As we near the November 24 deadline for a comprehensive deal that seeks to halt all controversial elements of Iran’s nuclear program in return for an extensive relief in sanctions imposed by the US and the international community, it is worth examining whether the fruit of these negotiations are beneficial to Israel’s interests.
Since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has actually continued to prove itself as a viable diplomatic counterpart in the nuclear negotiations with the five permanent members of the UN’s Security Council, plus Germany (P5+1). As mandated by the interim agreement reached by both sides in November 2013, Iran has significantly rolled back its nuclear program by neutralizing its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium; capping its stockpile of 5% enriched uranium; refraining from installing any new advanced centrifuges, as well as installing or testing any new components to its heavy-water reactor in Arak. Additionally, Iran has complied with the most frequent and intrusive inspections ever conducted on a country’s nuclear program.
According to the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) – the UN’s nuclear watchdog – (issued on November 7), Iran remains in compliance with its end of obligations. In short, Tehran is virtually incapable of amassing a bomb, let alone producing its essential chemical parts.
As a result of such diplomatic success, the 35 years of enmity between Washington and Tehran has rapidly begun to thaw. Despite recent French, Russian and Iranian revelations regarding another potential extension to the deadline, published accounts (official and unofficial) of both American and Iranian officials show a strong, yet modest, sense of optimism in reaching a deal within a timely manner.
Despite such progress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly stated that any agreement with Iran would be a “bad deal.” Israel has felt the tip of Tehran’s spear through Iranian rockets launched by Hamas and Hezbollah in their terrorist campaigns, as well as fiery rhetoric spewed by many hard-liners in Iran.
However, if a comprehensive deal is reached, it will not be a “bad deal.”
On the contrary, for various reasons a deal would pave the way for an even safer Israel, and perhaps stable region. Here’s why: First, any final agreement would end Iran’s ability to build the bomb.
By keeping enrichment at low levels – significantly lower than the internationally legal limit – for civilian applications, coupled with the strictest inspections yet, Iran would be rid of its ability to produce a weapon.
Even for the Israeli most skeptical of the UN’s ability to safeguard such a deal, this breakthrough alone means dividends for his country’s security interests. Most notably, if the Iranians decided to cheat on the deal, the international community would be alarmed by the IAEA very early in the process. As a result, Tehran could face the consequences of such actions instantly.
Second, an agreement would benefit Israel’s regional security interests.
A deal would likely open up avenues for formal US-Iran military cooperation in their common interests – shared by Israel – to defeat Islamic State. In the last year, we have seen instances where the US engaged in official military coordination with Tehran on the Syrian front, as well as unofficial coordination in Iraq through the Iraqi government. According to American press reports, President Barack Obama has made it clear in a letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei that this form of cooperation is on the table should an agreement be reached.
Access to Iranian intelligence and networks in the region could prove incredibly helpful as it did in 2001 for the US, when the Bush Administration coordinated with Tehran in its preparation leading up to the war in Afghanistan. Even today, the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government claim that Iran was the first country to provide military and financial support in their fight against the so-called Islamic State. With the potential for an “allstar” front aimed at destroying the Islamist group, Israel would have one less new and nearing enemy to worry about.
Such close, newfound relations with the United States leads me to my third point: An opportunity for a thaw in tensions between Tehran and Jerusalem. Based on its short history, the Islamic Republic has a track record of emphatically pursuing its strategic interests under its explicit ideological ones, including when pursuing Israel. In May 2003 – in one of Tehran’s most conciliatory efforts to bridge the decades-long enmity with Washington – Iran offered to end its support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to pressure them into ceasing attacks on the Jewish state, to demilitarize Hezbollah as a fighting force into purely a political party, and even agreeing to recognize as well as normalize relations with Israel by signing onto the Saudi Peace plan. It was – after all – the rejection of such Iranian conciliation by Washington, as well as the Barak and Sharon governments, that had played a huge role in bolstering hard-liners, like former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, into power. One could argue that this outreach by Tehran was during a less-threatening time when Iran was not spinning centrifuges, arguing that the Iranian government has more leverage now than it had in the past. However, the myriad of correspondence by members of the Iranian government to Washington in 2003 advocating for such peace offer, suggests that Tehran fully understands that in order to begin warming relations with the United States, it must end its military backing of anti-Israel groups. It is an unmerited idea that Iran will take any agreement with the US as a free pass to continue threatening Israeli security, under America’s “blind eye.”
Even if that were the case, an American Congress – Republican or Democrat- led – would act with legislation to fortify their allies’ security interests in Jerusalem.
Efforts by Netanyahu to sabotage such agreement through rallying pro-Likud advocacy wings in the Beltway and members of Congress to advocate in favor of crippling sanctions on Iran, would further isolate the Jewish state within the international community. In particular, it would likely perpetuate an already tumultuous US-Israel relationship, of which Jerusalem – for decades – has relied upon for diplomatic, financial and military support. In the past, the Israeli prime minister successfully rallied American allies in favor of crippling sanctions on Iran.
If Bibi chooses to work closely with the newly Republican-led Congress – which he has helped put into power with the financial support of his wealthy American allies – to pass additional sanctions, it would prevent the US from meeting its obligations of the deal. As a result, the Iranians would not feel the need to live up to their obligations of the deal either.
But this would spell trouble for Israel.
First, it would validate the Iranian hard-liners’ narrative of the “distrustful West,” galvanize them to resume their nuclear calculus prior to the negotiations and marginalize moderate voices in the Iranian government who would have otherwise been worthy diplomatic counterparts. Much like it did in 2003. Second, it would hurt the reputations of both the US and Israel. Both countries would inevitably receive blame if such a deal were undermined. Although a few states are skeptical of a deal, current diplomatic efforts are supported by the international consensus. Though Congress would likely maintain good relations with the Netanyahu government, it would only widen the gap with the Obama administration.
This could be detrimental to Israel’s interests considering Obama will decide on whether to veto a new unilateral Palestinian resolution to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank, expected to make its appearance in the UN Security Council some time in the near future.
All in all, it is reasonable for Jerusalem to feel distrustful of a deal negotiated with Tehran. However, it is irrelevant whether one can trust the Iranian government. In effective diplomacy, emphasis should always be placed on negotiating verifiable agreements. That is, the establishment of strict protocols ensuring that Iran will keep its end of the bargain, matched by tough consequences in the event that it decides to cheat on it. This is much more viable than basing the credibility of such a deal on the character of a government anyway.The author is a Visiting Junior Research Fellow at the University of Haifa.
All opinions reflected by him are his own.