role of Queen Esther.

I say it’s Purim Torah, but this is actually Purim Foreign Policy.

There is an ancient tradition of Purim Torah: topsy-turvy Torah study appropriate for Purim, the holiday of reversals. I think that this meme is meant to be read in the spirit of Purim Torah: amusement by analogy mocking reason by analogy; laughing in the face of the awful reality of Jewish life with its ever-present threat of doom.

Mohammed Morsi in a cage
‘… the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day’ Esther 9:22. Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi sits in the defendant’s cage during a court hearing in Cairo, Egypt, November 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed al-Law, File)

I do, however, get the impression that the people who are more-or-less earnestly propagating this meme in the Israeli corner of the Intarwebs aren’t giggling.

I think back to 2007, when we were assured that Iran would have a nuclear device by some time between 2009 and 2014. Action against Iran’s nuclear programme has apparently pushed that date back a bit, but the threat is the same: Iran wants a nuclear weapons programme that will come to fruition in the short term.

He is going to Washinton at no personal risk to himself or his reputation, and he is going to do this less than two weeks before the Israeli election.

Iran with nuclear weapons would be a disaster for two reasons: one, Iran would have nuclear weapons; two, if Iran had nuclear weapons then Saudi Arabia and Egypt would get nuclear weapons from Pakistan or other sources in jig time. Saudi Arabia and Egypt aren’t afraid of unprovoked nuclear attack from Israel, but all bets are off when it comes to the merry mullahs of Tehran. The present Saudi and Egyptian governments with nuclear weapons might not cause one to lose sleep but, as Mohammed Morsi can tell you from his prison cell, regimes change.

One thing has stopped Israel from destroying Iran’s nuclear programme altogether: it’s not technically feasible.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives a speech
Are you telling me this man is not the Supreme Ruler of Persia? Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in Tehran (photo credit: AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/File)

This is an important point. If Israel were ready to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat altogether, straining at the lead, held in check only by the United States; then we could expect some attack: cyber or special forces or something, to turn enriching centrifuges into buckets of bolts. This is because the United States can’t stop Israel from acting against an imminent threat. LBJ couldn’t stop Israel from attacking Egypt in June of 1967. Ronald Reagan couldn’t stop Israel from attacking Iraq 14 years later (almost to the day) in 1981.

If Israel was once held in check by Hizballah’s threat to rocket Northern Israel into rubble, last summer’s bravura performance by Iron Dome made it clear that Iran’s friends in Lebanon, dying in droves to keep Bashar Assad in power, have been temporarily rendered impotent.

It is not technically feasible at this moment to use force or social engineering to halt the Iranian nuclear programme altogether short of assembling and using a nuclear device.

If Israel hasn’t destroyed Iran’s nuclear programme, and Israel hasn’t, then it’s because Israel can’t or doesn’t want to.

If Israel does want to, then it hasn’t because it can’t. It is not technically feasible at this moment to use force or social engineering to halt the Iranian nuclear programme altogether short of assembling and using a nuclear device.

So in the mean time who is acting against Iran? It’s the US, of course.

5+1 Iran negotiations squeezed into a conference room in Geneva
They couldn’t get a bigger room? Nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna on November 21, 2014 (Photo credit: Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

To date US action against Iran, has ground the Iranian economy into pistachio paste. Saudi Arabia’s brisk pumping of petroleum has run down the price of oil which makes Iranian cut-price black market sanctions-busting crude unprofitable. Iran is at the negotiating table in Geneva because they have to be, not because they want to be.

The Iranians are canny negotiators, and they will confront and walk away and finagle and stand up and sit down to ensure that they minimise their weakness in the eyes of the Iranian population and, in the process, get the best deal they can. They know that in the past two years they have been transformed from a pariah state on its knees into one of the bulwarks of opposition to the Islamic State.

Nonetheless, Iran is strategically weaker today than it has been since the Revolution. The rial is toilet paper (currently trading at 27,709 rials to the US dollar). Iran’s main export sells for half its 2008 price. Iran’s foreign tributaries, Hizballah, Syria and Iraq; have been crippled.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama sit beside each other in Washington, not looking at each other
The royal couple? US President Barack Obama (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) prepare for a press session in the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

More than ever, Iran’s Supreme Leader needs, for prestige purposes and national-religious purposes, to continue to confront the United States and Israel; and its nuclear programme is the best way it can do so.

Bear in mind that for Iran the programme needs to remain, no matter how far away Iranian engineers are from producing a working nuclear device. Like Iran’s Potemkin jet fighters and Potemkin aircraft carrier, it’s not important for them to achieve a working capability. It’s important for them to appear to be succeeding in pursuit of a working capability.

So if Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, is Haman (rather than the actual Padishah Emperor of Persia), he doesn’t need permission from anyone to continue his nuclear programme, least of all from the United States. What Ayatollah Khamenei needs from the United States is a deal which will permit Iran to sell oil to China at a market price.

Sara and Binyamin Netanyahu
If he’s Queen Esther, then who’s she? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife, Sara, in an undated photo (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Flash90, File)

President Obama, who has played a significant part in wreaking this destruction on Iran by bringing China and Europe into the sanctions regime, is viewed by some Jews as anti-Semitic. This is not because he hates Jews (he has certainly employed Jews in positions of trust in his administration), but because he is at loggerheads with the Prime Minister of Israel.

The US administration is not, however, in the position of Ahasuerus, king of the Persians and the Medes. While in theory the US could nuke any country, including Iran or Israel, into radioactive glass; in practice action against Israel by the US is laughable. On the contrary, the Obama Administration has put the strongest brake on Iran of any administration since the fall of the Shah. Any deal that is done in Geneva which slows Iran’s nuclear programme further is better than where we have been the last ten years, with an Iranian nuclear capability expected any day.

Binyamin Netanyahu is clearly not Mordecai, sitting in sackcloth and ashes (in a passive-agressive way). Mr Netanyahu is going to Washington.

For Mr Netanyahu this is all win. There is no down side.

Is Binyamin Netanyahu Queen Esther, going to talk to Congress before Purim?

I know from my experience working at a senior level in the UK government that face time with President Obama is electoral gold and at the same time rare as rocking horse droppings. It would be a tremendous loss of face for a British Prime Minister to go to Washington and not meet with the President; so a British Prime Minister does not often go to Washington.

Mr Netanyahu, unlike the last run of British prime ministers, has had himself invited to Washington by the President’s political rivals (make no mistake, if he didn’t want the invitation he wouldn’t have got the invitation), and he is going to go. He is going to Washinton at no personal risk to himself or his reputation, and he is going to do this less than two weeks before the Israeli election.

If I were uncharitable I would suggest that he’s paying this visit for electoral advantage, not for strategic advantage. For Mr Netanyahu this is all win. There is no down side.

So to wrap up this bit of Purim Foreign Policy:

The Supreme Ruler of Persia is not Haman, he’s the Supreme Ruler of Persia.

The President of the United States is not the Supreme Ruler of Persia, he leads the administration that has put the boots to the Supreme Ruler of Persia.

The Prime Minister of Israel is not the lonely, vulnerable Queen Esther, quaking in terror as she risks her life by interceding for her people. He’s a politician up for re-election, about to address a Congress that loves him and hates his enemies, ready to bask in the Churchillian glow of statesmanship that comes of addressing Congress.

At the end of this particular story, the Supreme Ruler of Persia will not be impaled on a stake fifty cubits high. The Prime Minister of Israel will (based on yesterday’s Channel 10 poll) continue in power like Esther. The President of the United States will have an occasional drink.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.
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