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A ‘bad’ agreement with Iran: Adjust or fight?

[additional-authors]
July 14, 2015

There is nothing less reassuring than a band of experts telling a nation that there is no reason for panic. And that is exactly the message Israel was getting on Tuesday morning, hours before the expected announcement of an Iran deal. The agreement – officials, ex-officials and experts were telling us – would be “dramatic,” “historic,” “challenging,” “sobering,” “devastating” – all of these are words used by high-ranking Israelis – and yet, hysteria would be misplaced. Israel is a strong country, it will adjust to new realities, and it will overcome the challenge.

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How? Unclear. The route to overcoming the challenge is as unclear as the challenge itself. That is because the agreement represents the beginning of a new era. Its impact on the region will reveal itself only gradually, and Israel’s response to this impact will also develop gradually.

There are many details to the agreement that can confuse the reader and cloud the waters, but a few key points stand out — the crucial points that make this agreement highly problematic. Problematic for Israel and for Saudi Arabia and for Egypt and for many other countries in the region. Problematic for the U.S., for all countries that object to the proliferation of military nuclear capabilities, and for all countries that object to the increase of Iranian power through means of terror.

The first of these key points: The agreement does not aim to curb Iran’s ambition to become a military nuclear power. The U.S. began the process of negotiations with Iran with the position that the international community should allow Iran to maintain its nuclear activities only when those activities are strictly “civilian” in nature. If Iran wants to develop its nuclear capabilities for energy purposes, the U.S. initially said, that is acceptable. That is the only nuclear activity that is acceptable. The U.S. ended the negotiations with a position that officially accepts Iran as a threshold military nuclear power. Pure and simple. For the next 10 years, Iran will be a year away from a bomb — that is a best-case scenario — and later it could be weeks away from a bomb — that is also a best-case scenario.

The second of these key points: The sanctions against Iran will be lifted — never to return (or, if they do return, they will take a very long time to reinstate). This enables Iran to abide by the agreement only for a relatively short time, until the sanctions are lifted, then soon after it can reconsider its position. We already know that it takes time and a lengthy process for the international community to sanction Iran. The prospect of a rapid reinstatement of sanctions in the event that Iran violates the agreement is laughable.

The third key point: The agreement has a time limit. Namely, even if Iran decides to abide by all of the provisions, it will take only a decade for it to become what it wants to be without too many restrictions. A decade is a long time for an American president who will be out of office in less than two years. It is a long time for an Israeli prime minister who is also unlikely to stay in power for such a long time. But it is a short time for two ancient nations.

The other elements of the deal, while still important, are secondary. One other issue concerns the insufficient and deliberately unclear language with regard to  inspections. Iran still says that not all of its sites will be open for inspections, at any time. The international group of negotiators say sites will be open for inspections as necessary. Another issue concerns the mechanism for rapid response in case of violations of the agreement. There is good reason to doubt the U.S.’ ability to ignite such a response within 60 days — as the agreement assumes — as quickly as its negotiators claim they would.

Is the agreement “good” or “bad”? It is bad if the goal is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear military power — and if one believes achieving such a goal was realistic. It is good if the aim is to attempt to have some measure of control over the way Iran pursues its policy as a de facto nuclear military power — and if one believes that a more ambitious goal was unrealistic.

The Obama administration believes the deal is a good one. It will argue that the deal is also good for Israel. Indeed, on Tuesday, in his initial remarks on the deal, President Barack Obama mentioned Israel three times, including saying of Iran, “a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbors or eradicate Israel — that’s a dead end.” Yet these reassurances will be a hard sell for Israelis. Earlier this week, Israeli politicians debated whether Israel’s strategy in fighting the agreement would be viable. The opposition attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing that his confrontational approach had been unhelpful and did not provide results. They may be right — or wrong — one never knows what would have happened had Netanyahu chosen a different path. But opposition leaders also backed Netanyahu’s position in saying the deal is not a good one. Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the Labor Party and Israel’s opposition, said on July 13 that “one thing is already clear: This agreement is going to expedite the regional arms race.” The agreement, Herzog said, will “legitimize Iran’s turning into a nuclear threshold state.” Yair Lapid — another leader of the opposition — called the agreement “lousy,” and said the position of the international community is “incomprehensible.”

