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The Breakthrough That Would Mean Ahmadinejad Has Obama’s Back

October 5, 2009

The British media, at least, are declaring the result of the talks between the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and Iran in Geneva October 1 to be a breakthrough. More reserved than the British where good news about Iran is concerned, the U.S. media have nonetheless been moved to call the result an “apparent breakthrough” or a “potential breakthrough.”

It really is a big deal if it goes through: Iran’s agreement in principle to ship up to three quarters of its existing stock of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further enrichment and processing into fuel rods is indeed a breakthrough. Suddenly most of what was touted as “enough fissile material to make a bomb” is going outside the country only to return in a form almost impossible to reprocess for use in a weapon. That’s assuming, of course, that the Iranians follow through. While Iran is not generally subject to the mood swings of North Korea there is still unprecedented political turmoil inside Iran, so until Iran meets with the International Atomic Energy Agency October 18 to work out details we won’t know for sure. In the meantime, especially given Iran’s unsettled politics, there is a danger that someone—and the most likely someone is the U.S.—could do something to make the Iranians change their mind. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman and the forces clamoring for more sanctions against Iran might think about that before moving new sanctions legislation through Congress.

The media is too kind and so is Mahmoud: The media are also calling Iran’s agreement to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the newly-declared Qom facility a breakthrough, too. That’s nice, but a little over the top, as the Iranians announced they would give the IAEA access almost simultaneously with their disclosure of the Qom site, well before the Geneva meeting. IAEA head Mohammed el-Baradei and the Iranians agreed over the weekend that the first inspection will take place on October 25. That’s ten days later than President Obama demanded, by the way, but the White House must feel pretty good about it when they compare it to the Israeli response to their push for a settlement freeze and the International Olympic Committee’s response to the president’s pitch for Chicago. At the moment it looks like Ahmadinejad alone in the international community has Obama’s back. It would be ironic if Iran sticks to its Geneva commitment and gives Obama his first foreign policy win when not much else is going the administration’s way.

Baby step breakthrough: President Obama’s assessment that the October 1 session in Geneva was a “constructive beginning” toward “serious and meaningful engagement” is certainly in order. Former National Security Council Iran specialist Gary Sick is not wrong to caution, however, that “it would be a mistake to think that the results of the Geneva meetings were anything more than the first baby steps along a perilous and unpredictable path.” Given three decades of hostility between Iran and the U.S., however, and the tensions that were mounting over Iran’s nuclear program, the first baby steps in Geneva are a breakthrough.

An unheralded breakthrough: Iran’s disclosure of its enrichment plant near Qom and the October 1 Geneva meeting have captured the headlines, but there is another major development in the Iran nuclear story that drew much less attention than it deserved. None other than Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak struck an important blow for rational discussion of the Iranian nuclear issue a few weeks ago.  Contrary to the most frequently repeated mantra of most politicians in both Israel and the U.S., Barak said a nuclear-armed Iran would not pose an existential threat to Israel.   He told an Israeli newspaper that even if Iran were to acquire an atomic bomb, “this would not make it a threat to Israel’s existence. Israel can lay waste to Iran.”

I was surprised that Barak made the statement, but I wasn’t surprised by what he said.  I visited Israel’s National Institute of Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv last December and heard the same thing.  The Iranian regime, former general Shlomo Brom, told our visiting delegation from Churches for Middle East Peace, is not irrational or suicidal.  Iran, he said, is highly averse to civilian casualties because of the terrible losses it suffered in the Iran-Iraq war.  The danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, Brom said, is not a bomb over Tel Aviv, which Israel could deter, but enhanced Iranian influence and an almost certain response by other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.

Barak’s statement doesn’t make it any less important to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and no less important to preserve the nonproliferation regime and to move toward a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, but it does argue for patience and persistence and against more sanctions and military action that will only make it harder in the long run to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

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