By Jeffrey Goldberg
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry, the Obama administration’s most fervent supporter of nuclear negotiations with Iran, said in a speech that the U.S. would “not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest” it is wrong to even test Iran’s willingness to make nuclear concessions.
This statement, made at an event sponsored by the Ploughshares Fund, a group that opposes nuclear proliferation but which sometimes seems overly relaxed about the danger of a nuclear Iran, was generally understood to have been a brushback pitch thrown at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been arguing that the American administration, and its European allies, are walking into a trap of Iran’s devising.
In this latest phase of the Iran drama, the differences between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama (which I wrote about here) are mainly concealed from view, but we’re now seeing some small fissures. I’ve been curious to know what others in the Obama administration think about Netanyahu’s current stance (a stance he shares with many in the U.S. Senate, by the way), so on a visit to the Pentagon late last week, one of the first questions I put to the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, was this: Is Netanyahu, in fact, using scare tactics in order to torpedo Iran negotiations?
“I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is legitimately concerned, as any prime minister of Israel has been, about the future security needs of their country,” Hagel said. Netanyahu, he continued, “has got a history of being very clear on where he is on this.”
Hagel, now in his ninth month leading the Pentagon, argued that Netanyahu’s threats of military action against Iranian nuclear sites, combined with the pressure of sanctions, may have actually encouraged Iran to take negotiations seriously.
“It’s true that sanctions — not just U.S. sanctions but UN sanctions, multilateral sanctions — have done tremendous economic damage,” Hagel said. “Even many of Iran’s leaders have acknowledged that. And I think that Iran is responding to the constant pressure from Israel, knowing that Israel believes them to be an existential threat. I think all of this, combined, probably brought the Iranians to where we are today. Whether the Iranians will carry forth on that, we’ll see.”
Hagel made sure to absolve Netanyahu of the charge that he’s intent on subverting the nuclear talks. “I don’t think he’s intentionally trying to derail negotiations,” he said.
Read more from Jeffrey Goldberg here.