When it comes to Iran, Binyamin Netanyahu seems increasingly to be a man out of time. Last year, he raised eyebrows by addressing the UN General Assembly brandishing a cartoon bomb representing the country’s supposed progress in developing nuclear weapons. He drew a red line near the top – at the 90 per cent threshold of uranium enrichment – to illustrate the point at which he believed the international community should take action. Obama groaned, his administration wary of making such dangerous commitments (a kind of danger more recently averted in Syria when a macho ultimatum by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, gave Russia a way to defuse talk of military intervention).
On Tuesday, Netanyahu dismissed the recent diplomatic overtures of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, as a “ruse” and called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Netanyahu may ultimately prove correct in his distrust of Rouhani – according to UK and US intelligence estimates, Iran is about a year away from having the amount of highly enriched uranium needed to make a bomb – yet his reluctance to allow for diplomatic progress can only exacerbate tensions; it is as if he is willing the dark possibility of open conflict into becoming a darker inevitability.
The fact is that it is now Israel, not Iran, that is making barely veiled threats of military aggression. “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” Netanyahu said, acknowledging that the international consensus will likely desert him should his country deviate from the US-sanctioned strategy for the region. Obama made clear that the US would “take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran” – but since his historic phone conversation with the Iranian president at the end of September, it seems that his commitment to finding a peaceful solution has been emboldened.
Scepticism is rife. Con Coughlin at the Wall Street Journal, for example, points out that though “expectations have inevitably been raised that Iran is serious about taking a more constructive approach to negotiations over the future of its nuclear program”, Tehran’s efforts to “evade UN sanctions are at odds with the new president’s diplomatic overtures”. He explains: “Iran has intensified its efforts to circumvent the restrictions [caused by sanctions] by strengthening its trading ties with a number of neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.” Coughlin highlights these “sanctions-busting activities” as evidence of Iran’s fundamental duplicity; however, it is unrealistic to expect the country to accept sanctions without a fuss, allowing the economy – already ravaged by rising unemployment and with inflation at 35 per cent – to belly-up. Rouhani’s major appeal to voters was, as Coughlin acknowledges, the promise that he would help alleviate Iran’s economic woes. His so-called charm offensive is clearly a part of his effort to fulfil this promise – it’s not merely a cover for some evil nuclear conspiracy, as Netanyahu seems to believe.
Coughlin also rightly points out that Rouhani is only as powerful as Khamenei allows him to be. The Iranian parliament’s endorsement of the president’s approach suggests that the supreme leader is to a surprising degree supportive of the new strategy – the parliament is largely controlled by factions loyal to Khamenei. Of a total of 290 parliamentarians, 230 commended Rouhani’s attempts to present the country as a “powerful and peace-seeking [nation that] seeks talks and interaction for the settlement of regional and international issues”. Call me a deluded optimist, but these developments suggest a diplomatic solution on Iran remains a possibility. Diplomacy needs a certain amount of trust on both sides to work – let’s hope that there’s enough of that stuff to go round.