The most undercovered story in Washington is how President Obama, under the influence of election-year politics, is letting America drift toward war with Iran. This story is the unseen but ominous backdrop to next week's Moscow round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
The basic story line, pretty well known inside the beltway, is simple: There are things Obama could do to greatly increase the chances of a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, but he seems to have decided that doing them would bring political blowback that would reduce his chances of re-election.
The good news is that Obama's calculation may be wrong. The blowback he fears--largely from Bibi Netanyahu, AIPAC, and other "pro-Israel" voices--is probably less forbidding than he assumes. And the political upside of successful statesmanship may be greater than he realizes.
But suppose Obama's right about the politics. It's still a little scandalous that he's imperiling peace and America's security in order to increase his chances of re-election by 1.5 percent, or whatever the imagined number is. And it's even more scandalous how unscandalous this is, how people throughout the Washington establishment--in government, in NGOs, in journalism--are so inured to the corruption of policy by politics that almost nobody bothers to complain about it even when it could lead to war.
The administration's nervousness about deviating from the perceived wishes of the "pro-Israel" community has been evident throughout these negotiations. Before the most recent round of talks--in Baghdad last month--Vice President Biden and other administration officials met with 70 Jewish leaders assembled by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. According to reporting by Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, administration officials "emphasized that they will be steadfast in upholding one key Israeli demand: That sanctions not be sacrificed to the negotiating process."
Sure enough, in Baghdad the "P5+1"--the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, a group whose de facto leader is America--offered Iran no significant relief from sanctions, even in exchange for Iranian concessions that would have moved the world further away from war.
Those concessions would have included Iran's ceasing production of uranium enriched to 20-percent levels. This uranium is a ways from the 90-percent-enriched uranium that is weapons grade--and, anyway, having weapons-grade material is a ways from having a weapon; even if Iran launched a headlong effort to get a bomb, and started further enriching the 20-percent enriched uranium, a deliverable weapon would still be at least two years away, according to standard estimates. Still, this 20-percent enriched uranium is significantly closer to weapons grade than the 3.5-percent enriched uranium, suitable for civilian energy use, that Iran otherwise produces. So America's (and P5+1's) near-term goal is to get Iran to quit producing the 20-percent uranium and surrender its existing stockpile of such uranium. (This 20-percent uranium has medical uses, but Iran could be given the functional equivalent in a form not amenable to further enrichment.)
In short, a deal on 20-percent uranium would markedly increase the distance between Iran and a nuclear weapon--yet in Baghdad, P5+1 refused to offer Iran relief from even one of the many, many banking and oil sanctions already in place. It even refused to offer to delay--by even a few months!--the implementation of new European Community oil sanctions scheduled to kick in next month.
Meir Javedanfar--an Israeli academic of Iranian descent who is quite anti-regime and is committed to keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran's hands--expressed puzzlement at P5+1's failure to offer sanctions relief. "Had Iran accepted such an offer, it would have been a breakthrough for the P5+1, as the most sensitive and dangerous part of Iran's enrichment program would have come to a halt," he wrote in The Diplomat. "And had Iran rejected such an offer, it would have isolated itself even more, while justifying the P5+1's dual track of sanctions and diplomacy."
Surely, wrote Javedanfar, who teaches a course on Iranian politics at an Israeli university, our negotiators were aware of the political constraints facing Iranian leader Ali Khamenei: Khamenei needs "a deal that he can sell to his home audience, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard," so giving up 20 percent enrichment without any sanctions relief would have been "political suicide for him." Given that our "offer" was sure to be rejected, asked Javedanfar, "Why make such an offer in the first place?"
A cynic might say: Because then you get the benefits of appearing to seek a negotiated solution without the political downside of violating AIPAC's negotiating guidelines, which specify that no sanctions relief is to be granted for a deal like this. I'm not quite that cynical; I doubt Obama or his negotiators see themselves as just going through the motions, with no prospect of a deal. But there can be little doubt that they are seriously constrained by concerns about "pro-Israel" opinion.
Indeed, after the Baghdad talks ended, Wendy Sherman, head of the American delegation, went to Tel Aviv before returning to Washington. As an anonymous American official explained to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "We updated the Israelis in detail before we updated our own government." The official also summarized the upshot of the personally delivered message: "There are no gaps between the U.S. and Israel in anything related to talks between Iran and the six world powers over the future of Iran's nuclear program."
If that's true, then things look grim. And the problem goes beyond Israeli views on sanctions relief. Netanyahu's position is that, at the end of the day, Iran can't be allowed to enrich uranium even to the sub-5-percent levels used in civilian energy programs--even though this is allowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is done by some other Treaty members. For the U.S. to adopt this position would pretty much end the possibility of a long-term, comprehensive deal that could settle this problem once and for all. For Iran, an acknowledged right to enrich uranium is a matter of great national pride and for political reasons has to be part of any final deal.