EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was published prior to the news of a preliminary deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Click here for Zev Chafets’ column on the most recent events.
On Tuesday night, US-led nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran reached their March 31 time limit. President Obama ordered Secretary of State Kerry to erase the deadline and keep talking.
The sides reconvened on Wednesday, which happened to be April Fools’ Day. At the end of the day, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius summed up the situation to the press. “We are a few meters from the finishing line,” he said, “but it’s always the last meters that are the most difficult.”
The remark recalled the story of the man who decided to teach his horse to live without food or water. The plan was just on the verge of success when the horse unexpectedly dropped dead.
On Thursday, April Fools’ Day +1, the sides met yet again, with the hope of putting together some kind of face-saving declaration of general principle. But the white stallion Kerry hoped to ride out of Lausanne is dead. Its carcass lays in a corner of the elegant conference room, and it can’t be covered up with a blanket of diplo-babble about shared goals or future progress.
Talks aimed at stopping or (more recently) containing Iran’s nuclear program have been going on for 12 years, and there may well be another round before the new final deadline in June. But nothing lives forever on a diet of hot air, hollow threats or empty promises.
The failure of the Lausanne conference highlights a stark and simple truth. Iran is not prepared to accept any terms that will impede its nuclear program or, as they put it, their “national nuclear rights.”
Nobody wants to fight with an atomic Ayatollah.
This is something that the United States negotiators have not been willing to admit. They still claim that a deal is very close. There are just a few wrinkles to be ironed out. But on closer inspection, these wrinkles turn out to the entire substance of the issue: The number and quality of the centrifuges Iran can keep; the amount of enriched uranium it can retain; the underground nuclear facilities it can operate; the rules of verification; the duration of the agreement; and the speed at which UN and US economic sanctions on Iran will be lifted.
Nobody wants to fight with an atomic Ayatollah.
Kerry knew in advance that this was the Iranian position. But he exercised what Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former head of U.S. military intelligence, calls “willful ignorance.” He was willing to accept the assurances of his interlocutors that Islamic Republic of Iran has nothing but the most peaceful intentions. Kerry saw allies in these friendly, reasonable, American-educated diplomats. They were the faces of a new and kinder Iran who could help sell the deal to the Arab world and the American Congress.
But the secretary of state did not take into account the fact that the fellows on the other side of the table were ultimately unable to deliver more than sweet nothings. The final decision is, as it always has been, in the hands of one man, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And he wasn’t giving anything.
American spinners told the media that the Ayatollah’s resistance to any concessions is just for show, a matter of medieval symbolism. This is patronizing nonsense. Khamenei has invested untold billions to build an infrastructure capable of making and delivering nuclear weapons. This isn’t a prestige project. It is part of the Iranian imperial design to carve out a Persian-Shiite empire that can dominate the Middle East.
This goal is not fanciful. Iran, through its proxies, already exercises control or significant influence in Lebanon, Syria, large parts of Iraq and Yemen. A nuclear umbrella would protect these gains and make expansion easier. Nobody wants to fight with an atomic Ayatollah.
Khamenei has no respect for President Obama or his secretary of state. He sees them as weak and exhausted men willing to sign almost anything that allows them to claim they have fulfilled their vow to prevent Iran from getting nukes.
Khamenei’s assessment was probably right and he might have achieved that at Lausanne. But his timing was bad. It didn’t take into account the Saudi reaction to the Iranian-engineered coup in Yemen or the degree of resistance in Congress to a sellout of Israel (stiffened by Wednesday’s declaration by a senior Iranian general that the goal of destroying the Jewish State “is not negotiable”).
Lausanne may go down as the April Fools’ awakening, the event that made it clear to the world -- or at least to the American Congress -- that Obama and Kerry have been planning to sell the world a dead horse and ride off together into the sunset.
If so, that horse will not have died in vain.