US-led negotiations with Iran have once again failed to achieve a breakthrough regarding its nuclear program. Instead, last year’s interim deal will be extended until July 1. Ten fundamental considerations must be taken into account in addressing the preeminent question our people have asked since time immemorial: “But is it good for the Jews?”.
First, Iran has good strategic reasons for seeking nukes, including a deep-seated fear that the US will topple the Islamic Republic, traumatic memories of the bloody eight-yearlong war with Iraq, a nuclear Pakistan on its border, fears of Israel and more. This is not to justify Iran’s efforts, merely to explain why it will only agree to curtail them, if at all, for similarly good reasons, based on an effective combination of international inducements and disincentives.
Second, Iran is already today, not in some murky future, a nuclear threshold state, i.e. a short period away from an operational capability (months from the fissile material necessary for a first bomb and some more months for weaponization). The know-how needed for the program is in the minds of Iran’s scientists and can no longer be eliminated.
Third, Iran could have crossed the threshold some years ago, but consciously chose to refrain from doing so, to avoid a heavy international price. Sanctions proved sufficient to force Iran to slow down the program and enter negotiations, but not to forgo it.
Iran’s behavior, as in other cases, is indicative of an extremist but rational actor, i.e. one that knows how to carefully weigh costs and benefits.
Fourth, the US and its European allies concluded a year ago that complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, their former objective, was not attainable and that only a compromise which would leave part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact might be doable. Consequently, they changed tack and sought an agreement designed to keep Iran 12 months away from a breakout capability.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other critics of the interim agreement, contended that the sanctions were working, Iran was finally on the verge of caving in, and that the Iranian program could have been dismantled had the US and its allies persisted just a while longer. If correct, the interim agreement, current extension, and final agreement envisaged by the US constitute historic errors.
This, however, is water under the bridge; the only question now is whether the agreement under negotiation, not the one we wanted, is sufficient, given the alternatives.
Fifth, for strategic and domestic political reasons, there are limits to the concessions that President Barack Obama could make in the negotiations, even if he wanted to – and he does not. His policy to date reflects a sincere and careful attempt to reach an effective agreement, along with an arguably overly great reticence to play power politics and contemplate military action. A deal Obama would sign is certainly not Israel’s dream, nor what he himself prefers, but will not constitute a “sellout,” either. He clearly wishes to put time on the clock and kick the ball down the field, if possible to the next administration.
This is not necessarily bad for Israel.
Sixth, military action can no longer eliminate the nuclear program, merely postpone it, and probably at the price of an unprecedented bombardment of Israel’s home front by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and possibly others, and a deep crisis in Israel’s international standing, including relations with the US.
In truth, the time gained will probably be longer than anticipated by skeptics, and the retaliation against Israel’s home front may be less severe than feared. Moreover, in the face of an existential threat, this is a price Israel should be willing to pay. Nevertheless, even a perfectly successful attack ensures no more than a few years’ time-gain, and if Israel can indirectly gain a similar or even longer period of time through negotiations, it has little to lose. Assuming that an agreement does essentially freeze the Iranian program, we will be able to achieve militarily in a few years what we can achieve today.
Seventh, Iran’s conception of time is different from that of electorally-frenzied democracies.
Even if a final agreement is reached, Iran will not have abandoned its long-term aspiration to achieve a nuclear capability, merely concluded that the timing is not propitious and that the project must be postponed.
In effect, an agreement will constitute conflict management, not resolution, the problem will continue to be with us for years and great vigilance will be necessary to prevent a break-out, or sneak-out.
Eighth, a final deal remains unlikely and both sides will be hard pressed to justify a further extension, though a shared interest in avoiding a crisis makes this a likely outcome, nonetheless. A failure of negotiations will free Iran to resume its nuclear efforts, subject only to the impact of the heightened sanctions Obama has threatened. An Iranian rejection of a deal, however, will indicate that it is willing to pay the price and thus that sanctions will not be effective a second time around.
Obama has also made it clear that the US will neither conduct military action against Iran nor sanction an Israeli attack. An Israeli attack, over explicit American opposition, is virtually unimaginable, especially if an agreement is reached. Virtually, because if and when all other options have been exhausted, Israel must do everything in its power, including military action, to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Ninth, the choice, unfortunately, is between bad options. No agreement will leave Iran free to pursue its nuclear ambitions and any agreement that the US would sign would be better than this. A long-term extension of the interim agreement would serve both American and Israeli interests, but is probably unlikely. The other options, whether sanctions or military action, also hold out hope for no more than temporary succor. Israel should thus hope very much for the success of American diplomacy.
Finally, Israel must position itself for a possible failure of negotiations. After an admirable campaign to place the Iranian issue on the international agenda, Netanyahu overplayed his hand and turned himself into an annoyance, largely ignored by the international community, even the US. Moreover, his West Bank policies have dramatically exacerbated Israel’s international isolation, including the worst downturn in relations with the US in decades. If a nuclear Iran truly is an existential threat, as Netanyahu avers, it warrants a commensurate effort to regain the high ground on the Palestinian issue as well. In fact, doing so is essential in its own right.The author, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, 2012.