What Iran talks mean for the region: 3 questions with our correspondent


Iranian president-elect Hassan Rowhani (C) takes part in a parade marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day in Tehran on August 2, 2013.



JERUSALEM — It's been a momentous few weeks for Iran.

In late September, the Islamic republic's president, Hassan Rouhani, visited New York City, where he made the rounds at the United Nations General Assembly on the heels of an exclusive interview with NBC's Ann Curry in Tehran — the first he'd given to Western media since taking office.

Then, just before Rouhani departed New York, he received a call from President Barack Obama. Their brief, cordial conversation was the first contact between leaders of the US and Iran in 34 years.

Finally, this week, Iran sat down with six Western powers for nuclear talks in Geneva. While details of proposals discussed during the two days of meetings are not yet clear, diplomats from the US, Europe and Iran have all indicated promising developments.

What does all this diplomatic movement mean for Israel, which considers Iran a mortal enemy? And will the nuclear negotiations in progress open the possibility of disarmament across the region? GlobalPost's senior correspondent in Jerusalem, Noga Tarnopolsky, weighs in.

The White House noted a new “level of seriousness and substance” in Iran’s nuclear proposals at talks this week. Does Israel feel the same way?

Not at all. I think it's fair to say that official Israel is mostly feeling anxiety over the proposals, about which, I think it is important to note, we have only heard rumors. My sense is that the Israeli government is not yet fully apprised of whatever may have transpired in the meetings in Geneva. I assume the government will be brought up to date before the round of talks scheduled for next month, but for now the uncertainty is provoking extreme degrees of nervousness.

Israel's assessment is that Iran is engaged in a feel-good campaign designed to hoodwink the West. For good and for bad, Israel has plenty of reason to feel this way. Iran has engaged in numerous deceptions over the years on its own nuclear development. What may be simply welcoming, diplomatic language emanating from the White House is interpreted in Israel as a possible softening of the harsh economic sanctions which, it is assumed in Jerusalem — and possibly in Washington — have brought Iran to this sudden opening toward the West.

The feeling in Israel is that sanctions should be maintained until Iran's entire nuclear program has been dismantled, with no exception made for civilian or scientific use (understood here to be nothing more than subterfuge).

Are there any indications at the moment that Israel will consider dismantling its own nuclear capability?

No, not serious indications. Again, I think it is important to note that we are at the very early stages of these talks. One of Iran's negotiating tactics is to sound a drumbeat about Israel's nuclear arsenal, but other than talk in UN corridors I don't believe the issue is really on the table. That said, several of the Iran analysts I talk with regularly have brought up the possibility that at some point in the future, Israel may be pressured in this regard.

Israel occupies a strange position with respect to these weapons: on the one hand, their existence has never been acknowledged. On the other hand, Israel's mantra, for at least 40 years, has been that it will "never introduce" nuclear weapons into a conflict. In other words, the unacknowledged nukes of Dimona are reserved for a possible doomsday response in the event of a nuclear attack against Israel.

The dread of Armageddon is not an incidental or irrelevant matter here, where a significant percentage of the population has ties to the Holocaust, and where the government considers itself responsible for blocking any future genocidal attack against Jews or the Jewish state.

This sensitivity is one of the reasons enemy states, from Egypt and Syria in the 1970s to Ahmadinejad's Iran, use the verbal threat of annihilation to rattle the county. In general, it works.

One other point: it would be a diplomatically tricky maneuver to pressure Israel about its arsenal. Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons; North Korea has nuclear weapons. Russia has a significant cache. There is little doubt in my mind that if Israel were pressed on this point, the arsenals of unstable and threatening regimes would become part of a much wider discussion.

Just as the dynamics with Iran are changing, there’s a new report claiming Turkey gave Israeli spy information to Iran. What’s the status of Israel and Turkey’s relationship, and what are its implications for regional response to both Iran’s nuclear program and the war in Syria?

That's a big question! Thursday's article in the Washington Post is very interesting, but seems to be based on information provided by a single US intelligence source. So far, no one has been able to corroborate it; much of the discussion Thursday centered on the intentions of the leaker:

Reuters reported that Turkish officials feel the leak was intended to discredit Ankara, as it tries to position itself as a reliable ally to the West. 

In addition, questions are being raised about the credibility of the report:

I'm not trying to slink away from answering the question, just laying out some of the angles at play when a bombshell story such as this hits the media.

For numerous reasons, Israeli-Turkish ties are in flux right now. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of an Islamic political party, is having a tough year balancing a surprisingly strong social protest movement, his conservative base, Turkey's profound desire to join the EU, the uncompromising position it has taken against Assad's Syria, and now, an ascendant Iran trying to gain a toehold as leader of the tumultuous region. It's not a simple puzzle.

Turkey and Israel have many basic and significant interests in common, but are without doubt going through the most tumultuous period in their long relationship. My best guess is that if the civil war in Syria continues to be a bloodletting, and if Iran continues on its current charm offensive, the joint interests will become ascendant.