A better Iran deal has to be better for Iran, too

A view of the parliament in Tehran, Iran (photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS)
A view of the parliament in Tehran, Iran
US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran deal, an outcome Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to extreme lengths to help promote, was a major success for him, one of a number in recent months. If elections were held today, Netanyahu would be reelected easily.
In reality, Trump’s ostensibly hard-line approach towards Iran is likely to soon leave the US with no options other than military attack.
Trump, however, has made clear his desire to disengage from the Middle East and especially to refrain from military intervention in the region. Netanyahu’s “successful” push for a termination of the nuclear deal may thus end up having the practical effect of leaving Israel holding the stick on its own. In the past, Israel’s defense chiefs were adamantly opposed to a unilateral Israeli strike.
Both Trump and Netanyahu maintain that what they seek is a “better” deal with Iran, arguing that the renewed sanctions will force Tehran to capitulate. Alternatively, they seem to hope that the sanctions will lead to internal unrest and regime change. A joint team was recently established to consider means of further promoting such unrest.
It stretches the imagination, however, to believe that Iran will make concessions today that it rejected between 2012 and 2015, when a far more comprehensive sanctions regime was in place. Indeed, the US withdrawal from the agreement places Iran’s leaders in an untenable position. They, too, have domestic politics to contend with and the withdrawal “proves” the hard-liners’ case, that the US cannot be trusted and that the only way to achieve impunity from an American attack, and to thereby ensure the regime’s future, is to cross the nuclear threshold. North Korea is their model.
As for regime change, Iran certainly faces internal challenges, but no more than the regime has successfully managed in the past. Change may come to Iran, but it will come from within, not by external instigation.
Iran has already put the European parties to the agreement on notice that if they fail to stand up to the US, as promised, and to oppose the new sanctions regime, it will no longer be bound by the agreement’s nuclear limitations. In practice, however, European and other firms are scrambling to terminate commercial contacts with Iran – the American market is simply too big to risk – and the sanctions regime is effectively taking hold. In a few weeks, maybe months, Iran will be forced to conclude that the European governments simply cannot deliver.
At that point, Iran is likely to resume its nuclear activities. Presumably, it will do so incrementally at first, rather than through a blatant violation that would force the Europeans and other signatories into the American corner. Over time, however, the series of small steps will constitute a de-facto termination of the nuclear agreement.
It may be only late 2018, or even well into 2019, before it becomes clear to the US and Israel that the sanctions have failed, a “better” deal cannot be reached, and Iran may soon cross the nuclear threshold. That is when fateful decisions will have to be made.
Trump, having played his diplomatic and economic cards against Iran unilaterally, and having caused havoc in the Western alliance by initiating trade wars with European allies and casting doubt on the US commitment to NATO, will be left with only military options.
Nothing would then be simpler than to adopt his defense burden sharing approach with allies, inform Israel that the US will not attack, but that if it feels so threatened by Iran, it has his OK to do so. “What else did we give you those beautiful F-35s for?”
Fast forward into 2019. Netanyahu is likely to be under indictment(s), the specter of imprisonment looming. 2019 is also an election year in Israel, no later than November.
For Netanyahu, an attack on Iran’s nuclear program may be the way to show the electorate – and the attorney general – that he is the only leader in Israel today of Churchillian stature, the only one capable of saving the Jewish people from a second holocaust.
“Petty” corruption charges clearly pale in comparison to this historic destiny. The attorney general, whom he himself appointed, might be hard pressed to push for more than a rap on the knuckles. Tragically, a possibly existential threat to Israel, which may ultimately warrant an Israeli attack, may come to be considered in these terms.
If there is any chance of Iran agreeing to reopen negotiations and to a “better” deal, and therefore of avoiding the military options, it requires that Trump and Netanyahu first come to a highly painful recognition. Having maneuvered themselves into the present circumstances, it is high time that they started giving thought not just to threats, but to inducements for Iran. A better deal with Iran will have to be better for Iran, too.
The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and a former deputy national security adviser in Israel. He is the author of Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change, 2018.