Iran’s next step: Sell­ing plan at home

Is­rael’s op­po­si­tion to a nu­clear ac­cord may help it ap­peal to hard-lin­ers in Tehran.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Ramin Mostaghim and Laura King

TEHRAN — Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani sought Fri­day to sell hard­lin­ers on the mer­its of a pre­lim­i­nary deal that would even­tu­ally lift crip­pling eco­nomic sanc­tions in ex­change for plac­ing lim­its on his coun­try’s con­tro­ver­sial nu­clear pro­gram.

“Some think we have to fight the world or sur­ren­der. We think there is a third way: co­op­er­a­tion,” he said in a speech on Ira­nian TV, even as there were stir­rings of sus­pi­cion among mul­lahs who were gath­er­ing at the mosques for Fri­day prayers.

In Is­rael, mean­while, Prime Min­is­ter Benjamin Ne­tanyahu was de­scrib­ing the nu­clear frame­work as a naive sell­out by the six for­eign pow­ers that bro­kered it. He pre­dicted it would pave the way for Iran to build a nu­clear weapon.

“Is­rael will not ac­cept an agree­ment which al­lows a coun­try that vows to an­ni­hi­late us to de­velop nu­clear weapons,” he de­clared. “Pe­riod.”

The stark con­trast in the lead­er­ship of the two coun­tries, which are sworn enemies, might in fact prove a valu­able as­set to Ira­nian prag­ma­tists who are now try­ing to sell a prospec­tive nu­clear deal and see it through to a bind­ing agree­ment.

In the labyrinthine world of Mid­dle East pol­i­tics, the harder Is­rael op­poses the plan an­nounced Thurs­day in the Swiss city of Lau­sanne, the bet­ter it looks in Iran.

Tehran’s broad en­dorse­ment of an agree­ment aimed at de­ter­ring nu­clear weapons devel­op­ment while leav­ing Iran’s civil­ian atomic in­fra­struc­ture in place also marked a dra­matic change in Iran’s po­lit­i­cal pos­ture that dates back decades, epit­o­mized by grainy images of help­less Amer­i­can hostages in the hands of Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who seized the U.S. Em­bassy in 1979.

In a coun­try where chants of “Death to Is­rael!” can seem as com­mon­place as a salu­ta­tion, the Is­raeli leader’s staunch de­nun­ci­a­tions of the deal may help over­come the reser­va­tions of Ira­nian hard-lin­ers who be­lieve Tehran is con­ced­ing too much un­der West­ern pres­sure.

Ne­tanyahu on Fri­day re­it­er­ated his stri­dent op­po­si­tion to the prospec­tive ac­cord, say­ing it would “threaten the very sur­vival of the state of Is­rael.”

By at­tack­ing the terms of the pre­lim­i­nary pact af­ter a hasty gath­er­ing of his se­cu­rity cabi­net, Ne­tanyahu has given ammunition to fig­ures such as Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif, who was a key fig­ure in ham­mer­ing out the deal.

Zarif, who re­turned to Tehran on Fri­day from the Lau­sanne talks, sought to calm any hard-line op­po­si­tion, declar­ing in a post on Twit­ter that “the so­lu­tions are good for all, as they stand.”

The Ira­nian peo­ple as a whole needed lit­tle prod­ding to get on board. In Tehran, those who had cel­e­brated Nowruz, the Persian new year, Thurs­day night flowed into the streets to cheer the late-night word that an ac­cord had been reached, — of­fer­ing the thrilling prospect of re­lief from harsh eco­nomic sanc­tions that have touched the lives of vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one here.

In a stunning sym­bol of melt­ing hos­til­ity be­tween Iran and the West, Pres­i­dent Obama’s un­fil­tered words poured forth from Ira­nian TV screens, car­ried by state broad­cast­ers, urg­ing that the con­tentious talks con­tinue to­ward the June 30 dead­line.

Do­mes­ti­cally, it would be hard to over­state how much is rid­ing on this ac­cord. Pres­i­dent Rouhani “has ef­fec­tively staked ... his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture on this nu­clear deal and the at­ten­dant po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic bo­nanza,” an­a­lyst Ma­han Ab­dein wrote in the re­gional in­de­pen­dent on­line pub­li­ca­tion Mid­dle East Eye.

Rouhani said in a live ad­dress that Iran would honor pledges made in the nu­clear talks, pro­vided the other side does too.

Asked whether the neg­a­tive re­ac­tion in Is­rael might help per­suade Iran’s cler­ics that the agree­ment is good for them, Rand Corp. se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst Alireza Nader said he didn’t think Ira­nian mul­lahs put much stock in what Is­raeli hard­lin­ers think about the ac­cord.

“There’s a per­cep­tion that Is­rael isn’t only against a nu­clear deal for Iran but against Iran as a re­gional power. So nat­u­rally Is­rael is go­ing to op­pose this,” Nader said.

