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Negotiating to Stop Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

Of course it’s easy to sympathize with Israel’s view on Iran. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, as he did over the weekend, “Iran must not be armed with nuclear weapons”—well, that’s a nice ringing declaration. When French President François Hollande, on his visit to Israel, says more or less la même chose—“France will not make concessions on nuclear proliferation”—I’m sure we can all empathize with France.

But ringing declarations, empathy, sympathy—what do they have to do with what’s actually going on? With what could be going on, with a bit of negotiation and good fortune? How do they help the world gain concessions from a famously paranoid nation? Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, at first seemingly pliable, has recently done an about-face. After initially sending signals that if sanctions were dropped, he might be amenable to a nuclear enrichment freeze, Rouhani now, after France’s declaration and the suspension of talks, says otherwise. His country, Rouhani now insists, has a right “to enrichment” of uranium, and sanctions imposed by the West, he adds, will do nothing to cause Iran to back down on that enrichment project. This of course is a ringing declaration in its own right. And a dangerous one as well, since Iran may be only months away from being capable of producing a nuclear weapon.

But if you’re an Iranian president who after engaging in a single phone call with Barack Obama, discovers on his return to his home country demonstrators throwing shoes at his limo (in Islamic culture, the sole of a shoe is considered particularly disgusting, a sign of total contempt), you have ample reason to, as it were, tread carefully. And yet, for some reason, neither Israel nor France seems to grasp all that. In fact, France in particular has pretty much shoved Rouhani into the kind of tight corner that practically forces him to lash out. (So did Netanyahu, who called the Iranian leader “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but I’m betting Rouhani doesn’t worry overmuch about Israel’s character assessment.)

France, for example, is adamant that operations at the nuclear reactor at Arak—not yet online, by the way—be halted. While that, of course, will be an important part of any agreement, how prudent was it for the French to insist on such a measure so early in the negotiations? That the nation of Talleyrand, the country famous for the delicacy and skill of its diplomacy, would abandon these traits at such a crucial moment is not an accident or oversight.

Netanyahu of course has his own reasons for distrust, ones that are close by and existential. Personally, I think Netanyahu sees existential threats around every corner. It is both his strength (with his electorate) and his central, irredeemable weakness in conducting foreign policy, one that France is busy exploiting right now.

No one is suggesting blind trust should be the order of the day in negotiations with Iran. But consider this: In October, Rouhani ordered a nationwide survey to find out if most Iranians support or oppose improved relations with the US. A decade earlier, previous pollsters examining the same question were jailed for conducting just such a survey because the results disturbed the country’s despots. At the time, roughly 70 percent of respondents favored restoring ties between Washington and Tehran.

So the question is this: If Rouhani is as untrustworthy, obdurate, and intransigent as the French and Israelis make him out to be, why would he have ordered a similar poll last month? He knows the likely results. We all do. Given an opportunity, given the chance and encouragement, he might just act on them.

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