Did the US win a breakthrough in talks with Iran on the country's controversial nuclear program? US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disagree over what to do next.
Did Iran manage to drive US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apart, or is it simply that when it comes to Iran that there's too much "paranoia and suspicion." Across the US media, experts have different takes on the situation.
An alarming phone call
It was a phone conversation that in the end was the alarming sign for Washington's closest ally in the Middle East while, for Europe, it was actually a moment of hope: On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Obama in a surprise move called the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, after the latter had struck a conciliatory tone in his speech at the Assembly. Rouhani had said Tehran was taking the West's concerns over its nuclear program seriously and was willing to discuss the matter.
Straight after the phone conversation, Obama announced that he saw a chance to calm tensions. From the perspective of Israel and Washington's allies in the Gulf, the phone call must have been the geopolitical equivalent of discovering your best friend flirting with your main rival, according to the New York Times. Three days after the first direct contact between an Iranian and a US president in 30 years, it's not at all back to normal between Israel and Washington.
Deep mistrust in Israel
Quite the opposite - Netanyahu used the opportunity to personally tell Obama about his concerns over the issue. After he'd already warned the president ahead of the General Assembly not to fall for the "sweet talk" of the Iranians, he now again called for maintaining a tough stance on Iran, whose nuclear program, he said, needed to be dismantled. He also warned that Iran was ready "to destroy Israel."
Middle Eastexpert and former security advisor to President George W. Bush, Michael Doran shared the Israeli concerns. "I think there's clearly something going on in Iran. We're seeing a desire to negotiation pretty much unlike anything we've ever seen before. And it looks like there's a split in the Iranian elite about the approach to have with the Americans. But I am a bit pessimistic that we're going to get satisfaction." All too often, Iran had misled its international partners, Doran told Deutsche Welle. In 2006, he experienced it himself as a member of the National Security Council of the US.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle last week expressed his understanding of the Israeli concerns: "I think it's completely understandable that after the past years, not only Israel but also we are saying: 'words are fine, but in the end it's only the actions that count.'" Westerwelle also said though that this window had opened a "window of opportunity." No one in Washington was blindly trusting talks with Iran, cautioned Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership now with the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
The conversation between Rouhani and Obama was not a "blind date." The US president assured his Israeli guest that he was leading the talks with Iran with all the options - including military responses - still on the table. But for Elgindy it's clear that Obama and Netanyahu will have different priorities. While both seek to ensure that Iran will not become a nuclear power, they pursue that goal with a different sense of urgency. Israel would be immediately threatened but the focus of the Americans "is wider than only Iran and it includes in particular Syria as well."
This might be one of the reasons why Obama has been cautious about Netanyahu's demands to keep up the pressure on Iran and step up the sanctions if need be. Israelis and Americans have different perspectives on sanctions, Elgindy explained: "For the Israelis, there's a very different standard: you never ease up on sanctions until you get all of the things you are demanding." For the US things are different. Once the negotiation partner moves in their direction, then there's a readiness from Washington to ease sanctions. "It's clear that lifting sanctions is the overwhelming incentive for Iran" for the current negotiations, Elgindy said.
Doran says that Obama has made several mistakes which are now making life more difficult for him. One mistake was that he fuelled the enormous enthusiasm and the expectations that a historic agreement with Iran was imminent: "This emboldens the Iranians and I think it makes them feel that they are more powerful and important than they should feel, and it makes allies like Hezbollah feel more powerful and important."
In order to meet Israel in the middle, the Americans should set a deadline for talks with Iran, suggests Doran. At the same time he advises that there should be a binding negotiation "package," drawn up in close cooperation with allies in the Middle East and Europe. In addition, sanctions should only be lifted once those negotiations have received public backing from the highest ranks of the Iranian government. Should that not work, Obama should withdraw from the talks. Doran suggests that it's better to have no agreement than a poor one that would encourage Iran to continue with its nuclear program.
After the talks with Obama, Netanyahu will speak at the General Assembly of the UN in New York. Media reports suggest that he will use the opportunity to compare Iran with North Korea. The communist government in Pyongyang also pretended to open up to diplomatic efforts from the west - only to announce in 2006 that it now had nuclear weapons.