The compliments and gestures Obama and his European counterparts showered Rohani and Zarif with may not be pleasant to Israeli ears, but for now there is no reason to view them as a sign of weakness or that the West is being misled like naïve shoppers at an Iranian bazaar. The western leaders are trying to do what is needed: To expand the diplomatic hole in the hostile Iranian wall, examine whether this is a real turnaround in Iran's nuclear policy, and, if possible, use this turnaround to reach an agreement on halting Iran's military nuclear program. The compliments are also aimed at bolstering Rohani politically at home and give him more room to maneuver and flexibility in the negotiations.
This strategy is based on the assessment that Rohani and Supreme Leader Khamenei desperately need an easing of the sanctions. An analysis of the results of the presidential elections and other events indicates that the sanctions are hurting the Iranian population much more than was previously thought in the West and they threaten the regime's stability. This is why Rohani was elected and this is the reason Khamenei is willing to adopt the "heroic flexibility" policy, as he called it, regarding Iran's nuclear program.
Seeing that the vast majority of Iranians voted for Rohani in hopes that he would ease the burden on the people, he has to deliver, and fast. Khamenei supports him because he fears the eruption of Arab Spring-style riots against the regime. He is also hurrying, before it will be too late. Those who are against any concessions related to the nuclear program are the conservative ayatollahs who were removed from key positions in the regime and senior Revolutionary Guard members, whose personal wellbeing is not threatened by the sanctions.
The struggle between the camps has yet to be decided, and therefore it is still difficult to ascertain whether the Iranians are really willing to accept the West's demands. This will become clearer only when the representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, convene in Geneva next month. This issue may become clearer even sooner should the West and Iran agree on mutual trust-building measures, such as allowing IAEA inspectors to finally visit the military complex in Parchin, where, according to western intelligence agencies, the Iranians have conducted tests in the development of a nuclear bomb. In exchange, the Iranians will receive spare parts for passenger planes. Another measure could be the temporary suspension of uranium enrichment and installation of centrifuges during the negotiations in exchange for the lifting of more significant sanctions.
In the meantime, Obama and Ashton are waging a diplomatic counter-assault that is meant to rally the Iranian people behind Rohani's moderate camp. The Americans remember that Rohani had already frozen Iran's military nuclear program once before, and they believe he can do it again. The phone call between Obama and Rohani, as well as the fact that Obama made it a point to mention Khamenei's "fatwa" – which bans Iran from possessing nuclear weapons – are meant to create for Rohani a comfortable public atmosphere in Iran. This will show the Iranians – from Khamenei all the way down to the average citizen – that the US and Europe respect them and see them as equal partners to the leadership of the world and are not looking to humiliate or defeat them. The goal is to prove to the Iranians that concessions related to the nuclear program will not only ease the economic burden, they will also grant them the status of a global power with civilian nuclear capabilities.
But the West wants more. The deal proposed to Iran by the US, Europe, Russia and China includes Syria and the preservation of Bashar Assad's regime. Even if this regime will effectively control only parts of Syria, keeping Assad in power is a key strategic and religious Iranian interest. The Security Council's resolution on the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons, which did not include a direct military threat on Assad in the event that he does not comply, as well as the preparations for a conference in Geneva to reach a diplomatic solution to the civil war, with the participation of Assad regime representatives – all these are giving the regime in Damascus more time, perhaps years, and also serve the strategic goals of its patrons in Tehran. One would have to be blind not to see the connection the Americans are making not only between Iran's nuclear program and Palestine, but also between Natanz and Damascus.
At the same time it is important to remember that Iran's technological clock is ticking at double speed. Each day several dozen additional centrifuges become operational and enrich uranium. More kilograms of uranium purified to low and medium levels are accumulated in the bunkers in Natanz and Fordo, while the construction of the heavy water reactor in Arak is being completed. If these processes are not stopped or slowed down, Iran will become a country on the brink of nuclear capability in the first half of 2014. This is why Iran is in a hurry to reach an agreement on the sanctions, and why the West also has an interest in reaching a deal that would block Iran's military nuclear program before Netanyahu seriously considers a go-it-alone strike. Unlike many people in Israel, Washington is taking the prime minister's veiled threats seriously. Senior Obama administration officials apparently know why.
Israel has a crucial and constructive role in the West's attempt to block Iran's nuclear program through diplomatic means, but Netanyahu is ignoring the circumstances and is causing Israel to be presented in western public opinion as a warmongering state that hates Iran.
Netanyahu shot himself in the foot when he instructed the Israeli delegation to leave the hall during Rohani's speech before the General Assembly. He should have waited for his speech to simply warn of an Iranian honey trap and offer some of the many examples that prove this point. Such a speech may achieve the desired effect. Instead of taking pride in the fact that he played a part in the imposition of sanctions on Iran which - along with a credible threat of military force – led to Rohani's election and a change in Iran's tone, Netanyahu turned Israel into the neighborhood bully that does not know how to deal with complex situations diplomatically.