Most Israelis are clear in their conviction that Iran must not have nuclear weapons. But their views on the nuclear negotiations with Tehran are fuzzier, largely because of irresponsible politicians.
Few of them are speaking the truth to Israel’s people, who face so many existential dilemmas that no single one commands prolonged attention: the choice is between denying Iran a nuclear weapon or denying Iran the money to make other kinds of mischief. It bears examination.
For starters, if anyone were confused about the need to deny Iran a weapon, the Russia-Ukraine war provides a useful illustration. Russia has committed a terrible crime and has stumbled on the battlefield, yet the West is spooked about defeating it decisively because Vladimir Putin has nukes and may just be crazy or evil enough to use them.
While Putin has amply earned the title of pariah for life, he’s probably neither crazier nor more eviler than Iran’s leadership. These theocrats have enslaved the Iranian people for over 40 years, yearn for the elimination of Israel, consider the West an ideological enemy and would be much emboldened by a nuclear arsenal. It would free their hand even absent any intention to use it.
So now that a deal between the world powers by some reports is imminent, it is time we got serious about a very serious issue.
Israeli leaders from all sides of the political spectrum tend to frame the issue around whether Iran gets the bomb. That’s understandable. But what is strange is how those politicians who shout the loudest about that – usually a sign of craven politicking, by the way – are opposed to the deal.
The champion agitator is Benjamin Netanyahu, who misses no chance to raise the issue and risked Israel’s standing in the US by arguing against the sitting president in Congress – an act unheard of in history.
But if nuclear weapons were the issue, the deal would be a welcome development. The first and absurdly named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action forced Iran to fork over most of its enriched material, cutting its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, undertake to enrich no more for years, and submit to considerable inspections and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Some opponents of the deal attack the last issue, claiming Iran would always cheat or that the inspections regime is too weak (or both, which is kind of a contradiction). This is not so honest: seldom does one hear them point out what additional verification would make them support the deal. No cynicism is needed to suspect that it does not exist.
The other leading argument
The other leading argument opposes the deal on the grounds that by being limited in time, it invites Iran to upon expiry proceed to a bomb. This is Netanyahu’s favorite and his acolytes have followed suit, but despite such pedigree, the argument is nonsense. Like any term-delineated contract, the deal did not address the future and was clearly meant to be renewed in perpetuity on pain of renewal of the very sanctions that compelled Iran to sign it.
The intention of these critics to oppose the deal under any circumstances is again evident in the fact that they offer no fix that would satisfy them.
The dishonesty and illogic of many of the deal’s opponents do not mean that there are no reasons to oppose it. There are quite good reasons to oppose it.
Mainly, by necessarily removing most of the sanctions on Iran and it will restore a flow of billions of dollars in oil and other trade to its economy. This money will shore up the Iranian currency, will somewhat revive living standards and will be perceived as a victory by many Iranians. It will make it easier for a criminal regime to stay in power.
But not all the money will go to the people. Much of it will be used to foment terrorism and mayhem around the region. It will go to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is amassing a huge long-range rocket arsenal aimed at Israel; it will go to Islamic Jihad whose goal is to cause Israelis and any peace prospects damage in the West Bank and Gaza; and it will go to militants in Yemen and for forward bases in Syria. It will also go toward building long-range rockets that one day could carry nuclear weapons – but also other weapons – toward Israel and further West.
A deal would also rattle Israel’s newfound Sunni partners in the region, in part due to a subjective sense that a deal would be a victory for Iran. In large part, this is because irresponsible Israeli politicians keep describing it as such.
“Bad deals are better than good wars.”Former head of the IDF, Dan Halutz
Some opponents of the deal do raise these issues, of course. But almost no one seriously believes Iran would agree to a nuclear ban while also allowing sanctions to continue – or, indeed, changing its vile behavior. The behavior is in the nature of the regime and the carte blanche is in fact the reason Iran is willing to trade its nuclear ambitions.
There is no other deal and ending the nuclear program can reasonably be seen as the least-bad option for Israel. Understanding the least-bad option concept requires some perspective and maturity, and these do not abound in the Israeli right, where most of the intractable opposition to the deal is concentrated (the current government is more nuanced and understands the delicacy of the issue).
If the deal would be a setback for anyone, it is for the unfortunate Iranian people, since it allows their oppressors to stay in office.
Opposing the deal becomes even sillier if you consider what has happened since Netanyahu’s persuading of then-president Donald Trump in 2018 to withdraw from an arrangement that had obligated not just the US but – very usefully in the broader sense – China and Russia, in addition to France and the UK. Iran gradually ended its undisputed compliance and resumed enrichment, endangering every single person in Israel – yet was not meaningfully constrained on the other issues.
Some truly irresponsible Israeli figures love to hint that Israel does not fear full war against a technologically advanced nation of over 80 million people. But until true lunatics take over in Jerusalem (which I do not rule out) all Israel will do is little acts of sabotage, as have occurred and which will delay but not destroy the nuclear project
Many, and probably most, of the senior security figures in Israel understand this reality and the real choice on the table. The latest was Dan Halutz, the former head of the IDF, who said last week that “bad deals are better than good wars.”
It is possible that some Israeli leaders would rather risk Iran having a bomb than allow it more funding to commit its various mischief around the region. If that is so, they should at least keep quiet about the nuclear issue. They are the would-be fathers of the Iranian nuclear bomb.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is a managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.