A nuclear deal with Iran is critical to Israel’s national security. A lifting of the US designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, the primary outstanding obstacle to a renewed deal, is a symbolic issue that should not be allowed to get in the way, as distasteful as it is.
The US first designated the al-Quds Force, the IRGC’s terrorist arm, as a terrorist group, in 2007. The Trump administration expanded the designation to include the entire IRGC in 2017.
A return to the previous situation, reportedly the only concession contemplated by the Biden administration, would have essentially no practical impact on US policy. The IRGC would still be subject to a series of terrorism, nuclear and human rights related sanctions. Foreign firms would still be reluctant to do business with it because of the sanctions’ secondary effects.
Symbolism may actually be Iran’s primary reason for making this otherwise unimportant demand. We fully appreciate the importance of symbolism in international affairs and there is no doubt that the IRGC is a heinous terrorist organization, responsible for the murder of Americans, Israelis and others. There are, however, more important issues at stake. It is sufficient that the al-Quds Force remain designated.
Iran is now thought to be just weeks from having sufficient fissile material for the first few nuclear bombs. It is, however, still 1-2 years from an operational missile warhead with which to deliver the weapons, a position it has been in for well over a decade.
This is clearly an intentional decision by the regime, which appears to fear that an operational warhead would be a bridge too far and potentially invite attack. The only question of importance is which option best prevents Iran from crossing the final threshold.
The primary criticism of the putative new deal is that it fails to extend the expiration dates of the original deal. In practice, most of the important limitations on Iran’s nuclear program would remain in effect until 2031, a significant period, but certainly not the long-term resolution of the issue that we all hope for. Time has a way of passing.
The other primary criticisms are a rehash of those repeated by critics ever since the original agreement was negotiated: it does not address Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs, drones, or regional expansionism.
All of this is true and painful, but both the Obama and Biden administrations correctly prioritized the nuclear issue and left the others to be addressed separately. In the past, this was Israel’s approach, too, and it should still be. Nuclear weapons pose a potentially existential threat, Iran’s other weapons and activities do not.
The choice that the US and Israel faced today is not, as some would have us believe, between a good deal and a bad one, but between the decidedly imperfect deal signed in 2015 and no deal at all. The argument that no deal is better than a flawed one is clearly specious. As it is, Iran has essentially already become a nuclear threshold state and, in the absence of a deal, would be free to cross the final line at the time of its choosing.
We are in the current situation and forced to contemplate further painful concessions – because of the disastrously misguided decision by president Trump with the encouragement of then-prime minister Netanyahu– to withdraw from the nuclear deal in 2018. National security decision-making is often about choosing between bad alternatives. Should a new deal not be achieved, the US and Israel will be left with the following even more problematic options:
- Sanctions – brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2015 and again now. In both cases, however, Iran steadfastly rejected anything beyond a temporary postponement of the nuclear program. Had the heightened sanctions imposed by the Trump administration remained in effect for a few more years, it is not inconceivable that they would have had the desired effect.
In reality, there is little precedent for international sanctions changing a state’s important policies or behavior and, in the meantime, the Iranian economy has adjusted and learned to live with the sanctions. Oil exports are up and trade is at pre-sanctions levels and expected to grow rapidly this year.
- Covert action and sabotage – is an important means of delaying Iran’s nuclear, missile and drone programs and should be pursued. Time gained is important, but not a solution.
- Regime change – has not occurred in the more than four decades since the revolution. If ever there was a regime that deserved to be toppled, it is Iran’s, but there is no reason to believe that it will happen in the foreseeable future, or, at least, in a time frame relevant to the nuclear issue.
- Military action – barring an unlikely breakout move by Iran, US President Joe Biden, like his predecessors who dealt with the Iranian nuclear program, has no intention of taking direct military action. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu refrained from doing so during his years in office.
Two other former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, stated recently that Israel does not have the military capability to achieve more than a brief postponement of the nuclear program, at least for now. Once again, time gained is important, but not a solution, and there are other consequences to weigh.
- A regional security axis – with the Gulf and other Arab states with US backing – has now become a realistic option, thanks to the dramatic breakthrough in ties stemming from the Abraham Accords. This axis would probably focus on deterrence and defensive measures, such as a regional air defense system, i.e., management and mitigation of the threat, not resolve thereof.
Of the different options, only a renewal of the nuclear deal – if further extended – provides the basis for a long-term resolution of the issue, or at least postponement. The other options are means of managing the threat and, at best, gaining limited time.
Through a simple process of elimination, it is clear that a restoration of the nuclear deal is the best of the bad options for both the US and Israel. It is on an extension of the deal that the administration should focus, preferably during the current negotiations; unwaveringly, should this not be possible, as it nears its expiration date.
Some 40 years since the advent of Iranian terrorism and regional expansionism, thirty years after the nuclear threat first emerged, neither the US, nor Israel, have developed a coherent, comprehensive and long-term strategy for countering Iran. American policy has suffered from a lack of coherence and continuity, changing substantially with each new administration, often on the basis of questionable partisan preferences, rather than sound strategic assessment. Both the Obama and Biden administrations were perceived to be more eager to reach a deal than Iran and thus negotiated from a position of weakness.
Israel’s positions have also been strongly affected by domestic politics, but in contrast with the failings of American policy, have suffered from excessive continuity. The Bennett-Lapid government has wisely changed the atmospherics and avoided an overt conflict with the US, but essentially continued its predecessor’s policies towards Iran, restating many of the same hollow arguments against a restoration of the nuclear deal.
What is really needed, is not a choice between the above options, but a combination thereof. Diplomacy is most effective when backed up by a credible military option, indeed, the best way to ensure that one does not actually have to take military action, is to present a credible capability to do so.
This diplomatic-military strategy should be further buttressed by strong sanctions, covert operations and long-term pressure on the Iranian regime, designed to cause disruption and unrest and increase the costs associated with its malign activities.
The issue is too important to let symbolism get in the way.
Prof. Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is senior fellow at the MirYam Institute and author of Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change.
Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan (ret.) is a publishing expert with The MirYam Institute. He is a former deputy IDF chief of staff, and is Israel’s deputy minister of economics and industry.