Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s oft repeated mantra – that Israel reserves the right to defend itself, by itself – needs concrete application, given that the government’s “screaming from the rooftops” approach to Iran is yielding no results and may, in fact, be setting the Jewish state back.
Previously, the strategy paid dividends by thrusting the Iranian nuclear issue onto the world’s agenda; which, in turn, led to the implementation of a sanctions regime that forced Tehran to the negotiating table. But beyond that, the approach has proven futile, as evidenced by the generalized capitulation to the Islamic Republic made by global powers in the fatally flawed final accord.
Following the signing of the framework agreement nearly two years ago, it was already clear that the talks were going to produce a result inimical to Israel’s interests; this, despite Netanyahu’s repeated protestations against a “very bad deal.” Yet the government never shifted gears, and, ultimately, the end result was even worse than initially believed. Essentially, Jerusalem’s concerns were ignored.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu continued his policy of confrontation, taking on the White House directly by dispatching lobbyists to Capitol Hill to persuade US lawmakers to scuttle the deal. But this too has seemingly failed, it being almost assured that the requisite super-majority will not be garnered in Congress to offset a presidential veto, making the deal a virtual fait accompli. And yet, the Israeli government still refuses to change tack.
There is merit to the argument that Netanyahu’s ongoing railing against the accord is important in and of itself, as it not only keeps the issue central but continues to foster sufficient dissent among legislators, as well as the general public, that a future US president might be inclined to take a tougher stance on Iran.
However, hoping for change is an unsound tactic and constitutes a long shot at best. The current Democratic presidential candidates are extremely unlikely to assume a more confrontational approach to Iran, and even if a Republican “hawk” were elected, the much more likely scenario is the repetition of the North Korea experience, which saw Bush follow in Clinton’s diplomatic footsteps until such time the hermit kingdom conducted its first successful nuclear test.
In reality, world powers have shown neither the political will nor the desire to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and there is little reason to believe this will change anytime soon. As an example, with the ink not yet even dry on the deal, Britain, a member of the P5+1 negotiating group, re-established diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and London’s foreign secretary traveled to Tehran last week to reopen the embassy there.
Also reopening are the floodgates to Tehran’s economy, with governments and companies lining up to do business; this before sanctions have been officially lifted.
Most important, though, is the continued full-court press by President Barack Obama, who has never veered from his legacy-setting goal (as he sees it) of ushering Iran into the “family of nations” and facilitating its rise to a “very successful regional power,” even if this requires him to rubber-stamp Tehran as a nuclear threshold state while turning a blind eye to its destabilizing effect on the region.
Given the current situation, Israel would be wise to change course, as there is clear and growing evidence to the effect that it cannot alter world opinion.
On Saturday, Netanyahu acceded publicly for the first time to the idea of a continued “civilian nuclear program in Iran,” a far cry from his previous stance that the Islamic Republic be forced to stop all such activities (though he did simultaneously reiterate Israel’s fierce opposition to an Iranian “military nuclear program”). This is no small concession and may foreshadow attempts to reconcile with the US administration, coming a day after Obama called for both sides to move forward and rebuild ties. Such a rapprochement would, parenthetically, see Israel receive a compensatory military package, which would, in turn, enhance its limited options.
At this point, Jerusalem realistically has only two possible courses of action; namely, either to begin implementing a policy of containment to counter an eventual nuclear- armed Iran, while promoting regime change therein, or to launch a military operation to destroy Tehran’s nuclear facilities, with the window for such recourse quickly closing.
A POLICY of containment would necessitate the active participation of like-minded regional countries, the current backroom dealings between the Jewish state and its traditional Sunni Arab enemies evidencing just such an evolving scenario. Concurrently, Israel should do everything in its power to foster dissent within Iran. This could include covert activities that engage civil society leaders and members of the persecuted Azeri, Kurdish, Baha’i, Baluchi and other minorities, as well as the arming of anti-regime forces, including the MEK (Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition movement in exile), which Israeli intelligence has reportedly long since been supporting.
