(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1992, shortly after Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, he addressed an academic workshop in Tel Aviv focusing on military strategy and arms control. The Iranian nuclear threat was the top priority on Rabin’s strategic agenda as prime minister, and he was beginning to develop the elements of his response.
For over two decades, Rabin’s policies on Iran were adopted, extended and adjusted by every successive Israeli leader. On this issue, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau addresses the US Congress again in Washington today, he will be reflecting this continuity. And while Israelis differ over the platform and timing, there is broad unity over the substance of Netanyhau’s message regarding the need to confront the reality of the Iranian threat.
For Rabin, the first line of defense on this as on many other strategic issues was through close cooperation with the United States government. From that first meeting, Rabin emphasized that the threat posed by the Islamic Republic, led by a supreme leader (a position still held by Ali Khamenei) spewing hate for Jews and Israel, along with Holocaust denial, was not limited to Israel or the Middle East. The Americans – as the world’s only superpower at the time following the collapse of the Soviet empire – understood what needed to be done, for their interest and to maintain global stability.
In 1996, after the assassination and then the election won by the Likud and Netanyahu, nothing changed in this central dimension of the US-Israel relationship. The strategic dialogues and close coordination between Washington and Jerusalem intensified as Iran repeatedly violated its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
At that time, the central issues revolved around plans by Russia and China to export nuclear equipment and materials to Iran. Israel provided intelligence information and the Clinton administration applied the pressure that led to the cancellation or indefinite postponement of these export agreements. Although conflict dominated other issues on the Clinton-Netanyahu agenda – particularly regarding negotiations with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat – strategic cooperation on the Iranian threat was unaffected.
The same was largely true for the short period in which the Labor Party under Ehud Barak returned to power (July 1999-March 2001) and also when Ariel Sharon served as prime minister until his stroke in 2006.
During the administration of George W. Bush, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the American invasion of Iraq, Europe – led by Germany, the UK and France – claimed responsibility for the Iranian nuclear file. They were going to demonstrate the efficacy of negotiations, based on what they were convinced was Iranian interest in receiving rewards for abandoning their nuclear weapons program.
The Iranian nuclear decision makers (led by current President Hassan Rouhani) played cat and mouse with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and made rapid progress in the time that they pretended to be interested in an agreement.
From the Israeli perspective, it was essential that the Americans be back in the lead in halting Tehran’s march toward nuclear weapons. Indeed, under US pressure, in early 2006, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which includes Russia and China, found Iran in non-compliance with NPT safeguards requirements. This decision, and the American-led UN Security Council action that followed, marked the beginning of a gradually increasing international sanctions regime.
Fourteen years after Rabin’s decision to rely first on the Americans to stop Iran, this strategy finally created significant pressure on Tehran to halt its illegal nuclear program.
Although the number of centrifuges that produced the enriched uranium necessary for weapons continued to increase, as did their efficiency, the price that the Iranian leadership paid grew faster.
In 2009, Netanyahu returned to the position of prime minister, and, like Rabin, he again gave priority to the Iranian threat and the need to maintain sanctions. In public speeches, meetings with President Barack Obama and other top officials, Netanyahu argued that another temporary halt in the production of nuclear weapons materials was not enough. The opportunity had finally been created to roll back much of Iran’s illicit nuclear development program.
But it was at this point that the painstakingly implemented strategy, based on US leadership, fell apart. From the perspective of all Israeli decision makers, and not only Netanyahu, the secret talks between the Obama administration and Iran that resulted in a framework agreement in November 2013 warned of an impending monumental failure. This framework and the subsequent negotiations to fill in the details threaten to remove the sanctions, as the only source of international pressure on Iran, without a significant roll-back of decades of clandestine nuclear production.
Netanyahu’s speech before Congress has already proven to be very costly, before it even takes place. But as prime minister of Israel, he has the obligation to do everything possible to prevent the failure of three decades of coordination with America – beginning with Rabin in 1992 – in order to stop Iran.