The P5+1 talks that took place in Istanbul yesterday involve both Turkey and Israel with varying degrees of directness, so I am loathe to let the occasion pass without commenting at all. By all accounts, the talks went better than expected, with the parties agreeing to meet again in May and the six world powers leaving satisfied that Iran is willing to engage in serious negotiations over its nuclear program. Interestingly, there was complete silence from Israel after the talks concluded, with an anonymous official saying that Jerusalem is waiting to see how everything shakes out and that commenting would not be prudent.
There are three possible ways to interpret Israeli silence, particularly given the public disagreement last week that erupted between Netanyahu and Barak over what Israel’s redline is with regard to Iran. The first option is that Israel has decided to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities at some point during the spring or summer, and the P5+1 talks are going to have no bearing on Israel’s decision. If Israel believes that Iran is determined to become a nuclear power no matter the cost, then Saturday’s events will confirm Israeli suspicions, as Iran successfully placated the six countries on the other side of the table and furthermore insisted that the U.S. and Europe hold off striking Iran while negotiations are ongoing, yet did not make any tangible concessions. If Israel thinks that Iran is engaged in nothing more than delaying tactics, yesterday lent this theory plenty of credence.
The second option is that the Obama administration’s efforts to convince Israel to hold off and give sanctions time to work has been successful. It is out of character for Israel to practice rhetorical restraint when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, yet the public silence following the Istanbul talks can be interpreted in the simplest way possible and exactly how the unnamed Israeli spokesman explained it, which is that Israel actually does want to see how the talks play out before making any decision. Given the change in tone from the Iranian side that was reported following the talks and the sense that Iran is finally serious about negotiations, Israel may be reluctantly concluding that Obama’s strategy of forcing Iran into concessions through sanctions and diplomatic isolation is working. Erdoğan’s angry outburst directed at Iran last week also helps matters, since the loss of the only NATO member that had heretofore been neutral – if not actually leaning toward Iran – can only have helped to prod the Iranians to approach negotiations with a new attitude.
The third option is that Israel did not respond to Saturday’s talks because there is confusion at the highest levels about what the response should be. Netanyahu and Barak’s differing statements about what Israel’s position is on Iran did not reflect mere semantics, but a genuine policy dispute. Netanyahu’s position is a more hardline one, demanding that Iran give up all uranium enrichment efforts and any actual uranium that has already been enriched. Barak, in contrast, voiced his willingness to allow Iran to keep some enriched uranium and receive enriched fuel rods from an outside country if it opens up all of its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspectors and suspends (rather than permanently ends) its enrichment program. This reflects a serious disagreement between Israel’s two top decision makers on security matters, and their relationship is unusual enough that the balance of power between the two may actually tip in the defense minister’s favor rather than the prime minister’s. It may very well be that Israel’s policy on what it would require from Iran in order to avoid a strike is now up in the air and more unsettled than it has been in months, necessitating that Jerusalem keep quiet until Netanyahu and Barak are able to agree on what they want.
My view is that the answer lies mainly with the second option, with a dash of option three. I am on record as predicting that Israel is not going to strike Iran any time soon, and I think that Obama has successfully persuaded Netanyahu to give the U.S. strategy a chance, and implicitly promised that the U.S. will attack Iran if it fails. The Netanyahu-Barak argument also should not be discounted, and Israel is smart not to fall into a second situation in under a week in which it sends conflicting signals. If my reading of events is correct and Israel is publicly backing off on its threats for the time being, it will only increase pressure on the Iranian leadership by removing Israeli bellicosity as an excuse for Iranian nationalism, which has been a valuable shield for the regime.
UPDATE: It seems as if Israel’s silence was short lived, as Netanyahu has come out criticizing the talks, accusing the negotiating states of giving Iran a freebie and reiterating his position that Iran must give up all of its enriched uranium and dismantle its enrichment facilities immediately. This shifts the balance toward option 3, and as Barak Ravid notes in the Haaretz piece (and confirms what I wrote above), it means that the Netanyahu-Barak rift is growing. Netanyahu’s frustration seems to be boiling over at the prospect of his being stymied in striking Iranian nuclear sites, and it says to me that the U.S. campaign has not won him over but that it has won over his defense minister, who as I have noted previously is the more crucial figure that the U.S. needs to convince to withhold from attacking.