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Hearts in Jerusalem skipped a beat Friday as it seemed the world had done a deal that gave legitimacy to Iran's nuclear program, thus tying Israel's hands.
The proposed deal, reports of which referenced only a draft accord not yet approved by all parties, would allow Iran to export some of its uranium to Russia, where it would be enriched, then sent on to France, which would turn the uranium into rods that would then be shipped back to Teheran's nuclear research center for medical purposes.
But the details were murky and many questions left unanswered: How much uranium would Iran export to Russia? How much would Iran be allowed to keep and enrich itself and to what percentages? What was the time line for the uranium export? Would there be monitoring of Iran's nuclear facilities?
Despite these open questions, and the fact that Iran had still to formally approve the deal on Friday, Israeli officials and analysts jumped to cry foul: The deal legitimates Iran's enrichment of uranium; it allows Iran to eventually become a nuclear threshold state; it is a victory for Iran and a disaster for Israel; the world, and especially "the nuclear traitor" Mohamed ElBaradei, had sold us out.
Ehud Barak blasted the deal, saying what was needed was a total halt to uranium enrichment; Tzipi Livni said the deal "would blow up in our faces" and warned Iran, over Army Radio, that all options were still on the table; and Shaul Mofaz called the draft proposal "a worthless piece of paper."
Any deal which doesn't guarantee a total halt to Iran's uranium enrichment and open up its nuclear facilities to exhaustive monitoring will be seen in Israel as an unmitigated disaster. Israel doesn't want a deal; it wants harsh sanctions on Iran.
Analyst Shlomo Brom said Israelis were incapable of accepting good news about Iran. Others said that after years of being threatened with the specter of Iranian nuclear annihilation, Israelis can't imagine a world without this threat hovering over our heads.
And aren't we right in the middle of Juniper Cobra, the massive US-Israeli missile defense exercise aimed to stop everything the Iranians and their proxies are sure to throw at us?
Thank God the supposed good news only lasted a few hours, as most Israelis were having a hard time swallowing the new reality. Not long after reports that a deal had been reached, the Iranians refused to endorse it, offering a counterproposal instead that would see them purchase uranium from Russia.
Cunning, those Iranians, driving a wedge between the P5+1 (is it now the P4-1+1?), offering the Russians a wad of cash for uranium. Cunning, those Iranians, asking for another week to study the deal they were offered, and a week to get an answer to their counterproposal.
The heart rate in Jerusalem slowed: the Iranians were the same Iranians, still playing for time while their centrifuges kept spinning.
The overriding assessment in Israel is that the Iranians are slowly, steadily making progress on their nuclear program, which is scattered broadly over multiple locations across their vast country. It is characterized by various components, including enriching uranium in centrifuges as well as by processing plutonium, building missiles, testing warheads, and buying materials via front companies throughout the world.
They don't need nuclear power for civilian energy (Iran holds the world's third-largest proven oil reserves and the world's second-largest natural gas reserves), they want the bomb, and they'll stop at nothing to get it.
But on the way there, the regime in Teheran is not rushing headlong, it is instead moving slowly and broadly, taking one step forward, a half step back, one step sideways, and forward again.
They are the consummate negotiators, with skills honed in the Grand Bazaar of Teheran.
In 2003 Iran halted work on its nuclear program as it didn't want to be next in line for the "Saddam treatment." But as soon as America's fortunes in Iraq and elsewhere plummeted, the Iranians resumed progress on their overall goal.
It is within this modus operandi that the latest nuclear talks with the P5+1 are viewed in Jerusalem.
Israel is giving the Americans just a few months to see if the Iranians are ready for real talks or if they are just playing for more time. From the Israeli perspective, this engagement cannot be stretched over several years; its life span must be measured in months.
The fear in Israel is that nuclear Iran will slip through America's fingers like nuclear Pakistan did, and like nuclear North Korea is doing right now.
North Korea has violated every single international agreement and UN resolution, has behaved just as it wishes, it enters and exits the Non-Proliferation Treaty on a whim, and proliferates at will and with largess - but still nothing of substance has happened to the regime in Pyongyang.
Iran, which hasn't achieved a fraction of what North Korea has, sees this example and believes it, too, can get away with murder. It has drawn the conclusion that it can act with impunity, its cost-benefit analysis posits that it can play for time, give a little here and there, but move ahead with its program without losing its hold on power.
Only two countries have so far given up their nuclear programs: South Africa and Libya. South Africa went through a transformation from an oppressive, isolated regime to the darling of the world and a representative democracy.
Libya, a small, weak, isolated country, was prevailed upon by the US and UK, who at the time were winning in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who made smart use of carrots and sticks, to give up its nuclear program.
Iran is not Libya, and 2003 is not 2009. Iran has the backing of powerful Russia and China. It has massive trade with them, with Europe, South America and others. America and the UK are mired in an increasingly grim war in Afghanistan, Iraq's direction is still to be determined. Iran has a lot of say in both of those issues.
The question on everyone's mind is, what political price the Iranian regime would be willing to pay to get a nuclear bomb? Are they willing to risk international isolation, refined-oil sanctions, trade and investment boycotts, or even a military assault?
Iran is not North Korea, however; it wants engagement with the world, investment and inclusion, and it has much to lose by defying the world, and much to gain by dealing with it. Iran's economy soared when oil prices reached $140 a barrel, and is suffering now as prices have dipped steeply.
Its oil industry is in bad shape because it can't refine oil. The country is at some 20 percent unemployment and inflation is also at 20%.
Are the Iranians willing to risk all for nuclear weapons? Assuming they are, and stiff international sanctions don't stop them, what would they do the morning after they get their first bomb? Will they parade it on a missile in Teheran's main square, bearing the usual inscription: "Death to Israel"? Or will they opt for an Israeli-style nuclear ambiguity policy instead, announcing cryptically to the world that the 12th imam has returned to earth?
Assuming the Iranians are hiding other secret nuclear installations and one day completes the nuclear weapons cycle, when and how will the mullahs inform the world? Will they leave the NPT? Will Iran be content with a Japan-style nuclear threshold status? And can Israel live with an Iran that could, within a matter of months, construct nuclear weapons, because it has been allowed to gather all the ingredients it needs?
If Iran is allowed to become a threshold state, i.e. if its civilian nuclear program is given legitimacy, Israel will find its hands are tied.
Jerusalem has no interest in clashing with the world, whose main players are now engaging diplomatically with Teheran. There would likely be no American green light for an Israeli strike. The diplomatic fallout from any attack would be overwhelming, and Israel could not withstand it, even were its diplomatic position not terrible to begin with, thanks to the Goldstone Report.
Read Amir Mizroch's blog at Forecast Highs