Israel and the United States have one common strategic goal: to prevent the radical regime in Iran from achieving nuclear capability.
This is usually where agreement between the two countries on this subject ends. Each of these two close allies holds a completely different position regarding the path that is leading toward achieving their common objective.
Over the past decade, Washington and Jerusalem have disagreed substantially on five essential worldviews:
1. Perception of threat
The perception in Israel is that if Iran attains nuclear weapons, this poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. The US, on the other hand, does not share this view, and does not consider a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat.
2. National traumas affect decision-making
Israeli leaders are highly impacted by memories of the Holocaust, whereas the Americans have painful memories of their two seemingly endless wars in the Middle East.
3. Full nuclear capability
Israel is striving to achieve a wide margin of security, ranging from Iran detonating a bomb to achieving nuclear capability, while the US – even if it doesn’t declare this officially – is okay with Iran reaching the threshold of nuclear capability, as long as it cannot actually build a bomb.
4. US readiness
The US administration believes that it will be able to stop Iran from succeeding to create a bomb by engaging in military action – even if that occurs at the last minute. Although Israel believes in the Americans’ capabilities, it does not have much confidence in the US’s determination and readiness to carry out such a move. One example is the bitter experience with North Korea.
5. Likelihood of war breaking out
In the end, the prevailing view in Washington is that the alternative to signing an agreement with Iran is war.
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the leadership believes that continued pressure on Iran will lead to the overthrowing of the ayatollahs’ regime or will force Iran into signing a better agreement.
Israel believes that militarily thwarting Iran’s nuclear activity as a last resort will not lead to war. For reference, there was destruction of the nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, as well as the American assassination of Qasem Soleimani and a number of specific air attacks that did not escalate into a full-scale war.
IN HIS election campaign, President Joe Biden pledged to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal. This is a continuation of the legacy left by president Barack Obama’s Democratic administration, and a number of the most senior positions in the new administration are held by individuals who were involved in the formulation of the original Iran agreement in 2015.
The prevailing atmosphere in present-day Washington is one of trying to undo every move carried out by president Donald Trump, which includes the Iran agreement.
However, senior officials in the Biden administration are aware that the nuclear deal with Iran was based on problematic assumptions, unfulfilled hopes and on the erroneous belief that the Iranian nuclear project was not as extensive as it was later discovered to be.
Moreover, there’s no doubt that the Biden administration is interested in amending the agreement and strengthening it in a way that would block Iran’s path to building a bomb.
As a result, the challenge leaders in Washington are currently facing is how to return to a diplomatic track that will focus mainly on how to get back to the 2015 nuclear agreement, while at the same time ensuring that subsequently there will be a process in which both sides will work to promote an improved agreement.
The plan is to also take into consideration the understandings and facts that have become clear following the signing of the agreement, and in light of the administration’s promise to consult with the US’s allies in the Middle East, which view the agreement as highly problematic.
Israel has two options: The first option is to return to the position it held in 2015 and to sharply criticize the Americans for returning to the Iran deal, while urging the Biden administration to continue promoting its “maximum pressure” policy that was promoted by the Trump administration.
The first signs of this approach were heard last month, in a speech given by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi at the Institute for National Security Studies.
Such a policy will, in my opinion, weaken Israel’s influence on the Americans’ position, as well as harm Israel’s ability to promote any amendments to the agreement. Paradoxically, this approach might also encourage the US to reinstate the original agreement.
The second and preferable option is to engage in quiet and discreet dialogue with the US administration to reaffirm the common goal, which is to prevent Iran from ever attaining a nuclear bomb, and together to clarify the policy that needs to be implemented in order for the goal to be achieved and last a long time.
It’s important that Israel and the US engage in honest and professional dialogue about the issues that must be amended in the agreement, including removing the section regarding the date the agreement will expire; supervision anywhere and at any time; stopping nuclear research and development; and a reexamination of weapons activity.
The strategic goal of the dialogue between Israel and the US administration needs to include the formulation of a detailed “parallel agreement” that will cover both the short and long term. In addition, a joint action plan needs to be outlined in case the Americans’ optimistic assessment of the agreement as an effective means of curbing the Iranian nuclear program turns out to be erroneous.
This Israeli-American parallel agreement needs to include points of agreement vis-à-vis the redlines that must not be crossed by Iran, an impetus to fix and improve the agreement down the road, and the curbing of negative activity carried out by Iran in the Middle East in light of the nuclear agreement.
And finally, Jerusalem and Washington must agree to strengthen Israel’s military alternative and improve the credibility of the American option, both of which are essential for the success of a diplomatic approach.
The writer is the executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Between 2006 and 2010 he served as the IDF’s chief of Military Intelligence