Iran and America at Heaven's Gate?

03/16/2015 10:19 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

The op-ed pages and blogs are full of commentary on the recondite technical aspects of the nuclear negotiations. Some do a masterful job of delineating the particular issues still being negotiated. However, there is a persuasive case to be made that the outcome does not turn on how those detailed matters are resolved. It is a question of political will.

From the outset, the effort to deny Iran any nuclear capability, in its essence, has been a political issue of great magnitude. Since Rouhani's election cleared the way for renewed talks with the explicit blessing of Ayatalloh Khameini, the Iranian leadership's desire for a settlement has been manifest. A deal has been there for the taking. It is up to the Obama White House to decide whether it is prepared to offer Iran the minimum it needs to make the deal palatable. Obama has equivocated in his characteristic manner. Hyper-sensitive to vocal criticism from Capitol Hill, the Republicans in particular, from the Israelis and from the Saudis -- he has been reluctant to confront his opponents squarely.

The audacious Netanyahu challenge brought the issue to a head. Now, after some unusually frank comments, Obama has retreated. All the talk is aimed at playing down the fight, to placate the Israelis. By referring to Netanyahu's high stakes gamble in affronting the President as just as passing squabble, he has lost a critical opportunity to put his enemies to rout.

He seems incapable of realizing that an aggressive strategy to delegitimize Netanyahu while coloring the Republicans as engaging in un-American behavior could have opened valuable political space for him to move swiftly to close the deal with Iran. As to Israel, Netanyahu's candidacy in the Israeli election could have been sunk had Obama been blunt in calling into question the special relationship were voters to choose a leader whom he now saw as persona non grata in the White House. As to the Republicans, Obama could have used the patriotism and loyalty card effectively to define their challenge over Iran as a reckless attack on the independence and authority of the United States. He didn't have the stomach to do either. As a consequence, the opponents of an accord were emboldened to continue efforts to torpedo the talks. Hence, the Cotton letter.

As for the argument against an agreement, it was elaborated by former Ambassador James Jeffrey in a Foreign Affairs article. There, he provides us an informed, articulate statement of his views on how to think about the nuclear negotiations with Iran and attendant political matters. It is organized around two premises and an overarching thesis.

The first premise is that there is likely to be an accord whose terms he finds unsatisfactory. The second is that there will remain ample opportunity to reopen the package of compromises it incorporates and to contain its spill-over effects on regional affairs (which he deems pernicious) for however long the agreement is in force . The thesis is that anything short of an Iranian unconditional surrender that turns the country into a ward of an American controlled United Nations in perpetuity is intolerable and must be opposed by those sharing this view, at home and abroad, using all means available.

Each of these three affirmations is open to question. It can be argued that developments over the past week have significantly raised the odds against an agreement being reached. This despite puffs of optimism re. progress on the technical issues rising over Montreux. The modalities of those technical issues never have been the heart of the matter.

Jeffrey stresses methods for reversing and/or picket-fencing an agreement that he expects to be signed. However, the very likelihood of those actions which he prescribes actually being taken is strong incentive for the Iranians to balk. Rouhani laid it on the table this week: no lifting of the sanctions, no deal. Yet, Obama seems to have toughened (rather than loosened) the terms in the interview with Reuters; Kerry has sent similar signals. These statements may be related to the steps taken to mollify Netanyahu and the Republicans. This ill-conceived approach puts the talks in jeopardy and represents a strategic miscalculation of the first order.

Kenneth Pollack is an ideological and strategic ally of the Iran hawks. He, too, has been lobbying against an agreement as outlined. Pollack's ploy is an exhaustive account of possible Israeli responses to the achievement of a nuclear accord with Iran. It is most notable for what it does not consider. For it disregards American moves that could counter those conjectured Israeli actions -- as if the United States were compelled by will or circumstances to accept passively dramatic actions detrimental to core American interests. As a reflection of the prevailing Washington mindset, that premise highlights what is wrong with our approach to relations with Israel and its efforts to sabotage the negotiations. That passivity and deference is a telling commentary on the fecklessness and timidity of the Obama White House.

The Israeli options for sabotaging a deal post-hoc are indeed limited. Military action is foreclosed for reasons of adverse secondary effects or even the inadequacy of means -- as Pollack acknowledges. There also is the possibility of Israeli attack aircraft being shot out of the sky by the United States as they overfly Iraq or even approach Iran from a circuitous route via Saudi Arabia. It strikes me that a compelling case can be made for the United States to do just that.

As for non-military options, Pollack suggests ramping up electronic warfare and assassinations. But is there reason to believe that they have not already done all they can? A government prepared to insert itself physically into American domestic politics surely has not been inhibited about leaving a few more corpses on the streets of Tehran or introducing a few more viruses (whatever the risk of a pandemic). Self-restraint is not a characteristic Israeli trait.

More American military assistance? Pollack assumes that Washington will just say 'yes -- sure. take whatever's on the shelf." True, that has been the supine American attitude to date -- but will it continue in the midst of an all-out Israeli campaign to destroy a hard-won agreement with Iran?

Then there is the idea of more Israeli aggression against its neighbors and the Palestinians. As to the latter, it defies the imagination what further abuses Israel can inflict on the Palestinians. Then again, my sense of tribal grievance and blood feud does not go back to the Book of Deuteronomy. As to Lebanon and Syria, is the idea to repeat 2006 in the former?; would F-35s make any difference in the outcome? Is it to occupy Syria and fight a counter-insurgency against al-Nusra and ISIL (backed by Turkey)? Is he sure that even Obama would stand by and bestir himself only to veto any UNSC resolution?

Let's get real -as the kids say. If Israel fails to get Washington to go to war with Iran, it will have lost a very big bet. More fantasizing will not get it out of that hole. Some Israelis of high rank recognize that; too many of their American sympathizers do not.

The Iranian leadership has not been silent in the aftermath of provocations -- unofficial and official from Washington. Iran's primary nuclear negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohamad Zarif, was blunt in his remarks on the tougher Obama/Kerry line Here is an attempt to summarize in succinct, denotative terms what Zarif might have meant. It is based entirely on inferences from what is on public record.

1. The Iranians are not fools: they will not be bullied by the United States; they do not trust the American government; they see themselves as negotiating an agreement with the international community -- not with the Obama administration;

2. They will not enter into an agreement that leaves the United States government the prerogative unilaterally to judge compliance with its terms and/or to take corresponding action;

3. They do not believe that the Obama administration (and even less so the American political Establishment) contemplates "normalization' of relations with the IRI in any conventional sense of the term. They can point to two statements by Obama himself within the past week to validate that conviction;

4. They recognize that American attitudes and policy re. the ISI are hyper-sensitive to the purposes of Israel and Saudi Arabia which will continue to inflect Washington's policies;

5. A deal that places Iran on probation indefinitely is unacceptable;

6. A deal that conditions the lifting of sanctions on a purely American determination of whether the terms of probation (of whatever period) are being complied with is unacceptable;

7. A date certain should be set by which various categories of sanctions are lifted;

8. Insisting on a UNSC ratification of any accord is a sine qua non for meeting those Iranian concerns;

9. The readiness of the Obama administration to go that route is the litmus test for appraising American intentions;

10. The approach outlined by Zarif is a deft way of smoking out the White House to see who's in charge, what degree of conviction there is in the Oval Office, and what the political balance is Washington is.