Analysis: How Netanyahu’s threats pushed the US into a flawed deal with Iran

The PM's threats made the Obama administration nervous that an Israeli military strike would escalate into a general war in the Middle East.

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August 29, 2015 15:53
US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu is correct in his criticism of the nuclear deal signed recently between world powers and Iran. Indeed, it is not a good deal. But it is Netanyahu who substantially brought this about.

This conclusion is based on talks with Israeli and US officials who were ‒ and still are ‒ privy to the inner workings of the Israeli government, its defense, nuclear and intelligence agencies, and their dealings with US counterparts.

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Netanyahu’s public warmongering ‒ threatening to bomb Iran since he came to power for his second term in 2009 ‒ and his confrontational and defiant policies unwittingly played a major role in shaping the US strategy against Iran.

Netanyahu’s threats made the Obama administration nervous that an Israeli military strike would escalate into a general war in the Middle East, which would hurt its allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and cause grievous damage to US interests in the region.

The US president and his advisers decided to do everything possible to avert a war by means of a negotiated solution, even if it resulted in a flawed deal.

Israel’s words and actions under the two previous prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, were based on two tenets. First, not to make it appear that Israel was spearheading the campaign ‒ “to be positioned on the rear slope,” in Israel military parlance, to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This position, recommended by the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Atomic Energy Commission, derived mainly from fears that if Israel took a leading role in the campaign, it would backfire.

After all, Israel is considered by foreign observers to be the sixth largest nuclear power in the world and questions were bound to be asked why the international community was focusing only on Iran, and not on Israel, too.

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“If you have butter on your head, don’t stay out in the sun,” a former senior Israeli official summarized.

The second reason not to be at the frontline of the struggle was that all major Israeli strategic decisions traditionally are coordinated with the US. On the Israeli side, the overall responsibility for executing the anti-Iranian policy was given to the Mossad. Its chief at that time, Meir Dagan, became the undisputed “czar” of attempts to slow down Iran’s progress to a nuclear bomb.

The Israeli policy, which was shared and accepted by US president George W. Bush’s administration, was to create the conditions that would cause the Iranian leadership to understand that it was under international siege, which eventually might lead to its collapse. In other words, to make the Iranian leaders realize that their choice was between the continuation of the nuclear project or the regime’s survival.

To accomplish this goal, between 2004- 2009, Israel and the US defined a common strategy, carried out in three interwoven fields.

In the first arena, sanctions were imposed by the UN Security Council, and another set was unilaterally adopted by the US and EU.

The cornerstone of the sanctions regime was the embargoes imposed on Iran’s oil and gas industries and banking system. Probably the most crippling measure adopted in a later stage was cutting off the Islamic Republic from access to the SWIFT network enabling global money transfers.

Incidentally, when the idea of the SWIFT sanction was first introduced by the Mossad in 2010, Netanyahu was hesitant. He was concerned that implementation of the measure would one day boomerang and be used by the international community against Israel because of its occupation and settlement policy in the West Bank. It took a while, with the intervention of the governor of the Bank of Israel, to convince Netanyahu to okay the initiative.

The second pillar of the Israeli-American effort was to exploit ethnic divisions in Iran by establishing useful contacts among Azeri, Kurdish, Arab, and Baluchi minorities who felt persecuted.

The third layer was covert operations – a Mossad specialty. According to foreign reports, it was a combination of assassinating key Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaging (in Israeli intelligence parlance, “poisoning”) equipment destined for Iran’s nuclear program.

It was reported that, beginning in 2003, front companies were set up in several countries, which managed to gain the trust of Iranian nuclear procurement networks and sell them flawed technology and equipment. Later, this idea was taken to a new level, and instead of “poisoning” the equipment prior to purchase, it was decided to damage the equipment on Iranian soil. Thus, the idea of “state-sponsored offensive cyberwarfare” came into being. The culmination of this measure was the Stuxnet computer virus, which succeeded in damaging Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges.

The US media revealed a few years ago that the Stuxnet and subsequent viruses were a joint project of the Israeli and American intelligence communities. But, according to new information obtained from US sources, the truth is that the idea was initiated and executed by the Mossad. Around 2006, the Bush administration enhanced the level of intelligence cooperation between the two countries. The new partnership, on a wide variety of initiatives, was named “The Olympic Games.” Stuxnet was just one event in these games.

At this stage, it was the CIA that asked to be privy to the project already underway and to be given credit for it. The Mossad readily agreed.

IT WAS also agreed by the leadership of both countries that the military option was an important tool for suffocating the Iranian leadership, but must be used only as a last resort.

