On Sunday afternoon, in the midst of considerable disagreement with Washington
over Iran policy and hours after the Geneva talks between Iran and the world
powers ended without agreement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took to the US
airwaves to present Israel’s case to the American public.
“I think the
president and I share the goal of making sure that Iran doesn’t have nuclear
weapons,” Netanyahu said with tremendous understatement on CBS’s Face the
Nation, referring to US President Barack Obama. “I think where we might have a
difference of opinion is on how to prevent it.”
To which one could have
been forgiven for shouting at the television, “Ya think?!” Saying that Jerusalem
and Washington share the goal of keeping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and
only differ on how to achieve it, is like saying two parents concur that they
want their children to grow up to be good and decent human beings, and differ
only on the educational philosophy needed at home to bring it about.
Netanyahu discussed is a pretty fundamental difference on a pretty significant
issue. But, as a senior American official said in a briefing with Israeli
reporters this week, that type of difference need not break up relationships.
Husbands and wives love each other, the official stated, but that does not mean
they don’t disagree and fight from time to time – nor that those natural fights
and disagreements necessarily put the relationship in danger of
Which is a valid point, one that everyone from US Ambassador
Dan Shapiro to Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz were at pains to stress this
“The truth is that the US and Israel have as close a relationship
as any two countries on earth,” Shapiro said on one occasion. Steinitz said on
another: “USIsrael relations are not good, they are very good.”
STILL, what emerged in the very loud, public and testy dust-up this week between
the US and Israel over a proposed agreement with Iran on its nuclear program
were basic conceptual differences about how best to approach the
Up until the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,
when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was ruling the Iranian roost and – because of his
radical extremism – made it easier (though not easy) for Israel to rally opinion
against Tehran, the differences over Iran had to do with timeline: when it would
be necessary to act militarily to prevent Iran from getting nukes.
was the core of the disagreement last year over redlines for Iran, with
Netanyahu urging for a redline to be set, and Obama unwilling to do
The difference back then – pre-Rouhani days – could be summed up
using a cake metaphor. Imagine you want to keep someone from baking a
What is the best way to do it? Do you prevent the prospective baker
from gathering all the ingredients – the eggs, flour and water – and putting
them on the table to mix together and place in the oven at his pleasure (the
Israeli position)? Or do you say you have time, and can wait to physically stop
the baker if he dares to stick head and hands into the oven to remove the cake
once it is baked (the US position)?
The entire debate over redlines was a
discussion over whether military action was needed to keep the Iranians from
gathering all the ingredients needed for a nuclear bomb, but not mixing them
together – or whether it was wiser to wait until they mixed all the ingredients
together, and were just about to pull a finished bomb out of their
centrifuge-spinning military/industrial ovens.
That huge Israeli-US tactical
difference could be explained by differences in proximity, threat perception and
capabilities. Since Israel is so much closer to Iran than the US and feels so
much more immediately threatened, and also because its military capacities are
less great than those of the US, it does not feel that military action could be
delayed until the very last minute – like the US. Rather, Israel asserted that
military action would have to be taken to keep the Iranians from getting all the
ingredients together on the table.
That was Netanyahu’s famous redline on
a diagram of a cartoonish looking bomb at the UN in 2012; a redline defined as
the Iranians acquiring 250 kilos of uranium enriched to 90 percent – a redline,
by the way, that the Iranians have been careful not to cross.
then. Now, with Rouhani’s election, the discussion has shifted and is less about
a redline for military action, and more about the efficacy of diplomacy, and how
best to get the Iranians to back off.
Here, too, a cake metaphor can
illustrate the differences.
If you don’t want the persistent baker to
bake his cake, and are physically twisting his arm to keep him from doing so, do
you take the pressure off his arm when he says he is no longer interested in the
same type of cake and agrees not to touch the ingredients on the table for a
while? Or do you only start letting up on his arm when he pours a good amount of
the eggs, flour and water down the drain so he can’t make the cake, even if he
might still want to?
And therein lies the major conceptual differences in the US
and American approach. Those differences can be seen along two major planes. The
first plane has to deal with the idea whether the P5+1 – made up of the US,
Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – should pursue an interim agreement
or move only toward a final one with the Iranians, and the second has to do with
Regarding the type of agreement to pursue, according to the
American approach – as articulated this week by a senior American official who
briefed Israeli journalists – the proposal put on the table in Geneva was a
first stage agreement.
