Intelligence Report: Iran on the threshold

The Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is not necessarily a bad one for Israel’s national interests, but Iran is the true winner in the deal.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The agreement reached on November 24 in Geneva between world powers and Tehran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is a mixed bag.
It carries some good news for Israel, the region, and the world at large; but it also sends undesirable messages to rogue and pariah nations, such as Iran, that may encourage them to be more defiant.
Several major strategic implications emerge from the agreement. First and foremost the military option has been taken off the table and Iran is now officially a military nuclear-threshold state. In addition, the US foreign and security posture in the Middle East has been further eroded. Other nations in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia, are also likely now to develop nuclear capabilities. It also appears that Israel and Saudi Arabia have formed a secret anti-Shi’ite alliance. All the rest is just detail – important nonetheless.
The interim agreement, which will be in effect for a limited period of six months, sets the general framework for a comprehensive deal that world powers hope will halt Iran’s nuclear program in the long term.
Tehran did commit to cease uranium enrichment to levels higher than five percent, and to disconnect centrifuges that are used for high-level enrichment.
In addition, Iran agreed to convert its stockpile of less than 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium into gas or fuel rods – a move that would prevent it from being enriched to higher levels at a later stage.
Iran also agreed not to expand its enrichment capacity by installing additional centrifuges or operating its next-generation centrifuges, which have already been installed. At present, Iran has at its two uranium enrichment facilities more than 18,000 centrifuges, most of which are oldgeneration models.
The deal forbids Iran from operating 8,000 centrifuges out of the 18,000 that have already been installed but are not spinning at the moment at the two sites. Iran will not be allowed to build new enrichment installations or to accumulate a centrifuge inventory, and will only be able to replace faulty centrifuges. Iran will be allowed to continue to enrich uranium to a level of 3.5 percent but not to enlarge its current stockpile of 7.5 tons.
Newly enriched uranium will only replace older uranium or will be converted.
As for the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is in its final stages of construction and could in future produce plutonium, Iran agreed not to start operating it or modify it in any way. Iran is forbidden to build a plutonium-separation facility for fuel from the reactor – a process that could be used to produce fissile material for a nuclear bomb. Iran will also hand over to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), technical information regarding the Arak reactor and allow visits by inspectors.
As part of the interim agreement, more in-depth inspections will be conducted at all Iranian nuclear sites. IAEA inspectors will be allowed daily access to the Natanz and Fordow facilities. The inspectors will also be able to use surveillance footage of the facilities and review centrifuge assembly and production factories, as well as uranium mines.
The essence of the interim agreement negotiatedbetween Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany is a freeze. It does not roll back Iran’s nuclear achievements. It only freezes its activities at the current levels. It allows Iran to keep its nuclear technology, materials and machines.
The focus of the major powers is to stop Iran from enhancing its nuclear program, not to dismantle it.
According to the interim agreement, Iran already has 7.5 tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Complemented by its know-how, technology and machines (old and new centrifuges), this is sufficient to produce high-enriched uranium (HEU) of 93 percent – enough fissile material to assemble four nuclear bombs if Tehran were to abandon the deal, break out and rush to cross the nuclear military threshold.
Is this a bad deal for Israel? Judging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s systematic criticism over months ahead of the Geneva talks, the deal is his worst nightmare. After the deal, Netanyahu stated that “what was achieved is not a historic agreement; it is a historic mistake.”
Netanyahu has only himself to blame for his failure to persuade the US and world powers to design a better deal, more favorable for Israeli aspirations. He alienated himself from US President Barack Obama. He cried wolf too many times, and the world stopped believing his cries. He threatened time and again to use military force, and the world called his bluff.
He refused to compromise in the ongoing peace talks with the Palestinians and thus has irritated even Israel’s most ardent supporters.
So no doubt, Netanyahu is a big loser in this game. One can only hope that the prime minister will not reach the wrong conclusion, namely, that he has to “punish” the Obama Administration by stalling the peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
A deal with the PA is, above all, an Israeli interest. With no peace agreement, the only ones to be punished and suffer are the Israeli people.
