How will history judge Netanyahu’s fervent opposition to the Iran deal?

Netanyahu insists that the deal with Iran was an historic mistake. But history makes its own judgments in its own good time.

Benjamin Netanyahu greets visiting US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in Jerusalem, July 21 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu greets visiting US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in Jerusalem, July 21
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CONVINCED THAT the July 14 nuclear agreement between the great powers and Iran threatens Israel’s future, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains determined to do all he can to scuttle it.
In his view, the American-led negotiators caved in on a host of crucial issues, the upshot of which is that the radical Iranian regime will soon have billions of freedup dollars to fund terrorist militias, and, at most, in little more than a decade, the capacity and international authorization to produce dozens of nuclear devices in quick succession.
According to Netanyahu, a band of blinkered and weak world leaders, incapable of reading the Middle East, have sacrificed major strategic interests for short term economic and political gain. It is, he says, a mistake of historical dimensions and it threatens not only Israel but world peace.
Like his hero Winston Churchill before him, Netanyahu sees himself as a lone voice crying out against a dangerous act of appeasement, certain that history will prove him right.
But are the Israeli leader’s arguments valid? Is the deal really as flawed as he makes it out to be? And is his obsessive posturing against it the best way of dealing with its shortcomings? Or is the head-on clash he is leading against the American administration self-defeating and dangerously so? In a briefing to Israeli correspondents in late July, Netanyahu argued that the only way to stop Iran exploiting the deal is to get the US Congress to vote against it. If left as is, the deal would enable Iran to become a nuclear threshold state – a state capable of quickly producing a bomb – in 10 to 15 years if it abides by the deal and earlier if it doesn’t.
Moreover, the lifting of economic sanctions would see around $150 billion additional dollars flowing into Iranian coffers, providing the radical regime with loads of new cash to fund Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza, as well as its own subversive activities across the Middle East.
In this bleak and dangerous situation, Congress, set to vote on the deal within 60 days of its signing, is the one remaining hope. And in Netanyahu’s view, a congressional move overriding the president and sinking the deal is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Opposition to the deal across the US is growing by the day, he says. And if Congress were to abrogate America’s commitment, that would put a stop to the process leading to Iran’s becoming a nuclear threshold state in 10 to 15 years.
That argument, however, seems deeply flawed. If as a result of a congressional vote the deal were to collapse, Iran already is a nuclear threshold state, no more than months away from a bomb; and if, as is more likely, the deal remains in place with international and US presidential support despite the congressional vote, what will have changed? Moreover, the notion that in the wake of a vote against the deal a successor president might renege on an international American commitment – with all that that entails – seems highly improbable.
FOR CONGRESS to quash America’s commitment to the deal, it would have to override a promised presidential veto with a two thirds majority in both houses, another unlikely proposition. Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer and AIPAC, the American Jewish lobby, are focusing on around 13 wavering Democratic Senators and dozens of Democratic Congressmen, trying to persuade them to vote against what an incumbent Democratic president sees by some distance as his major foreign policy achievement.
The main Israeli protagonist against the deal is Netanyahu himself. He is not letting any opportunity to speak against the deal slip, whether in talks with foreign leaders, public statements and most recently through a live webcast appeal to American Jews.
This is a dangerous game with a built-in lose-lose structure: If Congress wins, Israel could find itself blamed for the unravelling of the deal and its consequences; the break-up of the hard-won American-led international coalition against Iran; a more dangerous Middle East; and, in a worst case scenario, dragging the US into another Middle Eastern war.
If, as is more likely, the president wins, the obvious daylight between Washington and Jerusalem will hurt Israel’s international standing and its regional deterrence.
Either way, relations with the Obama White House will hit new lows. There could be an erosion in American backing for Israel with serious military and diplomatic implications. This could affect arms supplies, intelligence sharing and Israel’s growing isolation as boycott/divestment calls and Palestinian legal moves against Israel gain further traction.
Moreover, by dragging American Jews into his battle against the White House, Netanyahu has put them in a highly embarrassing spot where questions could be raised over whether their first loyalty is to the US or to Israel.
If the prime minister of Israel is prepared to go to such lengths and put so much at risk, one would assume the deal must be catastrophic for Israel. But is it really that bad? On the nuclear issue, in the short to medium term at least, it seems to have significant advantages. It pushes back Iran’s break-out time to a bomb from a few months to over a year, significantly reduces the scope of its nuclear program, puts an unprecedented verification regime in place, with international inspectors at all known sites on a 24/7 basis and, bottom line, delays the Iranian bomb by more than a decade.
