Iran Talks Strain Mideast Alliances

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Chasm Opens Between U.S., Closest Mideast Allies, Over Tehran

Israel tried to stave off an emerging agreement between Iran and global powers aimed at preventing Tehran from attaining a nuclear weapon, underlining the chasm that has opened up between the Obama administration and its closest Middle East allies over how to deal with their nemesis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railed against the expected accord in particularly harsh terms Friday, calling on Western allies to “reconsider” after three meetings in two days with Secretary of State John Kerry. President Barack Obama called the Israeli leader in an attempt to calm the furor.

“The deal that is being discussed in Geneva right now is a bad deal,” Mr. Netanyahu said in Tel Aviv after meeting with Mr. Kerry. “Iran isn’t even required to take apart even one centrifuge, but the international community is relieving sanctions on Iran.…I urged Secretary Kerry not to rush to sign—to wait, to reconsider. To get a good deal.”

Criticism surfaced in Washington as well, where both Republican and Democratic supporters of Israel said the agreement in the works was far too easy on Iran.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and its European allies, who are partners in the deal with Iran, hoped to complete the agreement over the weekend.

The interim accord is viewed as the “first stage” in a diplomatic process that seeks to permanently end the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. It seeks to limit Iran’s nuclear activities—which Tehran insists are for peaceful purposes only—in exchange for relief from crushing international economic sanctions.

WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib and Carol E. Lee say that diplomacy with Iran looks promising, but the politics remain tricky. Giving Iran some relief on sanctions–in return for a halt to its nuclear-weapons program–isn’t popular in Congress or with allies including Israel.

Iranian and Western diplomats had initially said the deal could be announced as early as Friday. But Mr. Kerry warned upon his arrival in Geneva that major obstacles still needed to be resolved, explaining why his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton stretched on for nearly five hours.

A senior Western diplomat said although no agreement was reached Friday, the talks were “moving steadily and seriously ahead.” A second diplomat said that no accord may result in Geneva, and that Iran and the global powers may need to return to their capitals to reassess the next steps.

Mr. Kerry flew to Geneva from Israel, joining the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain in pressing to complete the deal. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and China’s deputy foreign minister are expected in Switzerland on Saturday morning.

Mr. Netanyahu said Israel wasn’t bound by any deal, signaling that a military option was still on the table to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

The Israeli leader has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities to guard against what he says is Tehran’s commitment to developing atomic weapons. Iranian leaders deny their seeking to build nuclear bombs.

U.S. officials pushed back against Mr. Netanyahu’s criticism, calling it “premature.” Mr. Obama in his call tried to forge a common stance, assuring Mr. Netanyahu of his commitment to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons, the White House said.

U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are also all warily watching the unfolding agreement in Geneva. The U.S. has forged close alliances with these countries over the past three decades in an effort to create a bulwark against Iran in the Middle East.

Washington has showered billions of dollars of sophisticated weapons on the Gulf nations and stationed key U.S. naval and air assets there.

Bahrain, Qatar, and the U.A.E. have also developed successful financial and trade centers in the Gulf, fueled, in part, by Iran’s isolation from international economy.

A detente between Washington and Iran could significantly shake up Washington’s security calculations in the Mideast and challenge these countries’ long-term interests, according to regional diplomats.

This, in part, explains these Gulf Arab states’ strong pushback against the Obama administration’s diplomacy.

“A deal with Iran would be like discovering your partner of many years is cheating on you with someone he or she claims they hate,” said a senior Arab official from a U.S. ally in the region.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have also strongly criticized the U.S. backing away from expected military strikes in August against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Arab diplomats believed such strikes could have helped topple Mr. Assad, Iran’s closest ally in the region. Instead, the U.S. and Russia forged a deal with the Syrian government to dismantle its chemical-weapons program, which the Saudis and Emiratis now fear is providing Mr. Assad with new legitimacy.

The Iranian and Syrian deals in such a short time have disrupted the long-standing U.S. alliances.

Mr. Kerry visited Riyadh this week and is scheduled to travel to Abu Dhabi on Sunday. But U.S. officials acknowledged they needed to do more to bring the Gulf countries behind their Iran diplomacy.

“We very much understand the anxieties, the concerns, the security interests that the Gulf states have,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the Geneva talks. “That’s why we stay in very close consultation with them in this regard.”

Iran is negotiating with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, a bloc known as the P5+1.

The U.S. wants Tehran to freeze the most advanced elements of Iran’s nuclear program—its production of near weapons-grade uranium—and to limit the numbers and capacity of the centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium. Washington also wants Tehran’s commitment not to commission a heavy water reactor in the city of Arak that could be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium by next year.

Tehran’s demand for a sanctions rollback, though, could emerge as a sticking point for a deal being completed, said diplomats involved in the talks.

U.S. and European officials have refused to dismantle the core banking and oil sanctions that have caused the most damage to Iran’s economy. Instead, they have focused on helping Tehran repatriate as much as $50 billion in oil revenues that have been blocked in overseas accounts and to free up Iran’s trade in precious metals and petrochemicals.

Iranian diplomats, however, signaled to Iranian reporters on Friday that this might not be enough. And a Western diplomat involved in the negotiations acknowledged late Friday that sanctions relief had emerged as the most contentious point — even within the P5+1.And a Western diplomat involved in the negotiations acknowledged late Friday that sanctions relief had emerged as the most contentious point — even within the P5+1.

“That’s the key issue” for the P5+1, said the Western diplomat.

Iranians were following the talks closely, looking for signs of a deal that could relieve their economic hardship. Mr. Zarif’s Facebook page attracted thousands of comments from followers across the country expressing their support for a compromise.

A picture of Mr. Zarif and his negotiating team sitting at a table across from European and American counterparts generated more than 60,000 likes and thousands of comments.A picture of Mr. Zarif and his negotiating team sitting at a table across from European and American counterparts generated over 60,000 likes and thousands of comments.

“Netanyahu is going crazy but you shouldn’t worry, we have your back,” Farzad Razy Zadeh commented on Mr. Zarif’s page.However, there were mixed signals from the top of Iran’s clerical regime. A representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state, said the negotiations presented the Islamic Republic with an “opportunity—we will either accomplish results or gain experience.” At Tehran’s Friday prayer sermon, a venue for airing political views of the regime, the conservative cleric delivering the speech said the U.S. and U.K. remain Iran’s primary enemies.

However, there were mixed signals from the top of Iran’s clerical regime.

A representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state, said the negotiations presented the Islamic Republic with an “opportunity—we will either accomplish results or gain experience.”

At Tehran’s Friday prayer sermon, a venue for airing political views of the regime, the conservative cleric delivering the speech said the U.S. and U.K. remain Iran’s primary enemies.

Criticism in Washington of the nuclear negotiations, particularly from pro-Israel lawmakers grew on Friday.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said world powers should insist that Iran abide by United Nations resolutions calling on the government to cease all uranium enrichment activities.

“While I support the president’s efforts to engage with Iran, I am deeply troubled by reports that such an agreement may not require Tehran to halt its enrichment efforts,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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