Netanyahu’s emotions aside, the deal is not necessarily a bad one for Israel’s national interests. Iran is still under a rigid regime of international economic sanctions, which have not been lifted. Some of Iran’s nuclear activities, especially the path to plutonium, have been slowed down. Iran is still two years from acquiring the know-how to design a nuclear warhead for a missile, and a few more years from miniaturizing the warhead.
A new Sunni alliance is being built in the region – and Israel is one of its secret partners.
This is the anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah alliance. But it is a marriage of convenience and is based on the old dictum of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is not new. It emerged already during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. It has since focused on Iran’s interventionist policies in Yemen, Bahrain, the Palestinian areas, and the Horn of Africa and North Africa, and above all – on its nuclear program.
Yet the Israeli-Saudi joint concerns over Iran’s nuclear capabilities and their frustration over Obama’s reconciliation with Iran (this will be the next natural step to be adopted by Washington) will not advance the peace between Israel and the Palestinians. One should not forget that since 2006, Saudi Arabia has supported the Hamas government in Gaza and by doing so has found itself in the same camp with Iran. Recently, Riyadh has been supporting the Jihadist forces in Syria. Israel strategically benefits from the bloody and tragic civil war there; but, in the long run, it fears the Jihadists.
And even more worrying is the fact that it can be expected that Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Muslim nations in the region (such as Turkey) will soon reach the conclusion that they too need nuclear capabilities “just in case” for a “rainy day.” If the world believes that by clinching the deal with Iran it has delayed a Middle East nuclear race, it may well be dead wrong.
Though the Geneva agreement is not a zerosum game, Iran is the true winner in the deal.
Iran decided to negotiate for two reasons. First, it has reached its goal, which has never been to assemble the bomb but to be a nuclear military threshold state. Second, the sanctions have been suffocating its economy and threatening the survival of the regime.
Iran is now emerging out of its economic and diplomatic isolation. It is showing the world and, above all, its people that stubbornness and defiance do pay off. Even more importantly for Tehran – the American-Israeli military option has been taken off the table. The United States certainly won’t strike Iran in the foreseeable future, and Israel wouldn’t dare defy America’s (and the rest of the world’s) clear preference for a negotiated settlement.
Even if the ultra-conservatives in Iran may criticize the relatively moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani for being too soft and caving in to international pressure, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must feel a sense of satisfaction. It is doubtful that Iran will have the motivation at the end of the interim agreement to reach a final deal.
In the larger scheme of things, the agreement makes it clear that the security and foreign policy posture of the United States in the Middle East is in decline. In the last three years prior to the Geneva agreement, there have been several developments in the region that seemingly have nothing in common: Israel and the United States are locked in a collision course over Iran’s nuclear program and the stalled negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Saudi Arabia, frustrated by the failure to topple the Assad regime in Syria and American efforts to reconcile with Iran, is turning its back on the Obama Administration and devoting billions of dollars to diversify its sources of military hardware.
Egypt’s military rulers, angered by Washington’s decreased military and political assistance, are making overtures in the direction of Moscow and recently hosted its intelligence and military chiefs.
In the Libyan civil war, the US claimed to “lead from behind” – an oxymoronic phrase.
Iraq fell into the Shi’ite-Iranian sphere of interests after the US pulled its troops out.
Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army would be a “red line.” However, once this line was crossed, the US looked the other way and did nothing.
Russia jumped at the opportunity, offered a diplomatic solution, and emerged from the crisis as a savior.
These incidents can be seen as isolated and independent of each other, yet they have much in common. Together, they are part of a geopolitical earthquake in the Middle East and beyond. They are both symptoms and results of the shrinking American standing in the region.
The Obama Administration might deny this, but most security and foreign policy experts in the Middle East feel it and know it.
All in all, it is a sad day for the pro- American forces in the region, a huge strategic achievement for Iran, and further proof of America’s detachment from world politics.