Behind all the acrimony and hyperbole is an actual deal with Iran: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). There are grudges, interests, risks and opportunities, many of which have been obscured by one-sided talking points and self-serving arguments. The real stakes and motivations are harder to discern, but no less important.
In his assessment of the post-Bush Middle East, in which Iran’s natural predators (e.g., Iraq) have been neutralized, President Barack Obama seems to have determined that US interests depend on at least moving Iran off the “threat to global order” list, even if it’s only for 10-15 years. And yes, he also wants to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Israelis feel a genuine sense of betrayal. Israel and the Obama administration were working very closely on strategy, intelligence and operations (including cyber-warfare) to block Iran’s nuclear program.
Beyond fighting Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel’s response to the Iranian threat has cost it billions more than it gets from the United States, including an opportunity cost, and more than any consolation prize it might receive in the coming months.
The Israelis found out about the secret US-Iran “pre-talks” well before the November 2013 public announcement. They also knew, early on, that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had conceded up front Iran’s right to enrich uranium, a right not accorded to or exercised by half the world’s nuclear energy-producing states. Betrayal.
Resentment. Insecurity. Understood.
With the entire United Nations Security Council approving the deal, realistically there is no “stopping” it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not committed to stopping the deal at all costs, which is why American opponents of the agreement are finally reining in their “oven door” rhetoric. With an actual vote in Congress now in sight, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell predicts there won’t be enough votes to block the president.
Were these talks necessary? The other “P-5” nations, permanent members of the Security Council – even rivals like Russia and China – have willingly backed sanctions because they fear a nuclear-armed Iran. The extensive sanctions and isolation had no decisive impact on Iran’s nuclear progress, but they succeeded in their purpose of forcing Iran to the negotiating table.
Obama couldn’t have opened the negotiations if the P-5 weren’t confident of ensuring Iran’s compliance.
This means Netanyahu’s critique is not shared by his counterparts in Moscow and Beijing, and he also knows there’s no chance of making them pay politically the way he can in Washington.
The same major powers are now rushing to line up weapon sales and energy deals with the Islamic Republic.
Certainly, if the president is barred from lifting the sanctions imposed by Congress, Iran could argue the deal is null and void. But even if Congress does keep America from implementing its part of the deal, Iran stands to gain economically and diplomatically.
And many of Washington’s harshest sanctions are executive measures, not even subject to congressional mandate.
So why all the fuss? Wisely or not, Netanyahu’s goal now is twofold: 1) showing there’s a lasting political cost to choosing US expediency over Israel’s strategic imperatives, and 2) making it painfully clear that Israel’s government has objected and exerted maximum effort, not silently going into the night.
If there’s long-term good news, it’s that neither Israelis nor Americans will be walking away from each other anytime soon. The underlying relationship runs deep, and in a region beset by unstable and arbitrary regimes, the US still needs Israel – even with all its faults and challenges. And for Israelis, neither Russia nor China is a likely or desirable replacement patron.
Iran now enjoys serious status because of its nuclear program as well as the extended negotiations and high-profile agreement with major world powers. Israel has lost some status, largely due to Netanyahu’s open falling-out with the president of the United States, and because he continues to remind everyone that Iran has beaten Israel at the international diplomacy game.
And on other fronts, especially in Lebanon and possibly once more in Gaza, Iran continues its sponsorship of terrorism worldwide – with or without sanctions, with or without a nuclear agreement.
It is worth remembering that over the past decade, Netanyahu has devoted his annual UN General Assembly speech to one action item: Stopping Iran’s quest for a deliverable nuclear weapon.
Most of the world now thinks this has been achieved, at least for the next 15 years or more. And Netanyahu has stated that “Israel is not bound by this deal” – a deal which was adopted by the UN Security Council.
Next month’s General Assembly opening will feature speeches from major and minor world leaders, including probably Netanyahu and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. For now, it is Israel, not the UN-embargoed Iran, that risks isolation, and this time we can’t blame anti-Semitism. It is Israel that, for the first time in its history, now broadcasts its threats to use military force. And it is Israel which is choosing to publicly devalue and debase its personal and strategic relationship with the United States, a fundamental security guarantee that outranks even its own nuclear stockpile.
The author is a veteran executive of Jewish organizations, is Senior Fellow for United Nations Affairs with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.