Dealing with Iran's Two Faces

Israel’s announcement on Wednesday that its naval commandoes had seized a civilian ship laden with Iranian rockets bound for militant groups in Hamas-ruled Gaza came a day late to be included in the bill of particulars against Iran in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference. But it did come in time for a briefing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee by Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, who used it to bolster the argument that Iran’s only true face is the terrorist one.

“You see on the one hand there is this charm offensive” from Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Steinitz told The Daily Beast. “And now you discover underneath the mask of this charm offensive, that Iran is still the same Iran.”

Make no mistake, this is bad news, the latest exhibit in a sizable portfolio demonstrating again Iran’s destabilizing support for violent extremist groups in the region. It also shows that, however many orders of magnitude stronger than its enemies Israel is militarily, maintaining its security amid a region in turmoil requires constant vigilance. But refusing to acknowledge any distinction between the competing factions within the Iranian regime—in this case, between the relatively more moderate faction of President Hassan Rohani and the hardline Revolutionary Guards, who manage Iran’s support for extremist groups—or to recognize that there is any disagreement between them about Iran’s approach to the world (something Israel’s military intelligence assesses is occurring) would be closing the door on an opportunity to advance both U.S. and Israeli security.

Some have already compared the latest seizure to the 2002 Karine A incident. To refresh your memory, in early January 2002, Israelis seized a shipment of Iranian arms (still in their factory wrapping, reportedly) bound for the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. government found the Israeli’s evidence of Iranian and Palestinian involvement “compelling.” The incident was a pivotal moment in the development of the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism, causing them to essentially write off PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat as a fit partner for peace, and convincing President Bush to add Iran to the “Axis of Evil” for his 2002 State of the Union address.

The calls are already going out for the Obama administration to respond in a similar way, mainly from hawkish critics who’ve never supported talking to Iran anyway. This is would be absolutely the wrong call, and here a comparison to the Karine A incident are helpful, but not in the way the administration’s critics want it to be.

What did the Bush administration’s response to the Karine A incident achieve? Cutting off Arafat did little except allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester. And adding Iran to the Axis of Evil,” coming as it did as the U.S. and Iran were cooperating, for the first time in years, in setting up a post-Taliban Afghanistan, ended what small opportunity existed for bettering U.S.-Iran relations.

According to Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan at the time, the U.S. and Iran had “forged agreements on various security issues and coordinated approaches to reconstruction. And then, suddenly, it all came to an end when President George W. Bush gave his famous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech.” As a result, Crocker wrote, “The Iranian leadership concluded that in spite of their cooperation with the American war effort, the United States remained implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic. Real cooperation effectively ceased after the speech and the costs were immediate.”

Responding to the Karine A incident by shutting out Arafat and abandoning cooperation with Iran resulted in a deepened crisis in both areas; dramatically increased mistrust and fear between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and publics amid an even more intractable occupation, and a considerably more advanced nuclear program in Iran

Keeping the nuclear talks cordoned off from terrorism is the smart play here. It recognizes that talks are what have arrested the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program for the first time in a decade. It also recognizes that the relatively moderate and pragmatic faction led by Rohani and Zarif are currently empowered on the nuclear issue alone, and that the best chance for them being empowered to move beyond it into other areas of government policy is for them to be able to deliver a victory through negotiations, one that eases economic sanctions while securing what Iran sees as its nuclear rights.

That’s not to say that the U.S. should do nothing in response to the arms seizure. The Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva last year commits the U.S. and its P5+1 partners not to pass new nuclear related sanctions. On terrorism there is no such agreement. To paraphrase the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the U.S. should “fight terrorism as if there are no nuclear negotiations, and pursue nuclear negotiations as if there is no terrorism.”

“We retain the ability to target and sanction Iranian support for terrorism in the region, as we have many times before,” a Senior Administration Official told me via email yesterday. “We have expressly indicated to Iranian officials that this is something we intend to keep doing.”

As with so much else in his approach to foreign policy, President Obama essentially laid this out in his 2009 Nobel acceptance speech. “I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation, “ he said. “But I also know that sanctions without outreach—condemnation without discussion—can carry forward only a crippling status quo.” The U.S. and its partners are wise to continue those discussions with Iran.

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