There's still a fair amount of mystery around the West's much ballyhooed almost deal with Iran on its hotly disputed nuclear program. Like, what was the deal? And why did it suddenly stall? And what really constitutes an existential threat to Israel in specific and world peace in general?
Here is where the pitfalls of beat journalism and bureaus and that old linear approach not at all attuned to issues with multiple cross-cuts come into play. First those folks dutifully reported what they were told by their sources, US and Western diplomats focused on Iran, that new President Hassan Rouhani had not only a new and more moderate style for an Iranian leader but an actual plan to solve the crisis. A plan which could not be detailed but was very promising. Then lots of very promising atmospherics were reported around the promising deal during ballyhooed high-level negotiations in Geneva between the Islamic republic and the six Western powers -- UN Security Council permanent five members US, UK, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany -- working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons through an increasingly stringent sanctions regime. Secretary of State John Kerry was on the scene for the US, along with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, ongoing point person for the West on Iranian negotiations, as were the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany. As the deal got closer to fruition, the foreign ministers of Russia and China jetted in.
The atmosphere was electric. The plan, still unclear. Then ... nothing.
No deal. Something had blown it -- whatever it was -- up. But what?
First, it was the French. Or so it was reported, without reporting what or why. The French? Under the Socialist regime of Francoise Hollande? Then it was Iran itself. Though how Iran had blown up its own undisclosed plan was unclear. Kerry later claimed, rather vaguely, that the Iranians backed away. "The P5+1 was unified on Saturday when we presented our proposal to the Iranians. The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal. Iran couldn't take it at that particular moment; they weren't able to accept."
Which sounds like a way to avoid the look of disharmony and/or disarray in the West.
The plan, it turns out, would evidently have required Iran to freeze expansion of its nuclear program -- not roll it back -- in exchange for beginning to achieve relief from economic sanctions. President Rouhani reiterated throughout that Iran won't give up its "nuclear rights," which included continuing to enrich its own uranium, rather than receive nuclear fuel elsewhere.
It is this enrichment of uranium which has been at the center of the struggle over Iran's nuclear program. Under its program, Iran has developed more sophisticated nuclear fuels fit for running a reactor, but not to the level of enrichment needed for nuclear weapons. But by continuing to control its own enrichment process, it hastens the day on which it can take its stores of enriched uranium and enhance them further to weapons grade, using devices it continues to develop.
Throughout all this dramatic rush to peace, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was screaming bloody murder about allowing Iran to continue its own enrichment. But Netanyahu's problem is that he has been saying for the past two decades that Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. Which obviously didn't happen. At least, not yet. But when one keeps warning that something is just about to happen and it never does, well, even little kids know the fable of the boy who cried wolf.
Finally, it emerged that France -- either acting on its own or in concert with others who did not want to be seen as blocking the rush to a peace deal with Iran -- based its objections, reported Britain's Financial Times, not on the enrichment of uranium but on the production of plutonium, another route to a nuclear weapon. Iran's Arak nuclear reactor is supposed to produce sophisticated radioisotopes for use in medical treatments. Of course, medical isotopes can also be purchased.
My personal read is that Iran is, or at least has been, seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Why else go through so much trouble, with so much damage to the economy, to develop and control such a controversial and problematic energy production technology?
With much of the advanced industrial world shying away from nuclear power even before the Fukushima debacle, I don't see why energy exporter Iran has otherwise been so adamant about having total control of all aspects of a nuclear energy program even as its economy takes heavy blows from increasingly harsh sanction regimes.
This is a problem for a number of Sunni Gulf Arab states, who may be ruing the day some of them egged the US on to ousting Shiite Iran's natural regional counter-weight, Saddam Hussein.
It is especially a problem for Israel, that shining beacon of the post-Holocaust phoenix which ranks as perhaps the planet's ultimate rainspout nation.
Netanyahu and other even more conservative leaders in Israel's now extraordinarily conservative government say that Iran's nuclear program is a dagger aimed at Israel's heart, citing a variety of wild statements made over the years by Iranian leaders about Israel and the Holocaust. The Iranian nuclear program, they have long argued, constitutes an "existential threat" to Israel.
But in a sense, Israel, surrounded by many of those who view it as a state of interlopers at best and invaders -- notwithstanding ancient religious claims in Jerusalem -- at worst is always in a state of existential threat.
From a military standpoint, Israel is completely lacking in defensive depth. It can't trade territory for time and opportunity in maneuver and counter-attack because everything is so small and close together.
It is literally always in danger of being over-run by its neighbors. This is why Israel has developed one of the world's toughest and most sophisticated armed forces, equipped with conventional weapons quite superior to those of its neighbors. But one day those conventional weapons, no matter how ably wielded, may not be enough, with no time for evacuation.
So for Israel, which has them but won't officially acknowledge the fact, nuclear weapons are guarantors of the state, using the power of deterrence of rational Arab actors. Deterrence works, as we saw in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union -- vastly more powerful and capable in its global reach than the rather ragtag terrorists we worry so much about -- always decided against a mutually assured destruction. But the Soviets were materialists, rationalists not religionists, with fantasies that did not turn on dreams of destruction, divinely determined spiritual destiny, and an afterlife.
If Iran is not a rational state, Israel is at imminent risk.
Is Iran a rational state?
Again, a question hinging on how much belief to stake on the new Iranian president. He was, of course, a a decades-long security official in the ayatollah's national security state. Yet that may be a matter of rational self-interest. For in some spots around the world, the classic Blade Runner formulation applies: "If you're not cop, you're 'little people.'" Which is understandable, but begs the central question about Mr. Rouhani, and thus in a sense about the Iranian nuclear program: Was Rouhani faking it to get ahead before, or now?
Of course, the Obama Administration has pledged to Israel and its powerful advocates in the US that it opposes a Cold War-style containment strategy against Iran. Which means it is already settled US policy to believe that Iran is an irrational actor, raising the question why we are negotiating with them. Or it means that the question of "existential threat" against Israel goes beyond the relatively simple and lurid concept of a suicidal nuclear strike against the Jewish state.
If another Middle Eastern state has nuclear weapons, that could serve as a deterrent on Israel's aims in the region, countering its trump card. The fact that Iran is aligned only with Syria -- at least with regard to current governments -- and the Assad regime seems in no shape now to threaten Israel suggests that decision-makers in Israel and perhaps the US are considering other scenarios beyond those now in effect in determining what constitutes an existential threat to Israel.
Naturally, we see and hear nothing about this, so those likely arguments go unexamined.
Meanwhile, with the rush to a peace deal thwarted, at least for now, Kerry and President Barack Obama are trying to fend off those in the Congress who want even stronger new sanctions against Iran. Kerry and Obama argue that would reverse recent progress between the US and Iran and even "trigger a march to war" with Iran.
The fun never sets.
Talks resume next week in Geneva. But without the momentum of the moment now past, and with the top players not currently expected to be on the scene, whatever was happening -- be it the Munich that the right fears or the successful defusing of the Vietnam that the left always wishes to avoid, both sides being caught in old paradigms -- may slide some more.