THE MAIN argument Netanyahu and other critics of the deal make is that when it expires in 15 years Iran will be free to press ahead for a bomb with tens of thousands of state-of-the-art centrifuges, unlimited stockpiles of enriched uranium and a reactivated plant for reprocessing plutonium. True, this is not far-fetched and would be extremely disturbing.
But it is hardly the whole picture. In 15 years time, Iran will still be a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which bars it from producing nuclear weapons. If it moves in the military nuclear direction, the international community could again impose sanctions or even take military action. Given the strict inspection regime in place, potential bombers would know everything there is to know about Iran’s nuclear sites.
More than the nuclear, however, it is the non-nuclear military implications of the deal that pose an immediate threat to Israel’s national security. The early influx of tens of billions of dollars into the Iranian economy and more over the coming decade will fuel Iran’s hegemonic designs through terror and sedition – much of it aimed through Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad at Israel. The threat to Israel will become ever more acute in five years when the arms embargo on Iran is lifted and in eight when the embargo on ballistic missile components expires.
But if, as seems likely, the Iranian- backed terrorist threat to Israel is set to grow, surely Netanyahu should be coordinating counter-moves with the American administration, not fighting it. After all, even if Congress votes down the deal, the rest of the international community will continue to pump huge sums of money into the Iranian economy which could be used for terrorist purposes.
Of course, the efficacy of Israeli policy on Iran will depend on what the Islamic Republic does next. In a paper analyzing the nuclear deal, Amos Yadlin, head of the Tel Aviv based Institute for National Security Studies, points to three possible scenarios: • The transformation scenario: Iran becomes less radical as its new found posterity brings more liberal forces to the fore.
Social and political change lead to new more accommodating policies towards the US and even Israel.
This, however, is unlikely given the Ayatollah’s iron grip on economic, military and police power primarily through the Revolutionary Guards and secret services.
• The North Korea scenario: Under cover of the agreement, Iran produces a bomb.
This too is unlikely as the deal makes it difficult for the Iranians to cheat, and they know that if they were caught in the act, the consequences for them would be grave.
• The strategic patience scenario: Iran scrupulously honors the agreement on the understanding that after 10-15 years it will emerge as a legitimate nuclear threshold state. During this period Iran continues its subversive, hegemonic activities, fueled by the new billions in its coffers. This is the most likely scenario.
In all three scenarios, there is one essential component for any rational, coherent Israeli policy: close coordination with the US. This is imperative for virtually all significant operational decisions and activities. For example: a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, intelligence gathering against Iranian violations of the deal, joint response policy in the event of violations, consensus on what constitutes significant violation, coordinating anti-Iranian nuclear policy after the deal expires, encouraging liberal forces in Iran, building a regional coalition against Iranian terror and hegemonic aspirations, proceeding on the Palestinian track as a means of nullifying the Iranian threat and enhancing Israel’s regional standing.
Obviously such close coordination would also entail a new security package for Israel to contend with Iranian nuclear violations as well as Iranian terror and subversion. Yadlin suggests anchoring all this in a side deal between Israel and the US, based on Obama’s commitment not to allow Iran to go nuclear – ever.
Where Israel and the US may not be on the same page is where some in Washington see Iran as a potential ally against the radical Sunni Islamic State. This, however, should not deter Israel from launching a major regional and Palestinian initiative backed by the US as a means of defanging the Iranian threat.
The problem with this is that so far Netanyahu shows no sign of readiness for a sweeping Palestinian peace move or of accepting the Arab peace initiative of 2002 as a basis for wider regional peace negotiations.
Netanyahu insists that the deal with Iran was an historic mistake. But history makes its own judgments in its own good time.
And when it does, it may come to find Netanyahu, rather than Obama, wanting.
More than Iran, it could be argued that the prime existential issue facing Israel is the long unresolved occupation of Palestinian territory, now fast approaching the half century mark. And here history may come to judge Netanyahu adversely as the man who had all the cards – in Mahmoud Abbas a Palestinian leader ready for a deal and in the Obama administration a mediator capable of closing one – and failed to deliver.
Rather than as Israel’s savior on Iran, history may judge Netanyahu as the leader who had every chance to secure Israel’s future and its place in the region through a two-state solution with the Palestinians that would also have mitigated the Iranian threat – and blew it.
This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Report.