Meir Ben Shabbat to ‘Post’: Moderate Sunni Arabs see nuke deal as US bowing to Iran

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has increased Iran's desire for nuclear weapons.

NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL head Meir Ben-Shabbat attends a state audit committee meeting at the Knesset in 2018 (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL head Meir Ben-Shabbat attends a state audit committee meeting at the Knesset in 2018
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

The moderate Sunni Arab states see the emerging potential nuclear deal as the US bowing to Iran, former national security council chief Meir Ben Shabbat told The Jerusalem Post.

Currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies of Tel Aviv University, Ben Shabbat served as NSC chief from 2017 until August, during former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s term and the first two months of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s term.

He discussed a number of issues in a wide-ranging interview by email, from Iran to Ukraine to Hezbollah to the Abraham Accords, though he declined to answer questions about operational issues.

Q: Recently, those experts and former officials who said that the JCPOA nuclear deal was bad to have said that the US exiting the deal was also a bad move – because there was no Plan B of what to do without the deal – and that this freed up Iran to progress further with its nuclear program. Do you agree? And now that there is a high probability of a new agreement, how should Israel act?

BS: An agreement is not the end, an agreement is the means! The goal is to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or from becoming a “threshold state” with nuclear weapons. Any agreement that does not ensure this is a means that is not serving the ends, and is, therefore, not a good one.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen to vote during Iranian presidential election in Tehran (credit: REUTERS)Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen to vote during Iranian presidential election in Tehran (credit: REUTERS)

It is only when the Ayatollah regime is faced with a choice – to lose power or renounce their nuclear plans – will it give up its nuclear program.

There is no precedent for a country renouncing its nuclear program freely and without pressure. It didn’t happen in Iraq, Libya, Syria or in North Korea. Sanctions against Iran could have achieved this goal if they had continued to operate with greater intensity, together with a credible military threat.

In fact, the Trump administration left the Biden administration with important leverage to exert pressure on Iran. They should have continued to use it. That would have broken the spirit and the hope of the Iranians, who had expected that the change of administration in the USA would bring some relief for them. As we can see in another arena [alluding to the current sanctioning of Russia], the USA still believes in the power of severe economic sanctions.

As for the USA, it is also important to say that the agreement presently emerging weakens its status in the Middle East. Its allies will not say this explicitly, but clearly, they see the agreement with Iran as bowing to the Iranians and allowing them to grow stronger in a way that also threatens them. We cannot rule out the possibility that other countries will strive to obtain nuclear weapons, to create a balance against Iran. None of this will bring more stability to the Middle East.

In the event that a new nuclear deal is signed and Iran follows its provisions as it did during the years 2015-2019, when would we need to worry more and become more active: only in October 2025 when there will be fewer nuclear limits on the volume of centrifuges which Iran can operate? One year earlier? Or only in October 2030 when all of the nuclear limits are removed?

The new-old agreement that the USA is currently advancing will certainly pave the way for Iran to achieve nuclear weapons, once the restrictions expire. The emerging agreement has no levers to force Iran to engage in discussions on a “longer and stronger” agreement, and there is no reason to think that it will volunteer to do so.

The Iranian regime will increase its efforts to achieve nuclear weapons, also as a lesson learned from the war in Ukraine. It will see nuclear weapons as an essential guarantee to secure its survival, and will do everything in its power to achieve them quickly.

It will, therefore, maximize what it can obtain within the agreement, and will do whatever it can – even counter to the agreement. Anyone who is not blind must assume that this is how the Iranian regime is expected to think and also to act!

Will the internal instability and problems within Lebanon, combined with the possibility of a new nuclear deal weakening US involvement in the Middle East, cause Hezbollah to attack Israel in the coming year, despite the deterrence Israel has maintained since the 2006 Second Lebanon War?

The agreement with Iran and the resources it will probably be able to obtain will put wind into the sails of the “Shiite axis,” including Hezbollah. At the same time, Hezbollah understands well the significance of a conflict with Israel and the price that Lebanon may pay in such an event.

Regarding Israel’s position on Ukraine issues: should it have stood more clearly and unequivocally with the US and the West? Should Israel continue with its current policy of ambiguity regarding its relations with Ukraine and Russia, or should it become even more silent on the issue?

Israel does not have to prove what world view, what ideological outlook, and what values it is close to. That is very clear to everyone. And everyone is also aware that Israel and the USA have a relationship that is not called a “special relationship” by chance. Taken as a whole, Israel has other interests that it must also consider. Israel’s conduct must take into account both ethical considerations and its overall interests.

At first, the Abraham Accords were very impressive. But after 16 months, the Biden administration has not invested in them the same way as did the previous administration, and the Palestinians have not changed their positions despite the strategic change to the landscape. Has Israel obtained most of the good that it can from the accords, and will now be stuck again with the Palestinians and with other countries that have not joined? Alternatively, some say that Oman and Indonesia could be the next to join. Who might be next?

We can see that the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco are developing nicely. They have been extended to cover a very wide range of subjects, and they are creating deep contacts between citizens and companies, not just governments. All of this is proceeding at a good pace, which shows that the Abraham Accords came at just the right time.

There is still potential for further agreements. The positive fruits of the accords so far will influence other countries to be more eager to hop on the peace train. Of course, that is not the only issue, but it has an impact.

The Middle East is currently undergoing a process of re-organization, in which the traditional boundaries between the various camps are becoming blurred.

The pragmatic Sunni camp, which includes Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, is setting up partnerships with Turkey and Qatar – the mainstay of political Islam, courtesy of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey and Israel are becoming closer.

This process is happening as a result of the cumulative effect of four elements: American policy in the Middle East, Iran, the defeat of Salafi terrorism and the economy.

Unlike in the past, the current process is occurring when there is a platform for relations with Israel – the Abraham Accords – and that of course can provide opportunities.

What is the right approach to move forward with normalization with Sudan? Should the process move through Sudanese de facto head of state and military chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, or through Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemetti?” Have, or should, the changes in the Sudanese government (following al-Burhan’s coup to topple his civilian authority partners) blocked forward progress, and does Israel need to be careful getting closer to Sudan as long as the West views al-Burhan as illegitimate?

The most important thing is momentum. We must continually ensure that positive momentum continues. There must be a forward trend of progress, even if the pace is slow. As for the method and the people – I am convinced that my replacements and the others involved are carefully considering all the options.