Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- So what exactly will U.S. President Barack Obama discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the president visits the Middle East sometime in the next few months?
In their one-on-one sessions (which both leaders are no doubt anticipating as enthusiastically as middle-aged men anticipate their colonoscopies), I predict the following breakdown: Let’s say they’ll spend three hours together. Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations will get three minutes, the shattering of Syria will get 17 minutes and the remaining 160 minutes will be devoted to Iran.
In the Iran conversation, the two men will resume their traditional roles. Netanyahu will begin with a pointed question for Obama: How many more times will the U.S. hold out the promise of direct negotiations to the Iranian regime before it realizes the Iranians are uninterested in talking?
Netanyahu, of course, will have a point. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at a security conference in Munich earlier this month, offered the Iranians direct talks, which he said must be “real and tangible.” The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, responded by saying that Biden’s invitation represented a “step forward.” But he was quickly overruled by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “The U.S. is pointing a gun at Iran and wants us to talk to them,” Khamenei said. “Direct talks will not solve any problems.”
Netanyahu will surely point out that this isn’t the first time Khamenei has spurned the Obama administration’s romantic advances. Soon after he took office, Obama famously wrote to Khamenei asking to rekindle their nations’ relationship. Khamenei was decisive in his rejection. There have been quieter attempts to span the chasm between Iran and the U.S., with similar results.
Netanyahu thinks the Obama administration is naive to imagine it can charm the supreme leader into negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear project, and the prime minister will want to know from the president when enough is enough.
Obama will parry Netanyahu’s argument by making two points: The first is that he is neither Pollyanna nor Neville Chamberlain. He will argue that there is reason to invite the Iranians to direct, one-on-one talks, again and again if necessary. If there ever comes a time when force is necessary to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, at least the administration will be able to argue that it tried repeatedly to find a peaceful resolution.
The second point the president will make is this: The Iranians haven’t accelerated their efforts to cross the nuclear threshold precisely because they fear an explosive American reaction. Although Netanyahu is still arguing that the Iranians are accelerating their program, the regime for the moment seems content to be perpetually six to 12 months away from having the capacity to manufacture a weapon.
Obama will argue that the Iranians, though rhetorically pugnacious, have actually stepped back from the brink. Experts who monitor Iran’s nuclear program have said recently that Iran has been taking some of its stock of higher-grade enriched uranium and turning it into reactor fuel, meaning that it can’t be used in weapons. Netanyahu obviously understands the importance of this move: By slowing the growth of its stockpile of enriched uranium even slightly, the Iranians are acknowledging an Israeli red line and moving away from it.
Obama will point out to Netanyahu that, by the Israeli government’s own calculation, Iran needs a minimum of 240 kilograms of 20-percent enriched uranium to produce a bomb. So long as Iran stays below that number -- and the Israelis and the Americans believe that it hasn’t approached it yet -- Israel would have no reason to launch a preemptive strike, or demand that the U.S. do so.
In other words, Obama will be able to argue that the Iranians, while truculent, are aware of the West’s red lines, and have been assiduous in observing them.
A-ha!, Netanyahu will exclaim, seeing an opening: If the Iranians actually care what you think, and actually fear your wrath, then why don’t you crack down on their nefarious doings in Syria and elsewhere? We know the Iranians are training thousands of militiamen inside Syria to turn the country into an even more hellish place if the ruling regime falls. We also know that the Iranians and their proxy, Hezbollah, are trying to destabilize Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Jordan and Egypt. When, Mr. President, will you wake up to this fact?
The president will answer: You know, Mr. Prime Minister, it would be a lot easier for me to confront Iran over Syria and the Gaza Strip if you tried a bit harder to embolden Palestinian moderates by making gestures toward territorial compromise, even if only rhetorically at the outset.
This will prompt Netanyahu to lecture Obama on the falsity of “linkage,” the idea that the Middle East would be a generally better place if only peace could be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians.
At which point, the president will look at his watch and wonder when it might be time to depart for Jordan, where the king will undoubtedly describe to him at great length the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood, but will at least do so in a charming manner.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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