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Commentary: Let's make a deal

by on November 21, 2013 10:00 AM

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The Middle East once again proves that if you eat right, exercise regularly and don’t smoke, you’ll live long enough to see everything, including a day when the Jews controlling Jerusalem and the Sunni Saudi Custodians of the Great Mosques of Mecca and Medina would form a tacit alliance against the Shiite Persians of Iran and the Protestants of America — with the Hindus of India and the Confucians of China also supporting America, sort of, while the secularist French play all sides.

I’ve now seen everything.

But is this good news? At one level, yes. I attended a Gulf security conference here in Abu Dhabi that included officials and experts from all over the Arab/Muslim world. In the opening session, Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, flanked by the white and blue Israeli flag, gave an address by satellite from his office in Jerusalem. Good for the United Arab Emirates, the conference sponsor, for making that happen. Seeing the Israeli president speak to an audience dotted with Arab headdresses reminded me of the Oslo days, when Israelis and Arabs held business conferences in Cairo and Amman.

But this tacit Israeli-Sunni Arab cooperation is not based on any sort of reconciliation but on the tribal tradition that my enemy’s enemy is my friend — and the enemy is Iran, which has been steadily laying the groundwork to build a nuclear weapon. Diplomats and ministers from Israel and the Israel lobby have been working Congress, while officials from Arab Gulf states have been telling the Obama administration directly the same message: how much they oppose the proposed deal that Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany have drafted to trade limited sanctions relief in return for Iran’s starting to roll back its nuclear program.

UNPRECEDENTED OPPOSITION

Never have I seen Israel and America’s core Arab allies working more in concert to stymie a major foreign policy initiative of a sitting U.S. president, and never have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.

That said, I don’t mind Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia going ballistic — in stereo — over this proposed deal. It gives Kerry more leverage. Kerry can tell the Iranians: “Look, our friends are craaaaaazzzy. And one of them has a big air force. You better sign quick.”

No, I don’t begrudge Israel and the Arabs their skepticism, but we still should not let them stop a deal. If you’re not skeptical about Iran, you’re not paying attention. Iran has lied and cheated its way to the precipice of building a bomb, and without tough economic sanctions — sanctions that President Barack Obama engineered but which Netanyahu and the Arab states played a key role in driving — Iran would not be at the negotiating table. I also understand the specific concerns of the Gulf Arabs, which I’d summarize as: “It looks to us as if you want to do this deal and then get out of the region — and leave behind an Iran that will only become economically more powerful, at a time when it already has enormous malign influence in Syria, Iraq, in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and in Bahrain.”

NO 'BUILD A BOMB AND TALK'

I get it, but I also don’t think we’d just abandon them. In the long run, the deal Kerry is trying to forge with Iran is good for us and our allies for four reasons: 1) In return for very limited sanctions relief, the deal is expected to freeze all of Iran’s nuclear bomb-making technologies, roll back some of them and put in place an unprecedented, intrusive inspection regime, while maintaining all the key oil sanctions so Iran will still be hurting aplenty. This way Iran can’t “build a bomb and talk” at the same time (the way Israel builds more settlements while it negotiates with Palestinians). Iran freezes and rolls back part of its program now, while we negotiate a full deal to lift sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to restrictions that make it impossible for it to break out with a nuclear weapon. 2) While, Netanyahu believes more sanctions will get Iran to surrender every piece of its nuclear technology, Iran experts say that is highly unlikely. 3) Iran has already mastered the technology to make a bomb (and polls show that this is very popular with Iranians).

There is no way to completely eliminate every piece of Iran’s nuclear technology unless you wipe every brain clean there. 4) The only lasting security lies in an internal transformation in Iran, which can only come with more openness. Kerry’s deal would roll back Iran’s nuclear program, while also strengthening more moderate tendencies in Iran. Maybe that will go nowhere, or maybe it will lead to more internal changes. It’s worth a carefully constructed test.

If Israel kills this U.S.-led deal, then the only option is military. How many Americans or NATO allies will go for bombing Iran after Netanyahu has blocked the best effort to explore a credible diplomatic alternative? Not many. That means only Israel will have a military option. If Israel uses it, it may set Iran back, but it will also set Iran free to rush to a bomb. Is Israel ready to bomb Iran every six months?



Thomas Friedman writes a column for the New York Times.
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