US President Barack Obama has agreed to hold direct talks on Iran’s nuclear program with its leaders, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Is this a surprise? On April 16, 2012, debkafile disclosed that Washington and Tehran were conducting back-channel talks in Paris and Vienna, Sources close to Obama have now leaked word to the New York Times that the dialogue is to be elevated to direct talks at summit level. This disclosure, despite its subsequent denial by the White House, has three clear objects:
1. To slow down the Republican contender Mitt Romney’s momentum in opinion polls ahead of the Nov. 6 election. Obama’s campaign advisers believe the president’s willingness to engage Iranian leaders directly on their nuclear program, in contrast to Romney’s tougher stance, will appeal to the American voter’s reluctance for US military action.
2. To preempt Romney’s presumed plan to drop the disclosure of the back-channel dialogue as a bombshell in their last debate on foreign policy scheduled for Monday, Oct. 22 in Florida.
3. To reassure Tehran that the Austere Challenge 12 joint US-Israeli war game starting Sunday Oct. 21 – albeit in reduced form – will not be the opening shot for an “October surprise” on Iran.
This kite was flown by David Rothkopf, who is close to the Democratic leadership, in Foreign Policy on October 9, although it was not picked up by anyone else in Washington or Jerusalem. Under the heading an “October surprise,” he cited a White House faction as recommending to Obama that the US join Israel in launching a surgical operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the US election.
Obama is now signaling Tehran that he has rejected this advice in favor of upgrading his dialogue with Iranian leaders.
However, beyond the calculus of campaign strategy, it is important to note that the clandestine dialogue in progress for the best part of a year has produced no breakthrough in the controversy on Iran’s nuclear aspirations. This is mainly because Obama’s emissaries have never stipulated plainly that Tehran must stop uranium enrichment as a quid pro quo for the dialogue to continue. Just the reverse: they let it be known that Washington does not object to Iran’s enrichment program per se so long as it is not used for building a nuclear weapon.
The differences between the two sides centered on the American demand for the International Atomic Energy Agency to be allowed 24/7 monitoring access to the enrichment projects to determine that parts of the stock did not suddenly disappear for use in manufacturing a bomb. Tehran has only agreed to inspectors paying visits once a fortnight.
Vice President Joe Biden was outspoken about this during his debate with Paul Ryan on Oct. 11. He actually said that the quantities of enriched uranium accumulated don’t matter – only what Iran does with it. This admission aroused little notice although it implied that the Obama administration is willing to let Iran approach a very risky threshold.
It also indicated a very wide gulf still existing between the Obama administration’s indulgent attitude toward a nuclear Iran and Israel’s insistence on red lines for limiting the quantities and grades of enriched uranium Iran is permitted to accumulate.
At the same time, Israel keeps on backtracking on those red lines: When Iran moved its enrichment plant into an immune zone earlier this month, one red line disappeared. And Israel is no longer openly challenging Washington’s assurance that a decision by Khamenei to go forward and start building a weapon would reach US intelligence at the precise moment it is made.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have therefore been forced back step by step and have silently fallen in behind Obama.
For his part, the US president believes a summit with Iran’s rulers will enhance his chances of reelection. But he is leaving Netanyahu to face the Israeli voter in three months with nothing remaining of his pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran, and clutching at the outward concurrence between Israeli and US intelligence appraisals of Iran’s nuclear progress.
There is no real concurrence; the gap is as wide as ever. But by failing to deny Israeli affinity with the United States on this issue, Netanyahu and Barak are not only helping Barack Obama but also encouraging Tehran to keep going.