Nuclear talks: U.S., Iran and the fine art of semantics

Once again, nuclear negotiations are taking place, and once again there’s a gap between the gloomy tone of the Israeli observers and the optimistic, albeit guarded, noises on the American side. It’s doubtful that anything concrete will come of the May 23 talks with the Iranian leadership — that’s the message from Jerusalem. The more blunt would add: The Americans, naive and without clear guidelines, are yet again falling into a trap. In Washington, the administration is broadcasting great caution, almost anxiety, over the raised expectations.

There’s no chance that the issue will be resolved this week; the talks in Baghdad are just the start, and essentially a test — of the Iranians, of course. But in any case, tendrils of hope are starting to creep in: The sanctions are undoubtedly working, and the Iranians are awaiting with dread the oil embargo that comes into effect at the start of July; oil prices are dropping, and, for the time being, the Europeans aren’t blinking. Neither, for that matter, are the Chinese or the Russians. And now the International Atomic Energy Agency is speaking of progress in parallel to the talks with Tehran — a further sign that someone is looking for a way to climb down from the tree.

And what of the warning voices of the Iranian leadership? What of the tough talk, the arrogant public posturing? Even in this, Washington sees a positive, a laying of ground for capitulation — such vociferous barking could signal a lack of willingness to actually bite.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who visited Washington last week to thank his American counterpart, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, for funding to preserve Israel’s military edge in the region, did not forget to bring up what Israel wants. Again, judging by public statements, the gaps are there: The Americans are hopeful, the Israelis skeptical; the Americans are ready for compromise, the Israelis believe compromise is dangerous.

The issue is that when Washingtonians talk about success, they mean an agreement from Iran to halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent or higher. In Israel, the equation for success is zero percent enrichment. In Washington, when they talk about success, it means inspectors at Iran’s nuclear facility in Qom; in Israel, it means dismantling the nuclear facility in Qom. These are, without a doubt, significant differences. Israel believes that if there is no insistence on red lines, it is likely the Western position will be eroded, and the Iranians can be expected to exploit a loophole that would allow them to carry on making a mockery of the rest of the world until their aims have been met.

Washington sees Israel’s public position as unrealistic. If it’s a position for the purposes of negotiations, one intended to make clear there will be no agreement to a dangerous compromise (as officials in Washington believe it is), then this position can be circumvented somehow. But if this is a fundamental position, and Israel really will not agree to a compromise that includes low-level enrichment plus inspections, then expect problems — not between the United States and Iran, but rather between the United States and Israel.

No one believes that Iran can be persuaded to compromise without any of its conditions being met. Any Western compromise will include concessions that let Iran claim victory, at least in part. For example, if the decision is made to allow low-level uranium enrichment, then Iran can flaunt this as finally having won international recognition of its right to enrich uranium. Given that from the outset the Iranians have rejected claims that they are seeking to develop nuclear weapons, they can present this agreement as an achievement: We did not give up anything — those in the West are the ones who understood they had no choice but to allow us to enrich.

A vigorous Israeli opposition will contribute to Iran’s ability to present any compromise as a victory. The unhappier Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is with an agreement, the easier it will be for Tehran to find it acceptable. And so this is another dilemma the United States now faces: Is it worth upsetting the Israelis in order to score points during negotiations? Maybe it’s better to coordinate in advance, so that Israel pretends to be unhappy and the same advantage is gained but without the danger of a genuinely angry Jerusalem deciding to take military action.

A pretense of this nature requires a high level of mutual trust — trust that might well exist between Barak and Panetta, but hard to muster between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. A pretense of this nature would also demand absolutely no leaks, which is always difficult to achieve.

It could also be politically risky for both sides: A convincing display of dissatisfaction by Israel could damage Obama’s chances in an election season, and a believably irate Israel that does not act afterward could raise questions domestically about Netanyahu’s own credibility.