The issue that never goes away is back in the news again: Iran’s nuclear program, and the proper western response to it, are again under discussion following Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s visit this week to the United Nations.

Rouhani has generally had good reviews. Most observers seem to accept that both he and the United States administration are sincere in their professions of a desire to reach an agreement and to pursue the path of negotiation rather than confrontation. The latest moves, in which Rouhani and Barack Obama spoke briefly but constructively by telephone, are particularly encouraging.

It doesn’t follow that an agreement will turn out to be possible, since some conflicts are inherently insoluble. But this really doesn’t look like one of them: the two sides’ public positions have never been so far apart as to suggest that negotiations would be fruitless.

Conspicuously dissenting from this optimistic assessment, of course, is Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American cheer squad. The Israeli delegation boycotted Rouhani’s UN address, and Netanyahu continues to denounce Rouhani as “cynical” and “full of hypocrisy”. In the words of the New York Times report, “Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials point to Tehran’s recent installation of advanced centrifuges and its continued denial of access to its nuclear facilities as evidence that it is working toward such weapons.”

The assumption in most of the reporting is that Netanyahu’s fears, whether or not they are well-founded, are at least genuinely held, and that his objective is to resolve the issue in a way favorable to Israel. But I’m not convinced that this is true.

For example, here’s Nicholas Burns, writing in the Boston Globe on Wednesday:

The late Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, said famously, “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” Those are words a suspicious Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already warning about the folly of diplomacy with Iran, might contemplate. Iran presents a rare opportunity for breakthrough diplomacy.

Fine sentiments. But they assume that Netanyahu wants an agreement to be reached. What if he doesn’t? What if, as I suggested six months ago, his objective is to keep the nuclear issue bubbling away for as long as possible, because an Iranian bogey is politically useful to him both domestically and internationally?

That’s unlikely to sway Obama, and apparently some in Israel have also started to have doubts about the Netanyahu strategy. Yair Lapid, the centrist finance minister, criticised the boycott of Rouhani’s speech and said “Israel shouldn’t be portrayed as a serial objector to negotiations.”

But a country’s interests and a leader’s political interests are not the same thing, and when they diverge, it’s often the latter that gets priority. That’s been the case in Iran in the past under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s not particularly far-fetched to think that it might also be the case in Israel.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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