Back to the future: Netanyahu's redemption on Iran

Once again, policy discussion on Iran will likely focus on sanctions and force posture.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu points to a diagram of a bomb at the UN. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu points to a diagram of a bomb at the UN.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- When Benjamin Netanyahu visits Donald Trump's White House only weeks from now, he will bring with him an agenda of three items: Iran, Iran and Iran.
He finally sees an opportunity to, in his words, figure out "how to deal with this bad deal" brokered between Tehran and international powers, meant to govern its nuclear work for over a decade. He believes the president-elect is a genuine skeptic of Iran and of the nuclear accord: Trump is surrounding himself with hard-liners that have fought with the Obama administration over its Iran policy for years.
But now that he has an amenable ally in the White House, what will Netanyahu actually present as an alternative to the nuclear deal? What options are there before Israel and the US one full year into implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Israel wants to keep the short-term benefits of this deal– a delay in the growth of Iran’s nuclear program– as it simultaneously finds a way to prevent Iran from reaching its ultimate end goal as promised by the deal: legitimization of an industrial-scale nuclear infrastructure.
Iran Foreign Minister Zarif adresses US committment to nuclear deal (Reuters)
The Israelis believe that Iran has found through this deal a way to gain all of the strategic benefits of building a bomb without the costs of building one— stopping just short of construction, instead amassing all of the materials necessary such that they can compile them in short order. In other words, Israel believes this deal set Iran up to become a nuclear-threshold state. US President Barack Obama believed this was impossible to prevent— preventing weaponization itself was his priority— but with new American leadership, Netanyahu hopes to revert terms of an acceptable end state back to his own.
He has several options. Iran’s nuclear program and the deal legitimizing it, to its government, is about regime security and regional power projection; but there are ways of limiting Iran’s malign activities, practically bolstered by its nuclear-threshold status, while the JCPOA remains in place. Western powers are allowed to continue sanctioning Iran’s non-nuclear activities, such as its support for terrorist organizations, its ballistic missile work and its human rights violations, without resorting to old sanctions tools. Expect to see a slew of sanctions bills out of Congress with similar contours in the coming year.
Secondly, there may be opportunities to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions during the course of Trump’s term. The JCPOA allows any one party to the deal to snap back sanctions “in whole or in part.” But doing so may come with serious consequences that Israel finds disadvantageous. If the Trump administration snaps back sanctions hastily, over a small noncompliance event, then Iran will likely see political cause to bring its nuclear program roaring back. And it may be hard to put back together the sort of political coalition necessary to sanction Iran the way it had been sanctioned before the deal was signed— a coalition that Israel appreciated in scope and impact.
If the deal were to be forced into the ground or were to collapse, Iran has promised to fast-track its nuclear work. The world would have to respond to what would fast become a crisis, and conversation on the use of force would resurface.
Netanyahu may not mind this scenario, as his primary goal throughout Obama's presidency– it is understood by his generals– was to have the US do the job of crippling Iran’s program through force on the world’s behalf. The truth is that Israel could not do the job alone– and Obama administration officials knew that. Netanyahu likely sees Trump as a different animal who is either more likely to use force against Iran or, in the least, more likely to be feared if and when he threatens it.
The Israeli government believes that, in all of his unpredictability, Trump may subscribe to Richard Nixon's Madman Theory of foreign policy: Make autocratic and communist powers willing to challenge the US believe that Washington is crazy enough to respond with massive force. It was, after all, George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 that compelled Iran's leadership to halt its nuclear work unilaterally— the only time it ever did so.
So we’re going “back to the future” on Iran, where policy discussion is likely to revert back to familiar rhetoric on the use of sanctions and the threat of force while nuclear scientists track how close Iran is to reaching a critical threshold state. Netanyahu will ask Trump in their first meeting to sanction Iran for non-nuclear activities and to respond to each and every violation proportionately, while maintaining the deal in the short term, buying time until its problematic sunset years.
Any attempt to renegotiate or redefine terms of those sunset years will be a great test of the ingenuity of America's next secretary of state.