When U.S. President Barack Obama dispatches his negotiators to Baghdad next week to join talks with Iran over the future of its nuclear program, he’ll be most concerned about the reaction of one man: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Obama believes that Barak, and not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the Israeli leader agitating most vociferously for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a strike the Obama administration thinks would be grossly premature and quite possibly catastrophic. (Your humble columnist concurs with this assessment.)
If Barak sees these talks as productive — especially in light of evidence that the U.S. and its allies are doing a credible job of keeping Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold — then Obama will have successfully pushed off an Israeli strike, at least until after the U.S. presidential election in November.
Barak has made clear that he seeks one thing above all in the nuclear talks: for Iran to shut down its formerly secret nuclear enrichment facility at Fordo, near the city of Qom. Obama has made Barak’s preoccupation with Fordo his own.
It’s not hard to see why both men see Fordo as a crucial component of Iran’s nuclear program. Once Iran moves its enrichment program to Fordo — which is built inside a mountain and has hardened defenses against nearly all conventional munitions — it will probably have entered a “zone of immunity,” in which Israel would no longer be able to cripple its centrifuges. (The Israelis, like the Obama administration and many international experts, don’t doubt that Iran would seek to build a nuclear weapon if political and technical conditions allowed for it.)
For Barak, keeping Iran outside the zone of immunity is paramount. If Iran moves its nuclear program beyond the reach of the Israeli air force, Netanyahu and Barak believe they will have outsourced the security of their nation to the U.S., which has more advanced weaponry. But in Barak’s estimation, the U.S. has gone 0-2 in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to hostile, unstable countries. Pakistan and North Korea both built and tested nuclear weapons over U.S. objections. Barak has pointed out that Israel is 2-0 in the same arena, having destroyed nuclear facilities in both Iraq and Syria from the air.
If he thinks Iran — a country whose government advocates the destruction of Israel — is close to immunizing itself against a preventative Israeli attack, he will argue for an immediate strike. By some estimates, work on the hardening of Fordo continues at a steady pace.
In the past three years, Obama has intensified pressure on Iran in ways that have forced the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority over Iran’s nuclear program, to make at least semi-positive noises about compromise. Thanks to an international effort orchestrated by Obama to isolate the regime, tankers loaded with Iranian oil are sitting off the country’s coast — with no buyers to be found.
Obama doesn’t believe that the Iranians will rush to compromise before sanctions go into full effect on July 1. But there is a plausible chance that Iran could reach an agreement with the other countries at the Baghdad talks — known as P5+1 – – and promise to shutter the Fordo facility.
If this happened, then Barak would be at least partially happy. Because Barak doesn’t actually want to strike Iran this year — he wants to maintain the ability to strike Iran next year, and the year after that.
Obama has studied Barak and Netanyahu carefully. He’s fully aware that Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in the Israeli army, and he understands that Netanyahu often defers to Barak on matters of security. Although a sharp-taloned hawk on Iran, Barak is a former leader of Israel’s Labor Party and generally in ideological harmony with Obama. He is also far less apt to lecture Obama on the imperatives of history, and more likely to engage in practical discussions about ways to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Which is why the Baghdad talks are so crucial. Obama thinks they could buy him substantial time with Israel, as he works over the coming months to convince Khamenei that his nuclear program is folly. But if the talks fail to persuade Iran to close the Fordo facility, then Barak and Netanyahu — who now sit atop a powerful coalition government — could be moving again toward a strike.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)