What the Geneva Accord with Iran means – and how Israel should respond

Israel must redouble its intelligence efforts to expose any Iranian cheating or reveal any previously hidden elements of their program

Iran talks in Geneva November 20 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
Iran talks in Geneva November 20 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
The interim nuclear deal that the P5+1 have reached with Iran in Geneva is a temporary one with an official shelf life of six months, at the end of which the objective is to reach a long-term comprehensive deal. The key questions for Israel are: Where will the interim deal lead, and what should Israel’s strategy be over the next six months? Right now, even before negotiations have commenced, the Netanyahu government opposes one of the key parameters of a comprehensive deal set in Geneva, namely that Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium.
Netanyahu argues out correctly that previous UN Security Council resolutions mandated Iran to cease enrichment and that by permitting this, the interim agreement contains a dangerous element of capitulation, which could lead the Iranians to believe that the West lacks the resolve to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Indeed, had the US been willing to threaten air strikes earlier on, this dangerous situation whereby Iran is close to a nuclear breakout could have been avoided.
However, this does not mean that a comprehensive deal allowing Iran to enrich a limited amount of uranium for civilian purposes is necessarily bad. The key issue is not enrichment per se, but rather whether a deal leads to the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program.
If a comprehensive agreement is grounded on the principle of clearly verifiable dismantlement in exchange for the fig leaf of civilian enrichment, this would represent a good outcome. Equally, if Iran does not agree to dismantlement, then from Israel’s perspective, the clearer that rejection, the better. For a clear rejection will legitimize ratcheting up sanctions. Moreover, if Iran were to unfreeze its program after six months, this could also provide legitimacy for a military strike.
The problem is that the Iranians are no doubt aware of this logic, and consequently they will seek to avoid such an outcome. One can therefore posit that the Iranians will push more interim agreements.
Through “salami tactics,” they will attempt to undermine the sanctions regime slice by slice, while making concessions that can be easily reversed once the sanctions regime has eroded to a point where it cannot easily be re-imposed.
Given the clear reluctance to use force so far, it seems likely that the West would prefer an interim agreement that set back Iran’s nuclear program somewhat, rather than face down the Iranians over dismantlement, something it has not been willing to do up to now.
What can Israel do to prevent such a scenario? First, it must continue to play the role of “bad cop” publicly. Strong Israeli criticism of the interim accord seems to have improved the terms of that deal. A resolute Israel strengthens the hand of the West in negotiations, because it makes both sides in the talks have to factor in the possibility of an Israeli military strike in the event that a deal concedes more than Israel thinks it can gain by striking.
Second, while Israel should continue to insist on full dismantlement, its campaign should not focus on the goal of zero uranium enrichment.
Instead, it should seek to lay out the elements of the nuclear program that must be dismantled for an agreement to have real meaning – including, but not only, the Fordow facility and the partly built Arak plutonium plant.
Because these two are relatively difficult to destroy militarily, dismantling them would not only set the nuclear program back, but also increase the credibility of a possible military strike in the event of Iranian backsliding. The credibility of such strikes is critical to the chances of reaching a desirable diplomatic endgame.
Third, Israel should not only support the congressional initiative to impose new sanctions if no deal is reached in six months, but also lobby for imposing those sanctions if the parties reach another interim deal in which critical elements of the nuclear program are not dismantled.
Finally, Israel must redouble its intelligence efforts to expose any Iranian cheating or reveal any previously hidden elements of their program. A blatant example of Iranian bad faith could yet shift US policy regarding a military strike. American public opinion clearly favors a deal with Iran, but equally clearly it supports the use of force to stop Iran going nuclear if diplomacy fails.
Critics of the Obama administration are right point to its failure to confront Iran with the credible threat of force (the same can be said of the Bush administration).
Yet despite the heavy damage to US credibility dealt by its failure to respond promptly to Syrian use of chemical weapons, eventually American planes were readied to strike, and it was that which finally forced the Assad regime to give up its weapons.
Theodore Roosevelt’s recipe for successful diplomacy was to “speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
The West is already speaking softly to Iran, but for diplomacy to achieve the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program, the threat of the “big stick” in the background must be credible, too.