WASHINGTON – American and Israeli officials have been off script all year on a wide range of issues, caught in public disputes over the wisdom of peace talks with the Palestinians, the fate of Syria and even support for a besieged Ukraine. But perhaps none is more pressing – no single slight or quip against the other more consequential – than recent alarm bells from Jerusalem over the prospect of a nuclear deal between Iran and the rest of the world.
To the surprise of many, negotiations under way in Vienna are on pace: diplomats will begin drafting the final agreement next week, and all sides publicly express optimism that a deal can be forged by the self-imposed deadline of July 20.
According to US officials, President Barack Obama will not tolerate a nuclear agreement that falls short of practical incapacitation; the White House is prepared to accept continued nuclear work in Iran, so long as the Iranians are not technically able to produce a nuclear weapon.
That standard requires constant checks on multiple fronts: research and development would have to be invasively monitored, centrifuges would have to be dismantled, and remaining enrichment sites would require constant oversight. And the international community would have to rely on the International Atomic Energy Agency to police the deal on a daily basis, possibly for decades. Israel’s fears are in these details.
Iran’s retention of active research teams will be hard to police; they have finely honed the efficiency of their centrifuges, enabling the Islamic Republic to break out from low levels of uranium enrichment at a quicker pace.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu fears Iran will be left with more of a nuclear capability than the world will want to admit, at the whim and under the watch of a United Nations agency he does not trust, no longer under the yoke of sanctions designed to cripple the program.
The world seems to agree that if Iran is a rational actor, uninterested in the use of nuclear weapons, its mere acquisition would embolden the Islamic Republic to expand and facilitate its terrorist network. But that might happen anyway, Netanyahu fears, should a deal be reached; when sanctions are lifted, Iran will be open for business.
The White House says that sanctions will remain on Iran even after a deal is enforced. The Treasury Department, in fact, categorizes sanctions as they are related to terrorism, human rights and nuclear proliferation. That is why, in the interim agreement reached in Geneva last fall temporarily freezing the crisis, “nuclear-related sanctions” were specifically demarcated.
Even still, the most fundamental concern is that of breakout time: that a comprehensive nuclear deal would merely lengthen Iran’s ability to enrich enough high-grade uranium for a nuclear warhead by a period of months.
Netanyahu’s closest allies are beginning to express these concerns publicly. Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who has remained generally quiet since assuming the post last summer, made several remarks over the past two weeks warning against a “bad deal,” and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee released a memo on Tuesday warning of such a path.
“I don’t think that we did everything that we’ve done to only get a six- or a 12-months lead time,” AIPAC quoted Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as saying last month. “Because a deal that would ultimately unravel the entire sanctions regime for a six- to 12-month lead time is not far from where we are today.”
Upon their visit to Jerusalem this week, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Obama’s chief negotiator in the talks with Iran, will be tasked with convincing Netanyahu that the arrangement under construction in Vienna is practically enforceable – not just on July 20, but for years to come.
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