Why U.S.-Iran Talks Are Good for Israel

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Since taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama has on several occasions tried to reach out to the Iranian government in order to start negotiations between the two sides. To Washington, the primary goal of such dialogue would be to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear program. Other regional matters, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, remain secondary to this primary concern.

The Iranian government realizes the importance of its nuclear program to Washington. The concern in Tehran is that talks may lead to compromises in this all important area. Not wishing to give up what it sees as insurance for its survival, the Iranian government has ruled out talks of halting its uranium enrichment as part of talks with the U.S.

Instead, Iran has offered its own proposal for talks, which amongst other items calls for "complete disarmament of the existing nuclear weapons," "reform of the UN and the Security Council", while seeking "reforms in the UN on the basis of principles of democracy and justice." Iran also proposes to discuss what it sees as important issues such as the environment, and combating underground economy and corruption around the world.

Despite Iran's unwillingness to discuss the nuclear issue, Washington still seems to be interested in talking to Iran.

This reaction has left more than a few Israeli officials baffled. Some even feel insulted. In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, a senior official in Jerusalem said that with its response "Iran has spat in the face of the United States and the world."

When it comes to feeling bewildered by Iran's response, Israel is not alone. There are some Iranians who are also baffled.

In its editorial, the Tabnak news analysis website - which is run by Mohsen Rezai, former head of the Revolutionary Guards - says that the proposal has the religious tone of letters sent to various world officials by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Therefore, some might say, these recent proposals should thus remain as one of President Ahmadinejad's letters and without the fanfare which the government created in its handover ceremony to the EU ambassadors in Tehran. The editorial goes on to criticize the government's suggested proposals. The Majles Center for Research, reports Tabnak, had deemed the proposition calling for the reform of the UN and the Security Council as "void of expertise." In fact, the Center had initially asked that this suggestion not to be included in the negotiations package at all. However, the government ignored this call and went ahead with its inclusion.

For now, it seems as though Jerusalem's hope that Iran would talk about its nuclear program was based on the 2003 grand bargain from Tehran, which had offered negotiations on this thorny issue, as well as Iran's support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The new Iranian offer falls much shorter.

Israeli decision makers may now ask: under the current circumstances, wouldn't a U.S.-Iran dialogue give Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei more time to achieve his nuclear aspirations? Why should the U.S. talk with the Iranians? And why should Israel back America's decision to engage Iran?

The sense of concern in Jerusalem is understandable. However, the Israeli leadership should also note that the current crisis has provided Israel with an invaluable opportunity. Direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran could deepen the crisis in the current Iranian administration, since there are many in Iran who opposed such talks.

In fact, it is possible the exact reasoning behind such a convoluted and "void of expertise" proposal was solely intended to deter America from talking to Iran at all.

Therefore, by agreeing to talk, President Obama has called Ayatollah Khamenei's bluff. It is the Iranian regime that could come out the worst from these talks. After all, how can Iran talk about corruption and the environment, when its own government is one of the worst offenders? If anything, publicly discussing such matters with the Iranian government could damage its image further, thus making its isolation less problematic.

On top of this, refusal to discuss the nuclear program will make it much easier to impose tougher sanctions. This may even include Russia. Despite recent statements from Moscow, Jerusalem should not overlook Russia's non-objection to the decision not to invite Tehran to the recent Caspian Sea summit in Kazakhstan. As far as some Iranians are concerned, this was a slap in the face from a usually friendly ally.

While Israel should be prepared for any military threat from Iran, be it direct or from surrogate groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, when it comes to talks between Iran and the U.S., Israel should welcome them. To the conservatives in Iran, Obama's is the bear hug that could kill. Meanwhile, Ali Khamenei acting on his own free will is doing a much better job of damaging his regime from within and without, and in front of the whole world. So for now, instead of worrying, Israel should try to find some time to enjoy the show.

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