Ironically, as Tehran’s economy becomes liberalized, so too will its people. Ordinary Iranians will be exposed to the freedoms that exist elsewhere, but which they have been prevented from exercising. This has the potential to sow unrest that, if supported by Western democracies, could translate into an uprising against the mullahs (not unlike the 2009 Green Revolution, which the Obama administration despicably ignored, a tacit approval of the fully predictable ensuing deadly crackdown by regime forces).
A more moderate government in Tehran might be induced to forgo its nuclear program altogether. Otherwise, these measures are, unfortunately, unlikely to preclude war in the long run, as it is difficult to envision Israel allowing Iran’s terrorist proxies, in their current incarnations, to operate under the cover of a nuclear umbrella.
Albeit on a smaller scale, the Hezbollah threat in particular may have to be mitigated entirely prior to Tehran’s acquisition of the bomb.
The second option, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, would undoubtedly be more problematic in the short term, as it could trigger military confrontation on every Israeli front. This alternative becomes inevitable, however, if the government, in conjunction with the security establishment, determines that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an actual (and not simply a potentially) existential threat.
In this eventuality, the best time to act is probably next summer. With the US presidential campaign underway, not only will Obama be a lame duck, but it is unlikely that either the Democratic or Republican nominee would risk losing the Jewish vote by turning their back on Israel.
Furthermore, with Iran set to receive a windfall of cash in early 2016 – to the tune of tens and eventually hundreds of billions of dollars – it will surely begin a major military buildup. Already, Moscow is negotiating the sale to Tehran of the advanced S-300 missile system, which would render any airborne attack on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities much more difficult and dangerous. Within a few years, sanctions preventing the sale of conventional weapons to Tehran will expire, at which point Israel could lose its qualitative military edge.
Finally, perhaps the most compelling reason to strike sooner rather than later is that so long as Iran maintains its nuclear infrastructure, other regional countries will be motivated to match Tehran’s capabilities, thereby sparking an arms race that Israel can ill afford.
As I previously noted in these pages (“The regional arms race has begun,” March 24, 2015), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan have all signed contracts to begin developing nuclear power plants, and, according to the World Nuclear Association, Qatar, Kuwait, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan are all, to various degrees, pursuing nuclear energy programs. Unless the Iranian nuclear threat is neutralized, these initiatives will proceed unabated, leading, ultimately, to the likely introduction of a vast array of atomic weapons in the world’s most volatile region.
Any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities should be executed with the limited cooperation of Arab states (Israel would at the very least need to be given clearance to use foreign airspace), which thereafter must be mobilized to lessen the diplomatic fallout by leveraging their status as major oil suppliers, as well as their involvement in the US-led coalition against Islamic State.
It is very likely that strikes on Tehran – along with the possible deployment of a limited number of ground forces to access and destroy fortified installations – would have to be accompanied by preemptive action against Hamas and Hezbollah, which could together unleash a response in the form of thousands of missiles toward Israeli civilian centers, rendering Iron Dome virtually useless and thus mass casualties a certainty (Jerusalem’s reported pursuit of a long-term cease-fire with Hamas is almost certainly motivated by a desire to keep the Gaza front quiet in the event of a direct conflict with Iran or with Hezbollah in the north).
If this path is chosen, then it is imperative that a national unity government be formed, as was the case on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War. There is near-unanimous consensus across the Israeli political spectrum that the deal will not succeed in preventing Tehran from going nuclear.
Netanyahu must therefore reach out to his rivals, most importantly opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who should be offered the role of foreign minister in any new government, if not the premiership for the final year before the next election cycle.
Desperate times call for responsible leadership and such a move would not only present a united front to the world at what would undoubtedly be one of the most challenging times in the Jewish state’s tumultuous history, but also guarantee Netanyahu the legacy he is so keen to carve out.
Overall, the Iran deal is final, in effect paving Tehran’s path to the bomb. Jerusalem must therefore devise a strategy to address this new reality, ideally one that shifts the focus from external criticism to internal preparedness.
Israel has arrived at another critical juncture, which will test the limits of its sovereignty. It is imperative that our leaders ready themselves today, so that tomorrow they are better positioned to push this boundary as far as necessary to ensure the continued security of the one and only Jewish state.
The author is a correspondent for i24news, an international station broadcasting out of Israel.