Stephen Orys

Stephen Oryszczuk

By Stephen Oryszczuk, Foreign editor of the Jewish News

On Monday the alarm clock on nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West will ring, and everyone will wake up to a deal or a delay. It’s serious stuff, yet the hysteria surrounding the Iranian nuclear threat has all but petered off.

Time was when the world saw everything through an Iranian lens. Whether it was funding terror, building bombs, or wanting to wipe Israel from the map, if it was nasty, it was Iran. Something evil afoot? It’ll be them mullahs again.

All this reached a crescendo when a Western coalition extended sanctions that had first been slapped on the Islamic Republic at its birth in 1979, and added to ever since.

At first, the ayatollahs and their prickly former puppet president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemed happy to keep rattling sabres and trading barbs as the Iranian economy nose-dived, so long as they had their nuclear programme. All the while, the US and Israel warned that “all options are on the table” as drones hovered, Iranian scientists were killed and computer bugs silently slowed enrichment.

It all quietened down when Iranian elections threw up a pragmatic president who, while still reporting to an anti-Semitic ayatollah, reached out to Jews and the West on the nuclear issue and others. Ever since, Hassan Rouhani has forged his own path, talking to Obama, meeting Cameron and making good on an interim nuclear deal.

A leopard doesn’t change its spots, but it does learn which fights to pick. Yet times change, as does the lie of the land, and this year one threat has spectacularly superseded all others: the bloodstained terrorists of Islamic State (IS). Rich, organised and armed to the teeth, they have stunned the world with their whirlwind “caliphate,” their ability to keep hold of their winnings and their appetite to fight on all fronts.

These guys are so bad they make Osama and the mullahs look moderate. So the world’s gaze – long locked on Tehran – has turned, which is a headache for Jerusalem. As a BICOM spokesman concurs: “A key concern for Israel is that the current international focus on stopping the advance of IS will take pressure off Iran and its nuclear programme, especially with Western leaders reaching out to Iran as a potential partner in the fight against IS.”

Efforts are being made to re-exert that pressure and Israel’s supporters lost little time criticising Obama over his Iranian rapprochement. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said: “When the president discusses Israel and Iran, it is hard to tell who he thinks is America’s friend and who he thinks is America’s enemy.”

But Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics think the Israeli Prime Minister may have blown it.

Gaza, settlement expansion, closing al-Aqsa mosque, banning Palestinians from buses – any one of these could have been the final straw in the Obama-Bibi breakdown. It’s already an open secret US mediators lay most of the blame for the failures of the peace process at Israel’s door.

A Sajjil missile is displayed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, in front of a portrait of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

A Sajjil missile is displayed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, in front of a portrait of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

 

Whatever the two states say publicly, Israeli influence on a second-term Obama is waning.

Two years ago, could anyone imagine a senior White House aide calling Netanyahu a “chickens**t” and living to tell the tale? Could anyone have foreseen the Israeli Defence Minister requesting meetings in Washington and being turned down?

Senior Israelis think the aide’s comment was an attempt “to pre-empt [Netanyahu’s] criticism of an imminent and highly problematic deal with Iran,” so someone clearly thinks a deal is on. Both sides are planning accordingly.

This is a game of chess between “allies” and Obama is fighting back.

Bibi has previously (and successfully) appealed directly to that seat of US government best known for its unflinching support for Israel, but the White House planned to bypass a vote in Congress.

Now the Senate is Republican, the tables have turned yet again. It’s a high stakes game. Israel alone hopes the deadline ends in deadlock. To a pre-election Netanyahu, who built much of his career on Iran, a nuclear deal is an existential threat.

If it is agreed, he’ll say, the economic vice that forced Rouhani to the table will be loosened, and the motivation for good behaviour will be lost. The West says a deal elicits good behaviour, that to get something you need to give something, and that you don’t cut off your payload to spite your fuel tanks, or words to that effect.

Like any good drama, the ending is anyone’s guess, so we’ll all be glued to our screens to watch it unfurl.

For threat addicts who’ve missed their ‘Iran fix,’ 24 November looks gluttonous.