Obama’s Secret Iran Talks Deserve Scrutiny

02.17.2015 - 2:50 PM

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that the exchange of secret letters between President Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has resumed. The letters are believed to concern Obama’s offer of cooperation with Iran against ISIS terrorists if Tehran will agree to a deal on its nuclear program. These letters have clearly been a crucial element in the six-year administration effort to forge a new détente with the Islamist regime. But they must also be placed in the context of the ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Israel about the nuclear talks. Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chided the U.S. for attempting to hide the details about the negotiations from Israel. While the president doesn’t like or trust the prime minister, those concerned about a drift toward accommodation of Iran’s demands are not wrong to note that the secrecy about the negotiations undermines the credibility of the administration’s assurances that it can be trusted not to betray the Israelis or American security interests in a futile pursuit of good relations with Khamenei’s government.

For the past few weeks, concerns about the details of the terms the U.S. is offering to Iran in the nuclear talks have been obscured by the controversy about Netanyahu’s determination to speak to a joint session of Congress next month about Iran. As I’ve pointed out, accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation was a tactical blunder on Netanyahu’s part since it allowed the president and his apologists to divert the discussion about Iran from his indefensible pursuit of an entente with a radical terror-sponsoring tyranny to one about the Israeli’s alleged breach of protocol. This was a no-win confrontation for Israel and its friends that may have made it harder for Congress to pass tougher sanctions on Iran with a veto-proof majority because of defections from Democrats concerned about not taking sides with a foreign leader against the president. But the Journal report reminds us that the stakes here involve a lot more than the personal animus between Obama and Netanyahu.

The decision of the U.S. to keep Israel out of the loop about the details of its talks with Iran makes sense only inside the White House bubble where Netanyahu—the democratically-elected leader of America’s ally—is perceived as an enemy and the theocrat tyrant Khamenei is viewed as the head of a nation that must be wooed and won over in an effort to forge an entente with Tehran. Diplomacy is always best practiced outside of public view, but the problem with the discussion about Iran is that the administration’s public stand about its desire to prevent the regime from getting a nuclear weapon is at odds with everything we know about the negotiations.

As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius pointed out yesterday, the White House continues to claim that its offers to let Iran keep much of its nuclear infrastructure are misunderstood. He writes that officials say granting Iran the right to keep several thousands centrifuges and a stockpile of nuclear fuel would actually be tougher than one that would give them only a few hundred newer machines and a larger stockpile. But this is a classic Obama false choice in which a straw man is set up for the administration to knock down. What the Israelis and concerned members of Congress who support the threat of more sanctions want is for the president to keep his 2012 campaign pledge that stated that any deal would involve the end of Iran’s nuclear program. The administration has abandoned that position in favor of one that gives Iran the ability to build a bomb but only under circumstances that would take more than a year for them to “break out” to a weapon.

The problem with the one-year breakout offer is that there is a good argument to be made by the Israelis and others that the breakout period would be much shorter. Moreover, the idea that U.S. intelligence in Iran is good enough to detect the breakout in time to do something to prevent is, to put it mildly, a dubious assumption.

American officials may be angry about the fact that the Israelis are doing their best to publicize the details about American offers to Iran that make it clear that, at best, the U.S. is prepared to acquiesce to Khamenei’s regime becoming a threshold nuclear power. But, like their much publicized hurt feelings about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress that they’ve used to pick off wavering Democrats from the ranks of supporters of more sanctions, their umbrage about the Israeli disclosures rings false. The more we know about Obama’s communications with Khamenei and the fine print in the Western offers in the nuclear negotiations, the more it seems certain that détente is the president’s goal, not putting an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Disputes with Israel are being used as a cover to shield a diplomatic offensive aimed at allowing Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. If the president expects the country and Congress to follow his lead on Iran, it’s only fair to ask where he is leading us before, rather than after, he signs a nuclear deal that endangers U.S. allies and puts American security in the hands of the supreme leader and his terrorist auxiliaries.

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger atwww.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: jtobin@commentarymagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter at TobinCommentary.