Why Iran won’t co­op­er­ate

Obama and some other Amer­i­cans tended to see Ira­nian lead­ers as log­i­cal ac­tors.... Most Is­raelis viewed the ay­a­tol­lahs as rad­i­cal ji­hadists.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Michael Oren Michael Oren, a mem­ber of the Is­raeli par­lia­ment, the Knes­set, is the au­thor of “Ally: My Jour­nal Across the Amer­i­can-Is­raeli Di­vide,” to be pub­lished Tues­day.

‘The fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t pre­clude you from be­ing in­ter­ested in sur­vival,” Pres­i­dent Obama said last month in an in­ter­view with Jeffrey Gold­berg in the At­lantic. “The fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this over­rides all of his other con­sid­er­a­tions.”

The ques­tion of whether Iran, run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his ay­a­tol­lahs, is a ra­tio­nal state goes to the very heart of the de­bate over its nu­clear pro­gram and the ne­go­ti­a­tions, now near­ing a June 30 dead­line, to curb it.

Sim­ply put: Those in the “ra­tio­nal” camp see a regime that wants to re­main in power and achieve re­gional hege­mony and will there­fore co­op­er­ate, rather than lan­guish un­der in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions that threaten to deny it both. The other side can­not ac­cept that re­li­gious fa­nat­ics who deny the Holo­caust, blame all evil on the Jews and pledge to an­ni­hi­late the 6 mil­lion of them in Is­rael can be trusted with a nu­clear pro­gram ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing the world’s most de­struc­tive weapon in a sin­gle year.

The ra­tio­nal/ir­ra­tional dis­pute was ever-present in the in­ti­mate dis­cus­sions be­tween the United States and Is­rael on the Ira­nian nu­clear is­sue dur­ing my term as Isra- el’s am­bas­sador to Washington, from 2009 to the end of 2013. I took part in those talks and was im­pressed by their can­dor. Ex­perts as­sessed the progress in Iran’s pro­gram: the grow­ing num­ber of cen­trifuges in its ex­pand­ing un­der­ground fa­cil­i­ties, the ris­ing stock­pile of en­riched ura­nium that could be used in not one but sev­eral bombs, and the time that would be re­quired for Iran to “break out” or “sneak out” from in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors and be­come a nu­clear power.

Both na­tions’ tech­ni­cal es­ti­mates on Iran largely dove­tailed. Where the two sides dif­fered was over the na­ture of the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic. The Amer­i­cans tended to see Ira­nian lead­ers as log­i­cal ac­tors who un­der­stood that the world would never al­low them to at­tain nu­clear weapons and would pe­nal­ize them mer­ci­lessly — even mil­i­tar­ily — for any at­tempt to try.

By con­trast, most Is­raelis viewed the ay­a­tol­lahs as rad­i­cal ji­hadists who claimed they took in­struc­tions from the Shi­ite “Hid­den Imam,” tor­tured ho­mo­sex­u­als and ex­e­cuted women ac­cused of adul­tery, and strove to com­mit geno­cide against Jews. Is­raelis could not rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that the Ira­ni­ans would be will­ing to sac­ri­fice half of their peo­ple as mar­tyrs in a war in­tended to “wipe Is­rael off the map.”

As famed Mid­dle East scholar Bernard Lewis once ob­served, “Mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion” for the Ira­nian regime “is not a de­ter­rent — it’s an in­duce­ment.”

The gap be­tween the Amer­i­can and Is­raeli as­sess­ment of Ira­nian san­ity only widened over the years. Obama in­sisted that the ay­a­tol­lahs an­a­lyzed the nu­clear is­sue on a cost-ben­e­fit ba­sis. “They have their world­view and they see their in­ter­ests. They’re not North Korea,” he told Gold­berg in a De­cem­ber in­ter­view.

Yet Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu saw Tehran’s rulers as me­dieval fa­nat­ics de­ter­mined to ex­ter­mi­nate the Jews and achieve world dom­i­na­tion. “You don’t want a mes­sianic apoc­a­lyp­tic cult con­trol­ling atomic bombs,” he warned Gold­berg in a sep­a­rate At­lantic in­ter­view in March. A nu­clear-armed Iran, Ne­tanyahu has fre­quently de­clared, is far worse than North Korea.

Which of them is right? Here’s the prob­lem with Obama’s point of view: If in­deed they are ra­tio­nal, Ira­nian lead­ers have had ev­ery rea­son to con­clude that the pres­i­dent des­per­ately wants a nu­clear deal, and that their long-term co­op­er­a­tion is not re­ally nec­es­sary.

Although the White House has re­peat­edly claimed that “the win­dow for diplo­macy will not re­main open for­ever,” in fact it has never come close to shut­ting. Even now, with­out a deal in place, it seems ob­vi­ous that the sanc­tions will start to un­ravel.

Con­se­quently, the ay­a­tol­lahs sen­si­bly have de­ter­mined that, by drag­ging out the ne­go­ti­a­tions, they can wrest fur­ther con­ces­sions from the United States. They can keep more cen­trifuges, more fa­cil­i­ties and a larger ura­nium stock­pile.

Why, log­i­cally, would Iran be­lieve Obama’s claim that “all op­tions were on the ta­ble”? On the con­trary, Iran has re­mained the world’s lead­ing state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism — brazenly threat­en­ing Amer­ica’s al­lies in the Mid­dle East, and in 2011 even al­legedly plan­ning a ma­jor ter­ror­ist at­tack in Washington against the Saudi am­bas­sador — with­out fac­ing mil­i­tary or even diplo­matic ret­ri­bu­tion from the United States.

The Ira­ni­ans have taken note of how the White House helped over­throw Libya’s Moam­mar Kadafi af­ter he gave up his nu­clear pro­gram but shied away from North Korea when it tested more weapons. Iran can see how Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar As­sad, by ced­ing part of his chem­i­cal ar­se­nal, went from be­ing Amer­ica’s prob­lem to Amer­ica’s so­lu­tion, and then to bar­rel-bomb­ing his coun­try­men with im­punity. Ira­nian rulers un­der­stood they could count on ob­tain­ing their nu­clear pro­gram’s ob­jec­tives of regime sur­vival and re­gional supremacy with­out dis­man­tling a cen­trifuge.

Obama’s ar­gu­ment not only fails logic’s test but also history’s. Anti-Semitism, the pres­i­dent fur­ther ex­plained to Gold­berg in May, “doesn’t pre­clude you from be­ing ra­tio­nal about the need to keep your econ­omy afloat [or] be­ing strate­gic about how you stay in power.” Ex­cept, in one in­fa­mous ex­am­ple, it did. The Nazis pur­sued in­sane ends. Even dur­ing the last days of World War II, as the Al­lied armies lib­er­ated Europe, they di­verted pre­cious mil­i­tary re­sources to mas­sacring Jews.

Obama would never say that anti-black racists are ra­tio­nal. And he would cer­tainly not trust them with the means — how­ever mon­i­tored — to reach their racist goals. That was the mes­sage Is­raeli of­fi­cials and I con­veyed in our dis­creet talks with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. The re­sponse was not, to our mind, rea­son­able.

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