It's time for Obama to show some backbone on Iran nuclear deal


French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, right, welcomes his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to the Quai d'Orsay Foreign ministry on November 5, 2013 in Paris.



OWL’S HEAD, Maine — The collapse of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers — the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany — are a disaster in the making that could, over time, lead to a much worse tragedy.

All is definitely not lost, as the two sides will be returning to talks this week. But a rehash of where we are, how we got there, and how an interim deal was sabotaged at the last minute shows the precariousness of the situation.

After 34 years of a diplomatic shutdown with lack of trust between the US and Iran at a constant flashing-red level, working out a deal between the two countries would be hard under any circumstances. Add in the fact that two of America's closest friends in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are overwhelmingly opposed to a US-Iranian rapprochement and the roadblocks multiply.

Saudi Arabia, during the reign of the over-westernized Shah of Iran, was jealous of his position as America's closest oil-producing friend. While the Shah's replacement by medieval-style Shiite ayatollahs was certainly unnerving in nearby Riyadh, the good news was it cut off a rival power's close ties to the US.

Throw in Saudi Arabia's radical version of Sunni Islam, which views Iran's Shiites as apostates, and the thought that Iran and the US may once again be at peace has so riled the kingdom that it has actually been coordinating its anti-Iran stance with an even worse arch-enemy, Israel. "Misery," as Shakespeare reminded us, makes "strange bedfellows."

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been hyperventilating for months about a possible US-Iran deal, though it's difficult to gauge if his paranoia is real or exaggerated. In recent weeks, more than one highly placed Israeli has contradicted Netanyahu.

Leading left-wing newspaper Ha'aretz cited a report from Aviv Kochavi, the current head of Israel's Military Intelligence, as advising Netanyahu before his US visit last month that the positive changes in Iran's internal politics brought about by the moderate President Hassan Rouhani are not only real, but "significant" and "strategic."

And in a Wall Street Journal article last month, Amos Yadlin, Kochavi's predecessor, outlined as a "reasonable" agreement one that would allow Iran to retain its right to enrich uranium at a non-military level of 3.5 percent to 5 percent, which is what Iran agreed to in Geneva, according to leaked reports.

In the past, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy publicly supported finding a compromise with Iran, terming Obama's willingness to negotiate with the country "very courageous" — a remark he made just before last year's US presidential elections, when Netanyahu's support for Mitt Romney was no secret.

As non-participants, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia were in a position to scuttle the negotiations in Geneva. But France was.

When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius showed up, a deal was already on the table. Secretary of State John Kerry and the other foreign ministers were called by their underlings to Geneva for what was by then expected to be a public announcement of an interim six-month deal with Iran. This would be the first step in an eventual permanent shutdown of an Iranian potential to develop a nuclear weapon.

Then Fabius threw a well-aimed wrench.

Foreign policy analysts, whether experts from France or the Middle East, aren't quite sure why France torpedoed the proposal. Some speculate that with Saudi animus toward the US so high, it's a perfect time for France to elbow the US out and become the Saudi's principal arms purveyor.

Others see the French, with US power in decline, propelling themselves forward as a serious player in the Middle East, drawing on their status as the hero of the successful intervention in Mali's terrorist-backed civil war. Further, France was prepared to launch an attack against Syria until Obama pulled his about-face.

So, this theory goes, with its economy still in recovery mode and French President Francois Hollande's popularity plunging, rebuffing the United States while playing a machisto Middle Eastern card is a solid French crowd-pleaser.

And how does Kerry respond? He blames Iran: "The French signed off on it, we signed off on it," Kerry said. "There was unity but Iran couldn't take it."

Not according to anyone else there. So what is Kerry up to? The French wreck his chances for a more important deal than a Palestinian-Israeli peace, and he turns the other cheek.

It was, I think, a calculated risk to avoid a public rupture with France. A risk, indeed, but also a shrewd diplomatic move. As Kerry publicly exonerates the French, he is aware that the current Iranian government is serious about a deal. He is surely using his newly devolved relationship with the Iranian foreign minister to keep the dialogue going.

Here is what he may be thinking: "There's no way I can get a deal through the Republican-controlled Senate, if I split with France publicly. So work with me. I'll deal with the French privately, now that Hollande has scored a few political points for himself. But if I let it become a public rift, the deal won't go through, and both our countries — the US and Iran — will lose."

So the US gets another six days to work behind the scenes to massage France back into line, and to keep Iran engaged. Russia and China aren't going to help; Germany, with its sense of guilt toward Israel, will not put pressure on France for siding with Israel; Britain has no leverage with France. So it's up to Obama, finally, to weigh in heavily behind the scenes.

It's a deal that's distinctly beneficial to America's interests, if not to Saudi Arabia's or Israel's; but that's their problem. Ours is that Obama has to make his case clearly and forcefully.

Senate Republicans have made clear their choice: "Vive la France," said Senator McCain. His buddy, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, one-upped him, shouting, "Thank God for France" on CNN. Why this sudden love of France from a party that preferred "freedom fries" to the French version? It's simple: they want Obama to fail. The Senate is in fact considering a bill right up France's alley, one that would toughen existing sanctions against Iran.

Naturally, its biggest booster is Israel's powerful old-guard lobby in Washington, AIPAC. But in a sign that one hopes will make members of Congress realize that AIPAC's knee-jerk support of Netanyahu puts it outside the mainstream of American Jewish opinion, the moderate upstart pro-Israel lobby, J Street, has sent a letter to its members denouncing further sanctions: "It runs the risk of poisoning the atmosphere, empowering Iranian hardliners and fracturing the international coalition that's brought Iran to the table."

Obama has vacillated with such frequency in the Middle East that it's hardly surprising he would be challenged on Iran by close allies in the Middle East and Europe as well as by opposition senators. This is the time for Obama to show his backbone. Kerry's attempt to find a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis is, with Netanyahu in power in Israel, a pipe dream. We've lived without a resolution to that problem for nearly 50 years; we can wait a few more.

But the deal with Iran can't wait. If we are unable to bring the French and Congress along on what represents a reasonable compromise by Iran — a position that hard-liners in Iran oppose — today's moderate leadership will be back out in the cold, the Iranian nuclear engine revved up, and the risk of a war, pushed by right-wing Republicans in Congress and their right-wing equivalents in Israel, will only accelerate.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.