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Published on September 25th, 2013 | by Mitchell Plitnick

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The Tangled Web of a U.S.-Iran Thaw

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by Mitchell Plitnick

The real Iranian nuclear threat has apparently already taken hold. New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” has sent the war hawks scurrying as if the bomb had really gone off.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been relentless in his increasingly desperate efforts to cast Rouhani in the same mould as his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Marsha Cohen points out, however, his tones are ringing hollow. Ahmadinejad provided Netanyahu with the almost cartoonish foil he needed, but Rouhani strikes a much more reasonable pose.

In the US, the counter to the charm offensive is kicking into high gear. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was thoroughly dismissive of Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly, which most observers considered conciliatory and matching a similar tone by US President Barack Obama. Engel, by contrast, said: “Far from engaging in a ‘charm offensive,’ he repeated too many of the same old talking points blaming the United States and our allies for all of the world’s ills.”

Even before Rouhani’s speech, the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel launched a web site attacking Rouhani. The site, dubbed “The Real Rouhani,” pieces together some legitimate and some questionable news reports on the Iranian president, most of which are quotes and citations taken out of context to sound more sinister than they are. They sum it all up by calling Rouhani a Holocaust denier, something Netanyahu has also done.

It’s fair to be dissatisfied with Rouhani’s evasion of questions on the Holocaust, which becomes an issue for outsiders largely because Ahmadinejad made such a spectacle of it during his time, a very real and despicable spectacle which was naturally magnified by the Western press. Rouhani initially ducked the question by saying he was not a historian. While in New York, and probably realizing that this response was not having the desired effect, Rouhani told CNN “…in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable…Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn.”

That’s better, but it probably leaves the Holocaust denial bullet in Netanyahu and the neocons’ gun. Doubtless, Rouhani is trying not to raise more hackles among the Iranian conservatives that Ahmadinejad represents than he has to, but this is probably one he can and should go farther with. Still, even before Rouhani’s clarification, the Holocaust denier trope didn’t seem to be getting much play, certainly nothing like it did with Ahmadinejad. But right now, people are looking with hope to Rouhani; if that should change, his weak response to this question will certainly come back to haunt him.

Some have expressed disappointment with Rouhani’s UN speech, having hoped for a bolder step forward toward the U.S. This is reinforced by the White House claim that they proposed a brief meeting on the margins of the UN but were rebuffed by the Iranians, who said it was too complicated at this time.

The naysayers are wrong. A meeting with Obama, however brief, would certainly have pleased Western peace supporters, but in Iran, where crippling sanctions are hammering people every day and where, despite Obama’s conciliatory words, people are understandably skeptical of U.S. intentions, such a meeting would have been premature. It could easily be used by conservatives to demonstrate weakness on Rouhani’s part, portraying it as a warm gesture to a government that is strangling Iranians with no promise, or even indication that an easing of the sanctions regime is on the horizon.

Even in the West, it is probably better that no chance encounter took place. Although the U.S. tactic of refusing to talk is a dead end that produces no tangible benefits for anyone (as Stephen Walt aptly points out), since we have pursued it, raising hopes for a quick breakthrough is probably unwise. Expectations need to be managed.

The U.S.-Iranian impasse is much deeper than the nuclear issue and the mutual antipathy between Israel and the Islamic Republic. Many more issues are involved, and they mount on top of a long history of problems between the U.S. and Iran, of which the 1953 CIA-backed coup and the 1979-80 hostage crisis are only the best known.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a good rundown of the various issues and complications facing the two countries in any attempt to thaw relations. The major flaw, though, in Cordesman’s piece is that he frames the current issue within the notion of a relentless Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon. This doesn’t mesh with the facts, as intelligence estimates for the past six years, including those of the U.S. and Israel, agree that Iran has halted its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, while retaining the ability to start the process again. An Iranian weapons program only seems to have existed in the early years of the century, when U.S. ambitions for regime change were at their height.

Beyond that point, Cordesman gives a good description of the complexities inherent in trying to turn back years of U.S.-Iranian enmity. But he does an even better job of laying out the case for why the status quo serves neither country well and why a warming of relations can bring great benefits to both countries and the entire Middle East.

One major issue that divides the two countries is, indeed, Israel. If Iran and the U.S. wanted to try to patch things up, even if the nuclear issue was resolved to mutual satisfaction (something that is complicated but far from impossible in and of itself), the Israel-Palestine question moves to center stage. What becomes of Iranian support for the Palestinian cause, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the more meager support it offers to Hamas?

More than likely, this is why Obama, in his speech, put the two issues so closely together. While he didn’t specifically link the two, their proximity in the text was suggestive, and explained a bit of why he and Secretary of State John Kerry have put so much effort into rekindling talks between the two peoples. Obama understands, and he’s subtly communicating to Israel, that he needs to see a Palestinian state created, one which Iran can support, if there is to be sufficient warming of U.S.-Iran relations to enable a reasonable chance of resolving the nuclear issue.

This is precisely why Netanyahu is so alarmed by the prospect of a negotiated deal, as opposed to an Iranian surrender, on the nuclear issue. The prospect of a viable deal on Iran’s nuclear program will allow and encourage domestic and international pressure on Israel to make a deal, and, even if it is a deal remarkably favorable to Israel, Netanyahu does not want to engage in that political fight with his own party and the rest of his right-wing coalition. Much better to see Iran be forced, whether by sanctions or firepower, to give in to international demands. Moreover, those demands will be very different in the context of negotiations.

Obama, in his speech, recognized Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power. That affirmation, though self-evident, indicates a willingness to allow enrichment on Iranian soil, something Netanyahu adamantly opposes, but which, with sufficient transparency, will satisfy every other country in the world if the United States gives the program its blessing. In the context of an Iranian surrender, it is much more likely that enrichment programs could be transferred to a third country, like Russia.

So, Netanyahu has gone on an anti-Rouhani crusade. With the most extreme of neocon groups joining him, it is likely — if Netanyahu persists and if Rouhani does not sufficiently influence Western hearts and minds fast enough (which he likely can’t do without agitating his own right flank) — that other right-wing groups, followed by more centrist hawks, will soon add their voices to the anti-Rouhani chorus.

Pro-dialogue forces will have a tough task. The process simply can’t move too fast or it will careen off the tracks. But a slow process gives more opportunity for the hawks. Persistence in support of a rational approach will not be easy, but standing fast to support dialogue and the gradual easing of sanctions in exchange for gradually increasing transparency in Iran is the best and wisest option.

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About the Author

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Mitchell Plitnick is the former Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. Plitnick regularly speaks all over the country on current issues. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography.



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