This policy was unexpectedly reversed, however, when Netanyahu came to power in 2009, along with defense minister Ehud Barak.

Both of them started flexing military muscles, making public threats. To give credibility to these threats, they poured $3 billion into the Israel Air Force and intelligence community, to improve readiness for a military strike. They also ordered the military and the intelligence community to carry out a series of exercises and preparatory measures that would signal not only to the Iranians, but also to the world – especially the US – that they mean business.

At first, their new approach seemed to be working. The international community increased the sanctions, bringing the Iranian economy to the verge of collapse. The Obama administration was still cooperative, but began to show signs of anxiety. Top US officials, such as Leon Panetta – then CIA director and later secretary of defense – began, periodically, calling Israeli counterparts to ensure that the Netanyahu-Barak fist-shaking was still just part of a ploy and not a change of heart. But when then Mossad director Dagan ‒ who believed that the military option should be exercised only if a “sword was at the throat” of Israel and opposed any such strike at that stage – started to consider that Barak and Netanyahu were serious, American anxiety grew.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who at first benefited from the budgetary allocations showered on the army, began to realize that if a military strike was ordered, the onus of execution would be on him. He joined Dagan in opposing the strike.

Still, it is possible that Netanyahu and, above all, the manipulative Barak deceived both Dagan and Ashkenazi. Knowing that both the intelligence and military chiefs had great credibility in the US, Barak and Netanyahu hoped that by instilling in them the impression that a military strike was inevitable, the Obama administration might begin to believe it, as well. If indeed that was the case, it should be credited as one of the greatest cases of deceptive psychological warfare in history.

At a certain stage, Barak met with Panetta and informed Netanyahu Dagan, Ashkenazi and others privy to the deliberations that Panetta would not oppose a military attack. When Panetta learned about it, he became furious and sent a special messenger with the transcript of the conversation to prove that Barak was wrongly presenting his position. At first he was embarrassed, but later Barak explained that it was a matter of a misunderstanding.

Whether Netanyahu and Barak really meant to attack, or were simply bluffing, the Obama administration did not want to take chances.

They decided that only a negotiated deal with Iran could prevent military chaos in the Middle East.

In the summer of 2013, the US reached out to Iran to engage in secret talks, which eventually led to the nuclear deal signed July 14.

The US based its approach on the notion that there were only two alternatives: military strike or agreement. It chose to ignore the middle-of-the- road possibility of continued covert actions and sanctions while negotiating with Tehran.

THE HASTINESS of the US approach led to a less than perfect deal.

True, it pushed Iran back from being a nuclear threshold state with just two to three months’ capability time of developing a bomb to one year. It also decreased Iran’s number of centrifuges by 65 percent and its stockpile of enriched uranium dramatically from 10 tons to 300 kilograms. It also ruled out the possibility of Iran’s producing plutonium in the nuclear reactor in Arak. There are a few more benefits and advantages to the deal, which will last 10 to15 years.

However, one of the handicaps of the agreement is the lack of punitive measures instilled in it. In any commercial contract, whether apartment rental or employment contract, there are clauses ensuring retribution in case of violation.

But not in this one.

Also, the weaknesses of the deal are in the clauses regarding inspection. Yes, it is better than what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) used to have in place, but it still leaves in question how the implementation will be carried out, in accordance with negotiations between the IAEA and Iran.

Two major holes are still unfilled. Will Iran be allowed to produce samples from its own suspected sites? If so, it would give Iran the chance to cheat the inspectors. The second problematic issue is the 24-day grace period given to Iran to respond to any IAEA requests to visit and inspect suspicious sites.

Another problematic aspect of the deal is that it paves the way for Iran to purchase – probably from Russia – better air defense systems, which would make a future military strike, both by Israel or the US, much more dangerous.

For years, Netanyahu fought hard to persuade Russian President Vladmir Putin not to sell the advanced ground-to-air S-300 missile systems to Iran. Now, through his defiant approach, Netanyahu has enabled Iran to receive these sophisticated weapons on a silver platter.

Netanyahu should have taken a different approach.

Instead of fighting the Obama administration in his futile efforts to team up with the Republicans, he should have tried quietly to coordinate his concerns with the US administration in order to influence the outcome of the deal, to accommodate Israeli concerns.

It is not too late to reach out to the Obama administration and try, together, to define a new set of red lines to determine what would be considered by Washington and Jerusalem to be substantial violations of the nuclear deal, and what punitive measures should be taken under such circumstances.

Barak and Netanyahu declined to comment on this story. 

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman

This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Report. 

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