“If you look at the con­ser­va­tives’ re­ac­tions in Iran, they have been largely sup­port­ive of the deal. Sev­eral Ira­nian of­fi­cials and Fri­day prayer lead­ers have come out and sup­ported it and are try­ing to por­tray it as a pos­i­tive for Iran, be­cause Iran re­tains most of its nu­clear in­fra­struc­ture. Iran does make a lot of con­ces­sions, and I think the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to por­tray it in the best light pos­si­ble, which is nat­u­ral as they don’t want to ad­mit they had to retreat on the nu­clear pro­gram.”

Given the across-the­board sup­port among Persian Gulf Arab states and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity as a whole, Is­raeli lead­ers may find them­selves fur­ther iso­lated in the Mid­dle East if they persist in de­nounc­ing the Iran nu­clear deal or take uni­lat­eral ac­tion against it, he said.

In Is­rael, com­men­ta­tors and politi­cians on Fri­day de­bated the ram­i­fi­ca­tions, with some ar­gu­ing that the deal as out­lined is bet­ter than ex­pected, and oth­ers declar­ing that all po­ten­tial sce­nar­ios — in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a mil­i­tary strike — must re­main on the ta­ble.

De­bate was some­what muted by the tim­ing of the news, which came only hours be­fore sun­down Fri­day, the start of the Jewish hol­i­day of Passover. More ro­bust ar­gu­ment is likely in the com­ing week.

Ne­tanyahu showed no sign of soft­en­ing his stance, but some Is­raeli com­men­ta­tors de­scribed the pre­lim­i­nary nu­clear terms as sur­pris­ingly fa­vor­able.

“If the frame­work pre­sented be­comes the fi­nal agree­ment … even Is­rael could learn to live with it,” com­men­ta­tor Ron BenYishai wrote on the Ynet web­site. But he cau­tioned that “we must be wary of ap­pear­ances — too many key is­sues still re­main un­re­solved.”

Even be­fore the out­lines of the deal were an­nounced, how­ever, Is­rael re­fused to rule out a uni­lat­eral strike to quell Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions. In­tel­li­gence Min­is­ter Yu­val Steinitz said, “If we have no choice, we have no choice. The mil­i­tary op­tion is on the ta­ble.”

The prospec­tive deal re­vived ar­gu­ment over Is­rael’s cru­cial friend­ship with Wash­ing­ton. Obama’s de­ci­sion to call Ne­tanyahu to dis­cuss the ac­cord was seen by some as sig­nal­ing a po­ten­tial thaw in icy re­la­tions be­tween the prime min­is­ter and the White House, a rift that has been greatly ex­ac­er­bated by the Iran nu­clear is­sue. The Haaretz daily, how­ever, char­ac­ter­ized the two lead­ers’ con­ver­sa­tion as “dif­fi­cult.”

The prime min­is­ter in­fu­ri­ated the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion last month when he de­fied White House wishes and de­liv­ered a speech to a joint meet­ing of Congress lob­by­ing against the pres­i­dent’s plan to try to strike a deal with Iran. Some urged Ne­tanyahu to take ad­van­tage of an op­por­tu­nity to get back in good graces with the U.S., say­ing such a course would al­low Is­rael to wield more in­flu­ence over the fi­nal shape of the ac­cord.

Amos Yadlin, a for­mer head of Is­raeli mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence, told Is­rael’s Chan­nel 10 that Ne­tanyahu should pur­sue a “grand strat­egy” of co­op­er­at­ing with the U.S. on the Pales­tinian is­sue and cur­tail­ing set­tle­ment ac­tiv­ity out­side es­tab­lished blocs, or risk fur­ther alien­at­ing Wash­ing­ton.

“The dan­ger is that the dis­con­nect with the U.S. will lead to a poor agree­ment with Iran, all for the sake of build­ing in re­mote set­tle­ments that Is­rael will never keep in a fu­ture agree­ment,” Yadlin said.

He and oth­ers pointed out that there were op­tions short of mil­i­tary ac­tion — for which there is some prece­dent, in the form of Is­rael’s sur­prise aerial bom­bard­ment in 1981 of an Iraqi nu­clear re­ac­tor un­der con­struc­tion.

“There’s a range of al­ter­na­tives be­tween a bad agree­ment and a mil­i­tary strike, and th­ese are worth ex­plor­ing be­cause they ex­ist,” Yadlin said be­fore the pact was an­nounced, cit­ing steps such as tighter sanc­tions or clan­des­tine ac­tions.

Oth­ers said it would be dif­fi­cult now for Ne­tanyahu to climb down from his fierce op­po­si­tion to any deal — par­tic­u­larly while he seeks to keep right-wing al­lies happy as he sets about form­ing a gov­ern­ment af­ter his party’s elec­toral suc­cess last month.

The con­ser­va­tive Jerusalem Post de­scribed the frame­work agree­ment with Iran as “ter­ri­fy­ing.”

Is­raeli Gov­ern­ment Press of­fice

PRIME MIN­IS­TER Benjamin Ne­tanyahu re­it­er­ated his stri­dent op­po­si­tion to the prospec­tive ac­cord.

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