The major powers and Iran will be convening in Kazakhstan at the end of the month [Feb. 26] for what is already being described as yet another “last chance” for negotiations. The truth of the matter is that all of the parties are well aware that the current timetable only hinders any chance of achieving an agreement, even if the Iranians would want that.
Iran’s presidential elections are scheduled for June, and the most striking feature of the current campaign is that it hasn’t started yet. There are plenty of theoretical candidates, but few have actually committed themselves to running. In the background, the regime is exerting enormous pressure so that the events of 2009, and especially the so-called Green Revolution, do not repeat themselves. The reformists of that time, like former Parliament speaker Medhi Karroubi and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, are under house arrest, and Iran’s economic situation has only deteriorated over the past few years with the collapse of its currency, a decline in oil exports and a sharp rise in prices. All of this is deeply related to the sanctions and, by extension, to the nuclear crisis. In this current situation, the regime is having a very hard time giving any indication that it is willing to compromise, and indications like that are rare even in the best of times.
But while the Iranian clock ticks down to the election, there is another clock, an Israeli one, ticking in the Middle East. It counts the number of centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium to 20% and the total of all uranium enriched to these high levels. Prime Minister Netanyahu has drawn a "red line" (in his UN speech), based on a specific amount of enriched uranium that would enable the Iranians to manufacture a bomb in a short amount of time. While this line has yet to be crossed, the visit by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this week led to an anticipated but no less worrying result: The Iranians are beginning to install even more advanced centrifuges, in what is seen as an unequivocal message of defiance by the Islamic Republic.
Anyone who hasn’t bothered to understand this message’s true meaning needs only to consider what the Supreme Leader himself said last week in response to an initiative by US Vice President Joe Biden, who offered the Iranians direct negotiations with the United States. "We will not negotiate with a gun held to our head," said Ayatollah Khamenei. And if all these indicators are not enough, there is also the fact that the UN inspectors returned from their visit to Iran admitting that they failed in their endless efforts to convince the Iranians to enter serious discussions about the allegations that they are developing nuclear weapons.
The Israeli clock sees these developments and maintains an ominous silence, for the meantime. By June, the Iranians will reach the line in the sand drawn by Netanyahu, but they have already proven in the past that they know how to avoid crossing it. The IAEA’s report, soon to be released, states in a detached tone that some of the enriched uranium has been allocated to manufacture nuclear fuel rods, thereby slowing down the expansion of Iran’s reserves. But this game can’t go on forever. Iran’s nuclear reserves may be growing more slowly, but they continue to grow, and the line in the sand is fast approaching.
What would the Israelis like to see in these negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran? The decision-makers do not believe that there will be any significant progress. Any agreement by Iran to halt uranium production, if only temporarily, is seen by them as pure science fiction. An agreement in principle by the Iranians to stop enriching uranium to 20% (either according to the current formula, by which Iran declares that it has already obtained the reserves it needs, or by any other), is considered more possible but still unlikely. In other words, it is fair to say that Israel’s expectations from the Iranians are not minimal. They are non-existent.
This brings us to the real expectations that Jerusalem has of the Obama administration and the European Union. It wants them to cast responsibility on Iranians by blaming them for the talks’ failure in the clearest way possible. It wants them to make it perfectly clear that slogans such as “Negotiations can’t go on forever,” while the Iranians continue to arm themselves, are not mere rhetoric. They want them to act once the talks have failed, and in a way so severe that the Iranians themselves realize that they have gone too far, and that they face a greater threat than just Israeli military action. As far as the Israelis are concerned, the message should be that this time the entire West is threatening military action. More succinctly, the Israelis will tell US President Barack Obama, “Put your money where your mouth is.”
The president has stated again and again that his policy is not containment, and he has already made it clear that all options are on the table. What will he do after the talks' expected failure in Kazakhstan? As far as Jerusalem is concerned, the answer should be clear: Instead of trying to calm down Israeli threats of action, the president should focus on presenting a credible American military option. This is the only way that he will be able to curb the uranium-enrichment program and prevent war.
The most tragic development in the nuclear arms race of the past year — North Korea's third nuclear test — is arguably supportive of this proposed tactic. In Jerusalem they say, “We are not Japan, nor are we South Korea. A nuclear-armed Iran will lead to a regional arms race that will threaten stability and peace in the world.” The Israelis will not live in constant fear of an enemy they perceive as committed to radicalism, nor will they allow for international condemnations to replace real measures. As departing Defense Minister Ehud Barak tends to say when he argues for stronger international action against Iran, “It’s too early, it’s too early, and then it’s too late.” No one should be deceived by Israel’s silence. The failure of the upcoming talks will bring the threat of an attack back to the table, both regionally and internationally.
Nadav Eyal is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He directs Chanel 10's foreign-news desk and was formerly a political reporter and European correspondent for Maariv.