Iran: Challenges and dilemmas in reaching nuclear deal - comment

The problem for Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is that they have pinned all their policies on more or less complete acquiescence with the Biden administration (except on Palestine).

President Isaac Herzog shakes hands with US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides at the ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem earlier this month at which the new ambassador presented his credentials. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
President Isaac Herzog shakes hands with US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides at the ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem earlier this month at which the new ambassador presented his credentials.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The stop-go nuclear talks in Vienna are either heading for a (perhaps temporary) breakdown – or for a formula that in effect means a renewal of most of the characteristics of the original 2015 nuclear agreement.

One may or may not agree with the tone of the recent tough statements by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the defense minister, the head of the Mossad, the IDF chief of staff, Ehud Barak, the incoming chief of the air force and even President Isaac Herzog on the subject of the Iranian nuclear program, but nor can one refrain from asking some urgently relevant questions on the matter.

What is, however, clear is that it was damaging to the argument that the Iranian nuclear program is a global threat, and not just to Israel. 

These are the facts: Iran has reached the stage where its breakout time to producing at least one, perhaps two nuclear weapons is, as if one American official said, “really short” (there is an argument exactly how long, but not a matter of years).

It is also advancing its long-range nuclear warhead-carrying missile program, which Barack Obama, in a rush to reach the agreement at the time, failed to include in the 2015 nuclear treaty.

Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, December 3, 2021. (credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, December 3, 2021. (credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The Biden administration has declared that it will not agree to Iran becoming a nuclear power, but both in its rhetoric and in its contacts with Iran it has not gone far away from the terms of the original agreement, the JCPOA, and according to various statements, it would also consider a “partial” agreement to remove most of the sanctions imposed on Iran before, during and after the Trump administration in return for a freeze on uranium enrichment by Tehran.

Thus Iran would have the wherewithal to complete its nuclear and other programs, as well as to refurbish its collapsing economy without facing insurmountable obstacles to crossing the short distance to achieving its nuclear goal.

In another version of “partial” agreements, some former Israeli defense officials have retrospectively praised the original JCPOA (though at the time opposing it), claiming that a temporary hold on Iran’s nuclear effort was preferable to no agreement, but “temporary” would have meant 10 years at most (now reduced to about half that time).

This argument had anyway more to do with domestic Israeli politics than with genuine security considerations). At present, neither Iran nor the US (unlike Europe, Russia and China) are publicly prepared to mitigate their respective stances, but one cannot rule out the possibility that in addition to the talks in Vienna, there may be secret channels between Washington and Tehran – as there were before the original agreement.

Israel, of course, is strongly opposed to “partial” agreements of this sort, and its “government of change” is hoping that the much-heralded mutual promises of “no surprises” won’t apply to only one side.

Before the visit to Washington two weeks ago by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad chief David Barnea, an anonymous administration spokesman announced that the US and Israel would discuss possible military steps to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, but it is not clear whether the intention was to show Iran that the US was ready to act against it, or to thwart any Israeli ideas of acting independently.

Whatever the case, another spokesman, Rob Malley, President Joe Biden’s envoy on Iranian matters, was quick to respond that the US “sees direct talks with Tehran as the best solution for the complex issues on the table.” 

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, in his recent visit to Israel reaffirmed that “the US and Israel were in total agreement that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, but making it clear that the US prefers to achieve this by diplomatic means, without specifying what these would entail.

We don’t, of course, know the precise contents of the meeting, but one may surmise that though denying nuclear weapons to Iran was the main focus, on the means of how to achieve this there were differences of opinion – and not just tactical ones.

Given the precipitancy of the meeting, Sullivan’s intention may also have been to limit Israel’s freedom of operation. Sullivan also raised the Palestinian issue, including the matter of the US consulate in east Jerusalem for the Palestinians, while the administration in Washington markedly affirmed its commitment to the “two-state solution.”

Israel’s current policy on Iran could be defined as “hold me back if you can,” meaning “unless you take care of our concerns, we won’t be responsible for our actions.”

This kind of diplomacy sometimes produces results, as it has in the past. But the problem for Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is that they have pinned all their policies on more or less complete acquiescence with the Biden administration (except on Palestine) without properly understanding the political reality in Washington these days.

Having as close relations as possible with America must indeed be a fundamental factor for Israel in making many political (and other) decisions, but at the same time, as in the past, Israel can sometimes not avoid disagreements with Washington on matters it deems vitally important – without this fundamentally or for any length of time negatively affecting the basic premise of their relations. 

And there are more than a few examples in this regard from both Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as from both left-wing and right-wing governments in Israel (not that this should be recommended as a regular habit). 

One example of this was Moshe Dayan’s confrontation with the Carter administration, resulting in the cancellation of the proposed US-Soviet-sponsored Geneva Conference.

Benjamin Netanyahu, prescient to the threat from Iran, took at the time unconventional steps to garner support in Congress and among the American public in general to block the agreement with Iran, and had the administration not bypassed Congress in the process he might have succeeded.

Relations with the administration and parts of the Democratic Party were indeed damaged but only temporarily, as we can learn from the dozens of congenial meetings with party leaders including Nancy Pelosi and others.

Netanyahu supported the Trump policy on Iran not only because of its potential of attaining results, but also because it afforded the best chance of achieving its goal without starting a major war.

The situation now is different, and perhaps more challenging, among other things because of the administration’s small majority in both houses of Congress, which gives the left-wing, anti-Israel and often antisemitic “progressives” a near-hold on different policy matters, including on the matter of the nuclear agreement with Iran, which they regard as an anti-imperialist force. 

Donald Trump’s policy toward Iran did have the potential to constrain and even eliminate its nuclear and other aggressive capabilities, though his unpredictable character makes it unclear whether he would have been consistent in this, but in any case the change of the US administration put an end to it. 

This created a dilemma for Israel regarding possible courses of action – from deterrence based on eventual military action, intensification of the “inter-war” activities, various diplomatic moves – or absolute reliance on the US and even containment.

It is not only military decisions that demand responsible judgment at the highest level, but also the public threat of such moves, particularly if they might be received with skepticism by the target audience.

Be this as it may, the current Israeli government will be well advised to continue the previous government’s policy of focusing its main security and diplomatic efforts on the campaign against Iran, even at the cost of putting other strategic objectives temporarily to one side – and continue the IDF’s preparations for any eventuality.

The writer, also a former MK, served as ambassador to the US from 1990-1993 and 1998-2000.