From Washington to Jerusalem to Tehran, the right hand does not seem to know what the left hand is doing when steering policy on a U.S.-Iranian nuclear settlement.
U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez are leading a faction in Congress that says it will follow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's lead when it comes to dealing with Iran. Although U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any bill that imposes additional sanctions on Iran, Republican House Speaker John Boehner bypassed the White House and invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to lobby for the bill. After all, a few words from the Israeli leader himself — and an ardent Israeli lobby behind him — could sway a few more congressmen to muster the 67 votes needed to overturn a presidential veto.
But Netanyahu is dealing with his own renegade faction simultaneously. Leaks have surfaced indicating a split between Israel's chief intelligence agency, the Mossad, and the prime minister over how to deal with Iran. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took the opportunity to broadcast the split when he said Jan. 21 that "one of the top intelligence personnel" in Israel warned a visiting U.S. congressional delegation that the sanctions bill would be like "throwing a grenade" into the negotiation.
After what was likely a stern discussion with his boss, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo issued a strangely detailed denial Jan. 22, asserting that he supported the sanctions pressure on Iran while qualifying that the grenade comment was meant to convey a temporary crisis that would lead to better terms in the negotiation, as opposed to blowing the negotiation apart. Israeli officials and their associates in the media then quickly began to discredit Kerry's statement through their own strongly worded clarifications.
The denials and clarifications did little to quell suspicion that splits exist and endure within the Israeli political, military and intelligence establishment over how to manage the threat from Iran. Netanyahu and his allies in the U.S. Senate know that introducing fresh sanctions — in direct violation of the current negotiating terms — would push Iran away instead of pulling it into a deal. Rather than putting trust in Iran to comply with measures to curb its nuclear program, this faction believes Israel would be better off derailing the negotiation and re-establishing credibility in a military deterrent to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions. A Jan. 20 airstrike on a convoy in Lebanon that killed forces from both Hezbollah and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps only adds to the suspicion that Israel could employ various measures to stress the U.S.-Iran negotiation.
However, there are undoubtedly several figures within Israel's military and intelligence establishment, understanding the immense constraints entailed in addressing the nuclear threat militarily, who would prefer not to go down this path and who place more importance on maintaining a close relationship with Washington than on antagonizing Israel's only patron. The U.S. administration will rely on these splits to undermine its congressional adversaries who argue that the nuclear deal is a betrayal to the U.S. alliance with Israel.
In Tehran, hard-liners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will use the apparent chaos in the U.S.-Israeli relationship to argue that this U.S. administration is an unreliable negotiating partner. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is already gearing up a campaign to undermine his opponents and diminish the corps' role in the political economy. Still, the Iranian leadership will have to contend with the question of whether it can sustain support for a rapprochement with the United States when it knows economic relief will come only gradually and as it struggles to find coherence and credibility in the U.S. position. Should an obstinate Congress override the U.S. president's veto power, those doubts will only deepen within the highest echelons of Iranian power.
Russia, meanwhile, is happy to play the role of the willing diplomat on the surface while quietly pursuing its own efforts to weaken the negotiations. Following a Jan. 20 visit by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Tehran, Russia and Iran agreed to take steps toward settling an old legal dispute over an unfulfilled contract for Russia to supply S-300 air defense systems to Iran. Iran has dropped its $4 billion lawsuit against Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, and Russia has renewed its offer to upgrade Iran's air defense. Russia knows that with or without a deal with the United States, Iran has an imperative to strengthen its air defenses. Russia also knows that reinforcing Iranian skies would complicate a potential military campaign against Iran and thus undermine the military option that Obama needs to keep on the table if he hopes to keep his dissidents at bay. Russia would still need to follow through with this contract, but the renewed threat is surely influencing the debate in both Israel and the United States over how best to deal with Iran.
Risk of Vulnerabilities
The onus remains on the U.S. and Iranian negotiating teams to keep focused on their task and build the momentum behind an agreement that will set Washington and Tehran on a steadier path toward normalization. In fact, Iran's negotiations with six world powers — the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — have been usurped by a U.S.-Iranian bilateral negotiation, with both sides meeting again Jan. 23-24 in Zurich to follow up on the previous week's talks.
Obama and Rouhani have their heels dug in for a multi-layered negotiation that could extend beyond their own presidencies. Realizing that this process will take time, both leaders are trying to put enough momentum behind the diplomatic track now to make normalization between the two countries inevitable in the long run. However, this unavoidably lengthy timeline raises the risk of vulnerabilities.
The reformist camp being reshaped under the chairman of Iran's Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, will face stiff political competition when Iranians see little relief in a depressed economic environment, where sanctions relief comes piecemeal from the United States and the world oil market is oversupplied. More flexibility in European sanctions policy could mitigate Iran's economic pain to an extent, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' entrenchment in Iran's political economy will make it difficult for various memorandums of understanding with European firms to translate into investment on the ground. Uncertainty over Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's health and questions over his succession will be another complicating factor to a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.
As the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations already shows, multiple forces will try to steer Washington and Tehran back toward confrontation. Given that this is a lengthy and complicated negotiation to begin with, dissenters have ample space in which to operate, and their actions in turn risk prolonging the negotiation further. So far, there is little to indicate that diplomacy between the long-estranged capitals will be ditched, but the longer the process takes, the more vulnerabilities will grow in both Washington and Tehran.