Standing Up to America’s Allies on Iran

Israel and Saudi Arabia, the strongest U.S. allies in the Middle East, are maddened by the efforts of President Barack Obama’s administration to reach a diplomatic settlement on Iran’s nuclear program. This disagreement is unfortunate, but the White House shouldn’t be deflected.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embarked on an unprecedented public campaign to change the administration’s approach. Saudi Arabia, which broke with the U.S. over its policies toward Egypt and Syria, also opposes an Iran deal. The Saudis are in a zero-sum Sunni-Shia struggle for regional power with Iran and see any easing of their rival’s economic and diplomatic isolation as a setback.

Many in Washington believe the anger of such close allies proves that Obama’s Iran policy is wrong. They agree with Netanyahu that fresh sanctions imposed during peace talks would force Iranian negotiators to knuckle under; that sanctions relief should come only in exchange for permanent Iranian concessions; and that any deal must eliminate all uranium enrichment in Iran.

In a world where the Iranian regime had no choices, they might be right. In fact, “no enrichment” was the baseline for U.S. and European negotiations with Iran for a decade. But 10 years of failed negotiations have shown that Iran does have choices, and that a deal entirely eliminating Iranian enrichment just won’t happen.

An achievable settlement that minimizes the chance of a nuclear breakout by Iran is the right goal. Netanyahu doesn’t think so, but former senior Israeli intelligence and defense chiefs do. They understand that airstrikes will do no more than delay Iran’s program for several years at best, and they could trigger an outright dash for the bomb, among other security repercussions.

The interim deal proposed in Geneva last weekend did need strengthening, and the French were right to block it. Yet the best available outcome remains a comprehensive settlement in which Iran ends all enrichment of uranium above 5 percent; converts or exports its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent; agrees to export all spent fuel from the heavy water reactor at Arak for reprocessing abroad; mothballs excess equipment; and provides full access to international monitors. All that in exchange for sanctions relief.

Such a deal can be achieved -- though not easily. If the effort fails, it must be clear that Iranian intransigence is to blame. If China, Germany, India, Russia and other nations fault the U.S. for insisting on unreasonable conditions, international support for sanctions would begin to crumble. That would present the U.S. president with a choice best avoided: Do nothing as Iran assembles nuclear capability, or go to war.

The U.S. should listen to its allies, but it cannot have its policies dictated by them. If the U.S. disappoints its friends with its stance on Iran, no lasting harm will be done.

Maintaining the stability required to keep the world supplied with oil remains a fundamental U.S. interest in the Middle East, and guaranteeing the security of both Israel and Saudi Arabia serves this goal. So does making the right deal with Iran.

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