By David Schenker, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views expressed are his own.
The November 19 double-suicide bombings of the Iranian embassy in Beirut may have looked shocking in the headlines – they killed 23 people. But they also should not have come as a surprise.
Since 2011, Tehran has earned its karma in Lebanon. The attack, whose victims included an Iranian diplomat, was likely payback for the Shiite theocracy’s unwavering support for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s brutal repression of the largely Sunni uprising in Syria. Aided by Iranian troops, weapons and its Lebanese Shiite proxy militia Hezbollah, over the past three years, al-Assad's government has killed nearly 130,000 mostly Sunni Syrians.
The real question is what comes now – and I expect a surge in regional violence. Paradoxically, the international “first step” nuclear agreement with Iran increases rather than diminishes the chances that the Shiite theocracy in Tehran will take steps that exacerbate the regional sectarian conflict.
By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin is author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, forthcoming in February 2014. You can follow him @mrubin1971. The views expressed are his own.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and foreign ministers from Russia, China, and Europe signed a deal to suspend aspects of Iranian nuclear work in exchange for some sanctions relief. “With this first step, we have created the time and the space in order to be able to pursue a comprehensive agreement…to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon," Kerry told assembled diplomats and journalists.
President Barack Obama was triumphant. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
He should not be so certain. Rather than prevent Iran’s nuclear breakout, historians may mark the Geneva deal as the step that most legitimized Iran’s path to nuclear weapons capability.
By Fareed Zakaria
If you’re trying to decide what to think about the deal struck between the major powers and Iran in Geneva, here’s a suggestion – imagine what would have happened if there had been no deal.
In fact, one doesn’t have to use much imagination. In 2003, Iran approached the United States with an offer to talk about its nuclear program. The George W. Bush administration rejected the offer because it believed that the Iranian regime was weak, had been battered by sanctions, and would either capitulate or collapse if Washington just stayed tough.
So there was no deal. What was the result? Iran had 164 centrifuges operating in 2003; today it has 19,000 centrifuges. Had the Geneva talks with Iran broken down, Iran would have continued expanding its nuclear program. Yes they are now under tough sanctions, but they were under sanctions then as well.
By Graham Allison, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is author of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. The views expressed are his own.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it is instructive to consider what he might have done if faced with the Iranian nuclear challenge today.
In what historians agree was his “finest hour,” Kennedy successfully led the U.S. through the most dangerous confrontation in history, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The odds of war were, in Kennedy’s view, “between 1 in 3 and even.”
When the Soviet Union was found emplacing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, 90 miles off American shores, Kennedy declared that totally unacceptable — as President Obama has declared an Iranian nuclear bomb. The question was how to eliminate this danger without war.
Initially, Kennedy chose a naval quarantine to stop further Soviet shipments of missiles to Cuba. While this signaled American resolve and strength, it did not prevent the Soviets rushing to complete installation of missiles already on the island. As the clock ticked down to the moment warheads in Cuba would become ready to launch against Washington and New York, Kennedy’s options narrowed.
By Emanuele Ottolenghi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has been on a charm offensive in an effort to improve relations with the United States. But thus far, his efforts have been little more than rhetorical attempts to “make nice” without substantive change. History shows the United States should be wary of rhetoric without action from Iran – and that Rouhani should consider some noteworthy regional precedents if he is truly serious in convincing the world of Tehran’s good faith.
At critical historic junctures, unexpected symbolic overtures have been successful at bridging ideological divides. Late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took the world by surprise when he traveled to Jerusalem in November 1977 and spoke directly to the Israeli people. German Chancellor Willy Brandt, for his part, kneeled in front of a Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970, a spontaneous act of contrition that became legendary.
Had Rouhani, when speaking before the United Nations in New York in September, behaved similarly by taking responsibility and apologizing for the Marine Barracks Bombing in Beirut in 1983, or even the U.S. embassy takeover and hostage taking in Tehran in 1979, he may have found himself with some leverage. The recent anniversaries of both those events – the barracks bombing and the 444-day hostage crisis –meant now was the perfect time to acknowledge Iran’s culpability, thereby establishing Rouhani’s bona fide credentials. Tough negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program would still lie ahead, but the seeds of a potentially better relationship would have been planted.
By Fareed Zakaria
Saudi Arabia is not going to accept any deal on Iran's nuclear program, no matter what is in it. Saudi objections to the Islamic Republic of Iran are existential. The Saudis regard Tehran as a heretical, Shiite, Persian enemy that must be opposed. Its antipathy predates Iran's nuclear program and will persist whatever the resolution of it.
And then the Republicans in the U.S., some of whom have serious objections and others who see this as an easy avenue to outflank President Obama on the right, placing him in the familiar spot of a liberal Democrat who is soft on America's foes.
Many of us have assumed that the greatest obstacle to a deal would come from Tehran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards remain deeply anti-American, and they may well oppose the concessions that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif would have to make to get a deal. But it’s now clear that greater obstacles might lie in the path of the negotiators on the other side. The minute any deal is announced, Saudi Arabia and Israel will denounce it, and many Republicans will join in. Given that Congress would have to pass laws to lift any of the major sanctions against Iran, this could prove to be an obstacle that cannot be overcome.
So Obama faces two major challenges. First he has to get a deal that the hard-liners in Tehran can live with. Then he has to get one that the hard-liners in Washington and Jerusalem and Riyadh can abide. If he can do both, maybe he will deserve his Nobel Peace Prize after all.
