For the last 20 years, the leaders of both Israel and the United States have said they would not let Iran obtain nuclear weapons. Ever.
If that is the case, then why – except for a few years when Donald Trump was president – has this issue been such a long-standing source of friction between Jerusalem and Washington, including now, with the renewal of negotiations between the world powers and Iran in Vienna last Monday?
If both countries are saying essentially the same thing – that Iran will never get nuclear weapons – why did the issue poison relations between former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former US president Barack Obama, and why is it now the first real public point of contention between President Joe Biden’s administration and that of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett?
The reason: for Israel, this is an existential issue to a degree that it is not for the United States.
To understand the differences between Washington and Jerusalem is to understand the different ways Israel and the US perceive the Iranian threat, the different traumas they bring to the issue, and the different points – or triggers – at which they feel military action will be needed to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
These differences have been referred to as the “three Ts”: threat, trauma and triggers.
BUT BEFORE dealing with the “three Ts”, it is worth highlighting where there is agreement. Every US president going back to George W. Bush, and every Israeli prime minister since Ariel Sharon, has made it clear that their country could never countenance a nuclear-armed Iran.
“No, we’ve made it clear, our position is that they won’t have a nuclear weapon,” then-president George W. Bush said in a Fox News interview in September 2004 about Iran’s nuclear program.
His successor, Barack Obama, made the same promise several times, including in his January 2012 State of the Union Address.
“Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” he said, “and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
Trump, who withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, tweeted the following on January 6, 2020, after Tehran announced it would no longer abide by the limits of the 2015 deal: “IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!”
And even Biden, whose emissaries are currently in Vienna trying to hammer out a new nuclear deal with the Iranians, told former president Reuven Rivlin in June, “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.”
In Israel, too, statements that “we will not let Iran go nuclear” have come out consistently since Sharon’s days.
In December 2005, just before suffering a minor stroke, Sharon – who always stressed that the specter of a nuclear Iran was one that the world, not only Israel, had to deal with – stated that Jerusalem “cannot accept a nuclear Iran.”
Ehud Olmert, who took over from Sharon a little over a month later after Sharon’s suffered a second, debilitating, stroke, said in his first public foreign policy comments that Israel could not, under any circumstances, “allow anyone with these kinds of malicious designs against us, have control of weapons of destruction that can threaten our existence.”
Netanyahu stressed over and over during his 12-year tenure that Israel would “not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons,” as he put it in a June 2019 video statement posted on Facebook.
“I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over,” Netanyahu said in a speech to a joint session of Congress in 2015, at the height of the debate with Obama over the nuclear deal.
“We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves,” he continued. “For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”
And Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who said recently that when it came to Iran Netanyahu was more words than action, carried on with the tradition of pledging that Iran would never get nuclear arms.
In his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Bennett said: “There are those in the world who seem to view Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as an inevitable reality, or they’ve just become tired of hearing about it. Israel doesn’t have that privilege. We will not tire. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Judging by the words of the last four US presidents and the last four Israeli prime ministers, the two countries share the same ultimate goal vis-a-vis Iran. What they don’t share is the same urgency, and this is a result of those three Ts.
REGARDING the first ”T”, threat perception, Israel’s concern about Iran is fundamentally different from that of the US.
Israel is geographically close to Iran, the US is much farther away. Iran has repeatedly made explicit threats to destroy Israel, it has been more circumspect in its threats toward the US.
Just last Saturday, two days before the new talks were to begin in Vienna, the spokesman for the Islamic Republic’s armed forces, Brig.-Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, urged Israel’s elimination.
“We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, even one millimeter. We want to destroy Zionism in the world,” he told the Iranian Students News Agency.
Moreover, Iran poses a significant threat to Israel – much more so than to America – if it “only” becomes a state with the technical capacity to build a bomb and the wherewithal to deliver it, even if it has not yet made the political decision to put it all together.
Why? Because Iran, as a nuclear threshold state – just a short time from completing a bomb when it so decides – will embolden all its proxies in the region, foremost Hezbollah and Hamas.
Imagine the degree to which Israel’s hands would be tied in dealing with Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or even Iranian-supported militias in Syria, if they were protected by Iran on the threshold of nuclear arms. Israel will find it much more difficult to defang Iran’s proxies if it needs to worry that certain actions will spur Iran over the nuclear threshold. And a concern about Hezbollah and Hamas is much more immediate and acute for Jerusalem, than it is for Washington.
Then there is the issue of trauma. Nations, like people, approach various issues carrying their own baggage, their own traumas.
The trauma that Israel carries with it when approaching Iran is the Holocaust – preventing a country that denies the Holocaust, which threatens Israel with another Holocaust, from getting the means to carry out that threat. The Holocaust is a trauma that for Israel is real, that it can still taste, and that governs its entire approach to the Islamic Republic.
The trauma that the US brings to its dealings with Iran is completely different: Iraq and Afghanistan and not wanting to get sucked into yet another Middle East war that will cost it enormously in blood and treasure. Those two long conflicts traumatized America and color the way it now looks at the Middle East and any potential military engagement in it.
While the trauma animating Israel – the Holocaust – pushes it toward an activist approach, America’s recent traumas in the Mideast push it in the opposite direction.
The last “T” that defines the differences between the two countries is the trigger: that point when action must be taken. Going on the assumption that both the US and Israel mean it when they say that they will not let Iran get a nuclear bomb, there are still significant differences regarding when each country believes action needs to be taken. And this can best be explained by using a pie metaphor.
Imagine for a moment that someone wants to bake a cherry pie, but someone else wants to keep that pie from being baked. The question is when do you take action to prevent it?
Do you act to keep the cook from gathering all the ingredients together to bake the pie – the cherries, the butter, flour, eggs and water? Or do you wait until the very last minute when the baker is just about to take the pie out of the oven and serve it?
The United States, because of its tremendous military capabilities, can wait until the last possible moment to knock out Iran’s nuclear program. As former prime minister Ehud Barak said a few years ago, an American attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would take “a fraction of one night.”
Israel, however, does not have the same luxury, because it does not have the same capabilities. If it acts, as it is rumored to have done over the last number of years in a series of covert attacks, it must do so earlier to keep Iran from getting all the nuclear ingredients on the table ready to go into the oven.
Going into the talks in Vienna, the US is reassuring Israel that it won’t allow Iran to bake its nuclear pie. But with Iran getting perilously close to having all the ingredients perfectly lined up and ready to mix together, Israel’s confidence in the US assurances is very low.•