The idea, she said, was to get the Iranians to
freeze their nuclear program for six months, and then use those six months to
negotiate a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear program.
philosophy here is it will take much longer than half a year to negotiate a
comprehensive deal, but that it was necessary to ensure that during these
negotiations, the Iranians don’t use the time to “run out the clock” – meaning
that as the negotiations plod on, they don’t use the time to continue spinning
The approach advance by the US is to get the Iranians
to freeze their program for six months, thereby putting some more time back on
the clock for negotiations, and in return grant the Iranians some sanctions
Israel has a couple of problems with that approach.
first is that it believes that if everything is frozen for six months, then Iran
– for the first time – would gain international legitimacy for being a nuclear
threshold state, something it will then be more difficult to roll
“Iran became a de facto nuclear threshold state 12-18 months ago,”
Steinitz declared this week, saying this means that once it makes a political
decision to go for a bomb, it would take it less than a year to do so.
until now, Steinitz said, this threshold status for Iran has put it in clear
violation of international law, of UN Security Council resolutions and of
various stipulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
after this interim partial agreement, Iran is actually in a very sophisticated
way achieving international legitimization for being and remaining, a least for
the time being, a threshold nuclear country,” he said. “It is the most dangerous
thing, and it will be more difficult later to roll back their capacity, because
once you give it some kind of international legitimization, it is very difficult
to say it is impossible, not legitimate.”
Or, as Home Defense Minister
Gilad Erdan put it even more bluntly later in the week, “We must not be
mistaken: An interim agreement will be a permanent agreement.”
said that Israel adamantly opposes a partial agreement with Iran, because
Jerusalem believes in the formula that “the greater the pressure, the greater
the chances for diplomacy to succeed.”
If you accept that principle, he
continued, “it logically follows that the lower the pressure, the lower the
chances. So the conclusion is clear: Don’t ease the pressure on the Iranians
until you reach the final goal, before you reach a final comprehensive and
satisfactory agreement. If you ease the pressure before that, you will lose the
chances to succeed.”
Or, as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put it, if the
Iranians are only freezing their nuclear program, and not taking any significant
steps to dismantle their centrifuges and actually roll their program back, then
the world should freeze its sanctions in place, but not begin to roll them
A freeze for a freeze, he said, a rollback for a rollback; but
definitely not a rollback of sanctions for only a freeze of the nuclear
Which leads to the second major conceptual difference with the
US, and that has to do with sanctions – both how the Iranians will respond to
heavier ones, and how to keep the world on board. These differences are larger
even than the spat Wednesday between Washington and Jerusalem, about whether
sanctions relief offered to the Iranians was “moderate” as the US claimed, or
reached up to $40 billion, as Steinitz maintained.
ACCORDING TO the US
way of thinking, if some sanctions relief is not provided in the midst of
negotiations, certain countries that have been difficult to get onboard – but
which are now onboard – will view this as unreasonable and begin to abandon the
sanctions ship. The countries that come to mind in this context are China,
Russia, Turkey, India, even South Korea.
The senior US official said that
if sanctions are not relieved, but indeed more sanctions are piled on – as the
US Senate is considering – two things would happen: Iran would leave the
negotiating table and move more aggressively forward in its nuclear program, and
the international coalition in place would say the Americans were just pressing
for military action, deem this position unreasonable and begin to abandon
Israel believes the opposite.
sanctions, or at the very least not removing sanctions, would not embolden Iran
to move more aggressively forward in its nuclear program, but rather render it
more pliable – since the pressure of the sanctions is what brought Tehran to the
table in a serious mood to begin with.
Moreover, the sanctions regime
won’t collapse with more measures, but rather would begin to unravel if it is
relieved because – as Netanyahu said this week – if you punch a hole in a tire,
it is just a matter of time before all the air escapes and the tire goes
Granted, as Netanyahu said on Meet the Press, the American and
Israeli strategic goals on Iran are identical. The devil here is not in the
details; rather it is in the significantly different approaches to the tactics.