Watch the video for the full Take or read the TIME column
By Fareed Zakaria
In diplomacy, transparency is often the enemy of progress. Negotiations are best conducted secretly until there is an agreement. When carried out in full public view, the process simply allows opponents to attack every concession made to one side, paying little attention to the concessions to the other. Even imagined concessions get attacked. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu furiously protested against the proposed deal with Iran even though, as Kerry suggested, he didn't actually know what was in it. Ironically, it is to prevent just this problem that Netanyahu has insisted that talks between Israel and the Palestinians take place in strict secrecy.
One party that did know what was in the proposed agreement was France. The French took the unusual step of breaking ranks with their Western colleagues to publicly denounce the deal on the table. This has led some to wonder whether France's strategy was to demonstrate its hard-line credentials to the most anti-Iranian states in the Middle East–Saudi Arabia, in particular–and thus gain favor. (Paris has signed a multibillion-dollar defense deal with Riyadh in recent months.) And of course, being anti-American comes naturally to a French President, especially one from the Socialist Party, like Francois Hollande.
By Mark Hibbs, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mark Hibbs is a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can follow him @MarkHibbsCEIP. The views expressed are his own.
France appeared at the weekend to drive a stake into the heart of a deal that it and five other powers have been quietly negotiating with Iran to end the Iran nuclear crisis. The move didn’t prove fatal – both sides are committed to resume negotiations in Geneva on November 20. But France objected that the outline of a deal favored by the United States didn’t commit Iran to suspend work to finish a reactor at Arak, which could make bomb-grade fuel, but only not to start up the reactor during the next six months. When the powers return to Geneva to resume negotiations, they should tell Iran that an initial confidence-building agreement should freeze work on the reactor project.
Suspension would give negotiators space to forge a long-term commitment to address proliferation concerns that are shared by all the powers, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states. Under such an arrangement, Iran could receive assistance to complete the reactor with modern instrumentation, equipment, and fuel, making it safe to operate. The unfinished reactor could be replaced with a less-threatening unit, or its design could be modified to enhance nonproliferation and maximize its potential for peaceful nuclear research and medical isotope production. In return, Iran would agree not to access the reactor’s plutonium and to allow IAEA inspections in perpetuity. One of the six powers – France, perhaps – could take back the plutonium-laden spent fuel.
CNN speaks with Fareed about the failure to reach a deal at the weekend over Iran's nuclear program, and why some countries are so opposed to an agreement. This is an edited version of the transcript.
So what is your take on all of this? The talks fell apart over the weekend. What's your take?
Well, remember, this was always going to be hard. The United States and Iran haven't talked since 1979. There hasn't been any kind of deal on the nuclear program for ten years. But it seemed to me what happened was they almost got too close too quickly.
There was a sense in which it seemed like the deal was going to happen and then a number of countries that have problems – Israel started lobbying from the outside without even knowing what was in the deal, and then, most centrally, France decided to break ranks. Very strange move, publicly breaking ranks. The French probably have a number of motives. It's always fun for the French to be anti- American and to distance themselves from the Americans.
They're also trying to signal to Saudi Arabia and the emirates, the Gulf states that don't like Iran, that they are the tough guys here. Because France has a lot of commercial business, particularly arms business with Saudi Arabia. So there's a whole bunch of motives there. But I think it was largely because we got so close faster than anyone thought we would.
By Fareed Zakaria
It's difficult to know what to make of the failure to arrive at an agreement between the West and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program. The high level talks have ended, and negotiations are scheduled to resume at a lower level in 10 days.
Secretary of State John Kerry's comments seemed the most sensible. "It was always going to be hard to arrive at a deal with Iran when the mistrust was so deep and had gone on for so long," he said.
But what was remarkable was the tone of the negotiators as they broke up. Both the Iranians and the main Western negotiator, Catherine Ashton of the European Union, were positive and constructive, believing that much progress has been made.
By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva on Friday amidst speculation that marathon talks might yield a nuclear deal, or at least an agreed framework for future talks. Should the two sides come to an agreement, both the State Department and the White House will hail the breakthrough, even as they caution that they will re-impose sanctions should Iran violate the deal. That would be an empty threat. As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can attest, diplomats don’t abandon a process once begun.
The Iranian nuclear portfolio has stymied diplomats for well over a decade. The Iran issue was the first crisis outside the borders of Europe on which the European Union took the lead. EU officials hoped to show that diplomacy and multilateral organizations could be more successful than cowboy unilateralism. The crisis accelerated in 2005 when, after several warnings, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found Iran in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards agreement. The diplomatic center of gravity then shifted to New York, where the U.N. Security Council passed a series of resolutions, many by unanimous vote, imposing increasing sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Both the United States and European Union augmented these sanctions with increasingly broad unilateral measures targeting both Iran’s oil industry and its currency. Collectively, the sanctions had effect.
By Kelsey Davenport, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Kelsey Davenport is the nonproliferation analyst for the Arms Control Association. The views expressed are her own.
For the first time in years, Washington appears to be on the path towards a deal that will guard against a nuclear-armed Iran. But to achieve that goal, America must speak with one voice. Our representatives in Washington must actively support our diplomats and actively avoid undercutting them at the negotiating table.
After two days of talks in Geneva, there is good reason to hope that Iran, the United States, and five other world powers are on the path to an agreement that will end the decades-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
During the October 15 to 16 negotiations, Iranian officials followed through on newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to engage in serious negotiations with the international community and present a proposal that addresses the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. In a press conference following the talks, a joint statement endorsed by all the participating countries described Iran’s proposal as an “important contribution” and characterized the talks as “substantive and forward looking.”