When Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, came home from the United Nations General Assembly meeting last Friday, demonstrators at Tehran airport threw eggs, shoes and stones. They had heard about his 15-minute phone conversation with US President Barack Obama, and they were not pleased.
But there was many more Rouhani supporters at the airport, who clearly hoped that he will make a deal with the United States on Iran’s nuclear programme and end the sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy. “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution,” Rouhani’s office tweeted after the famous phone call to Obama, and most Iranians want to believe him.
Most people elsewhere want to believe him too. We have had ten years of escalating threats by Israel and the US to attack Iran if it doesn’t stop enriching uranium for its civil nuclear power programme, on the grounds that this is merely a cover for a nuclear weapons programme. This could end up as a big, ugly war.
That’s why Obama took the political risk of becoming the first US president in 34 years to talk to an Iranian leader. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great,” Obama said, “but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Then the chief roadblock arrived: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He was flying to New York to “tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the blitz of smiles,” he said – and when he mounted the podium at the General Assembly, he bluntly accused the new Iranian president of being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
But nobody, not even the Israeli intelligence services, accuses Iran of working on nuclear weapons right now. So why doesn’t Netanyahu welcome the fact that Iran now seems willing to negotiate a deal that would leave it free to make its own enriched nuclear fuel for reactors, but stop it from making highly enriched uranium suitable for weapons?
By all means insist that any US-Iranian deal be enforceable and free of loopholes, but why say things like “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake (enriched uranium) and eat it too”? Because the ten-year confrontation over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions has served Netanyahu so well.
If a lasting deal emerged from the negotiations being mooted between Tehran and Washington, he would lose the ability to extort unconditional American military support for Israel, no matter what it does, on the grounds that Israel faces an existential threat from Iran.
Since the Russian-sponsored deal over Syria’s chemical weapons has similarly sidelined the prospect of an American attack on Syria (which Israel sees as its second most dangerous enemy), the foreign policy that has sustained Netanyahu for almost two decades is collapsing.
Without a plausible military threat to Israel, Netanyahu’s ability to bully successive American administrations into ignoring Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, its clandestine nuclear and chemical weapons, and much else besides, would slowly drain away. So he will do everything he can to strangle the newborn possibility of an American-Iranian rapprochement in its cradle.
As the scenes at Tehran airport demonstrate, Rouhani also faces strong opposition at home from those whose political instincts or interests demand a continuation of the Iran-against-the-world confrontation that has already lasted for a generation. Rouhani’s initiative has created much hope, but its enemies are already working to kill it.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.