Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Steve Voss/Bloomberg
Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Steve Voss/Bloomberg

Eight questions about the dramatic events of the past 24 hours: Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) seem ready to strike an interim deal that would loosen sanctions on the Iranian economy in exchange for … It’s hard to tell at the moment. With any luck, a total suspension of uranium enrichment, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. At best, a commitment from the Iranians to limit enrichment, slow down work at the Arak plutonium facility and continue tweeting holiday greetings to Jewish people.

And in other news, Secretary of State John Kerry just told Israel's prime minister that he's inviting Palestinian violence on himself by not budging on the issue of settlements. Also, Saudi Arabia might go nuclear, now that it believes the U.S. is moving closer to Iran. Also, there’s some sort of civil war going on in Syria.

So, my questions:

1. Does the Barack Obama administration realize quite how good the Iranian regime is at this game?

As Robert Satloff, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, points out, Iran may be hitting a trifecta. It seems as if (1) it's going to see the sanctions currently crushing its economy loosened without having to halt uranium enrichment. (2) Its Iraqi client is going to get U.S. help to defeat its radical Sunni adversaries. (3) Its other main client, the Assad regime in Damascus, recently got a free pass from the West to kill its citizens with conventional weapons well into the future. Pretty good for a pariah state.

2. How does the deal, as it is currently being understood, divert Iran from its goal of building a nuclear-weapons infrastructure?

I asked Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a (hawkish) expert on the Iranian program. He said: “This deal would allow Iran to keep in place its entire nuclear infrastructure and maintain a still dangerous uranium breakout capacity with more than sufficient centrifuges to move, at a time of its choice to weaponize uranium. It does nothing to address centrifuge manufacturing, which is the key element to Iran’s secret enrichment program.” The deal -- again, we haven’t seen official details yet -- would also allow Iran to “to continue work on its plutonium nuclear pathway.”

3. Does an interim deal remove pressure on Iran to reach a final deal, one that presumably shuts down for good key elements of the Iranian program?

It would seem that an interim deal would both weaken the world’s commitment to sanctions and the West’s leverage in negotiations, except if President Obama is stalwart about reapplying sanctions should Iran veer from the straight path.

4. Is Obama truly committed to making what would be an unpopular decision (at least at conclaves of European foreign ministers) and layering on new sanctions if he came to doubt Iran’s commitment to this denuclearization process?

The White House’s view of this, as I understand it, is “Yes.” My view, for what it’s worth is, “Maybe.” The administration is stressing that the entire sanctions architecture will remain in place during this interim period, and that only sanctions at the margins are going to be temporarily affected in any case -- sanctions on the Iranian central bank and on oil will remain in place. (Much of the relief Iran may get during this first phase of negotiations will come in the form of money it already has, but can’t currently access, in the international banking system.) The White House is afraid of something else -- that the sanctions regime won’t hold if countries such as Japan, China, South Korea and India come to see the U.S. as intransigent. This isn’t an irrational fear. And speaking of intransigent ...

5. How did Benjamin Netanyahu get so outfoxed?

He’s supposed to be smart, but he allowed himself to be neutralized by Obama. I have little doubt that he wishes today that he had launched an attack on Iran three or four years ago. But now he’s boxed in. He would turn Israel into a true pariah state if he launched a unilateral attack while his American allies, and the Europeans, were negotiating with Iran.

6. What the hell is John Kerry thinking?

In a fit of frustration brought on, presumably, by jet lag combined with too much exposure to Netanyahu combined with being John Kerry, the secretary of state suggested to an interviewer that Israel would be facing a third Intifada, or uprising, if it didn’t compromise on settlement growth on the West Bank. “If we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank,” he said, “then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to nonviolence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.” This is a dangerous thing to say (and condescending to Palestinians as well). It also reads as extortion. These sorts of threats don’t make Israelis compromise; they make them hunker down and wait for Hurricane Kerry to leave the State Department.

7. What the hell is Benjamin Netanyahu thinking?

I wrote yesterday that Netanyahu might find the international community more receptive to his worries about Iran if his peers in Washington and in the capitals of Europe didn’t think he was irrational and unmovable on the subject of the Palestinians. The issues aren’t linked in reality, but they are in the minds of much of the world. Netanyahu’s refusal to acknowledge this reality has hurt his cause.

8. What the hell is Benjamin Netanyahu thinking? (Part II)

I realize that Netanyahu is now functioning as the principal spokesman for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (which wants to see Iran go nuclear even less than Israel does), but really, throwing public tantrums about U.S. policy only makes a prime minister look impotent (the same goes for Saudi tantrums). Netanyahu should watch the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, if he wants to learn how to manipulate public opinion.