A self-provoked crisis in Ukraine (if the United States hadn’t sponsored a coup there, there wouldn’t be a crisis), a horrific civil war in Syria with no sign of ending soon, kidnapped girls in Nigeria, anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. These all falling within a span of glorious late spring days on eastern Long Island, where bright sunlight begins to peep under and around the shades at 5:30 in the morning. It feels almost ominous, this contrast between the almost unspeakable natural beauty here and horrors abroad.
The Iran negotiations, a critical subject of the late fall and early winter, are reaching a pivotal point. The Obama administration won a major victory in January, with an assist from grassroots peace and arms-control groups, gaining the right to negotiate with Iran on terms which could conceivably succeed—i.e. terms which acknowledged that some part of Iran’s nuclear enrichment cycle would be retained. AIPAC backed off from legislation designed to scuttle the negotiations.
But of course the negotiations themselves, even without pro-Israel senators trying to ensure their failure, are fraught with difficulties. Iran may not want to have a nuclear weapon, but it pretty clearly wants to be a nuclear threshold state, with the ability to build a nuclear weapon if it felt seriously threatened. It has been invaded by Iraq and is constantly menaced by Israel and America, and it is hard to see why any Iranian foreign policy analyst would think that the potential for building a bomb wouldn’t give it a deterrence it might someday need. On the other hand, Obama and John Kerry would surely find it easier to sell to Congress and the American people a deal where Iran has no more than a symbolic uranium enrichment capacity. I suspect that a common ground can be found, but it is difficult. Iran has its own hardliners, reluctant to negotiate away any of Iran’s nuclear program. It also has vested interests who would welcome intensified confrontation with the West, which would help them domestically. The latest round of talks in Geneva, where some hoped that progress towards drafting a comprehensive agreement would begin, showed very large gaps remaining.
Meanwhile, there are outside actors, both positive and negative. On the negative side, Washington-based foes of any Iran deal were only provisionally set back in January. Israel continues to oppose any deal that will give Iran enrichment capacity, and Republicans will oppose any deal that gives Obama a meaningful foreign affairs accomplishment. That’s a potent combination on Capitol Hill, which is why the progress of the Corker amendment—originally attached to the kind of pro-Israel legislation that Congress passes without debate—bears watching. If it is brought to the Senate floor and voted on (which by some accounts may happen this week), it will give Congress the right to hold a “vote of disapproval” within days of any signed agreement with Iran. The purpose, it would seem, is to give the Israeli government power to weigh in on the negotiations, which it has always strongly disapproved of. A snap vote that the combined forces of the Israel lobby and the GOP would certainly win, generating national headlines like “Iran deal DOA in Congress” and the like, even though the amendment is constructed to not give Congress the power to block the deal formally.
On the more positive side, elements in American civil society are slowly gearing up for some sort of detente with Iran. 60 Minutes broadcast a very revealing episode on the negotiations and the country last Sunday, and most of those who saw it will be a bit skeptical about the let’s-bomb-Iran crowd’s propaganda about the “mad mullahs” and their “terror state.” One sees many interviews with Iranians, who generally seem cautious and intelligent, with tempered hopes of what successful negotiations might bring. They’ve been disappointed many times before. Even in the poorer “religious” suburbs of Tehran, 14-year-old boys spoke English and seemed eager for social contact with Steve Kroft and his crew.
Similarly, I’ve heard of several high-power American clergy delegations to Iran that are planned or at least under discussion. Theirs has been a missing voice in the Iran conversations, but shouldn’t be. In my personal view, there is really no reason we should be hostile to Iran, nor—once we cease trying to destroy their economy—they with us. It might be too much to hope that such a reality can break through the forces striving for perpetual enmity and war, but it’s possible.