Lapid also took the opportunity to insist Netanyahu should resign from office because of his “failure” to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. A nice try, but most Israelis would probably blame Obama, not Netanyahu, for this failure. In fact, as Israel ponders its next step in this battle — whether the battle to lobby Congress to vote against the agreement, or the later battle to survive in an even more dangerous region — its challenge is not just how to deal with a new situation with regard to Iran, it is also the challenge of how to deal with a new situation with regard to the United States.

The U.S.-Israel crisis is one of the most devastating outcomes of the agreement with Iran. The widespread (and exaggerated) belief among Israelis that the U.S. would always be steadfast in guarding Israel’s security was undermined — and in some minds, even demolished. This does not mean that the U.S. is no longer Israel’s most important ally. This does not mean that Israel will no longer rely on American support. But there should be no mistake: The U.S.-Israel alliance is no longer as solid as it was 10 years ago. If Israel is asked to make compromises based on American assurances, it will not be as inclined to rely on those assurances as it once was. Surely not as long as the Obama administration is in power, but probably not later, as well.

On Tuesday morning, Tzipi Livni identified a “problem with the American outlook,” saying the U.S. is legitimizing Iran’s support of terrorism in the Middle East. It is a serious allegation by an Israeli leader who is hardly a fan of Netanyahu’s policies. Livni suggested Israel should make demands to make the agreement less detrimental for Israel; a strict weapons embargo on Iran is essential, she said. The agreement includes a five-year term during which weapons restrictions remain in place. That is better than earlier expectations, and represents a supposed caving by Iran. But it is also a very short time — short enough for other countries to get ready for its expiration and to let them begin an expedited process of selling weapons to Iran as soon as it expires.

Livni sounded quite ready to lobby for improvements in the agreement on behalf of Israel — and in coordination with the Netanyahu government. The Iran agreement could provide Netanyahu with an opportunity to expand his coalition around a common cause, and some of his ministers called on the opposition to “assist” the government in battling the agreement instead of focusing on criticism of Netanyahu’s policies. But as of Tuesday morning, there were not yet any signs that Netanyahu intends to go beyond such pleas and to try to quickly expand his coalition.

Some in Israel are already calling on the government to readjust to a new reality by asking for American assurances, weapon systems or new understandings. Surely, Israel might eventually get to such a point, but for the time being, what Netanyahu intends to do is fight, not adjust. His strategy all along has been confrontational, based on two assumptions.

The first is that trying to work with the Obama administration is a hopeless cause. Early on, Netanyahu figured out that Obama wanted an agreement with Iran and that no Israeli move could dissuade the American president from attempting to reach his goal. Netanyahu dismisses those who claim that his personal relations with Obama ruined Israel’s chances to alter the agreement, as well as those who claim that an Israeli move toward an accord with the Palestinians could have changed the dynamic on the Iranian front. 

Netanyahu does not a have high regard for the American president, but he finds such claims too belittling of Obama. The president did not reach an agreement with Iran because of his dislike of Netanyahu, and he did not turn to Iran because of his disappointment with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

Obama was serious about Iran early on, and no one was able to make him change this course. Thus, Netanyahu concluded, Israel’s only way has been to fight tooth and nail against the administration. Its only way is to bet on Congress.

Netanyahu’s second assumption is one based on principle: Under dire circumstances, Israel should not accept a new reality of a nuclear Iran without a bitter fight. Even if Israel’s chances for success are slim; even if the fight could damage other Israeli interests (such as Israel’s need for bipartisan support in the U.S.); even if a vote against the agreement by Congress leads to a less stable situation of no agreement and no sanctions; even then, Israel, and its prime minister, are obligated to wage a battle. 

Netanyahu does not believe in a silent response to the threat of a nuclear Iran. And although he has recently toned down his Iran-Nazi Germany comparisons — and has asked his ministers not to go into redundant Obama-Neville Chamberlain comparisons — his instinctive response to all the suggestions that Israel should accept the new reality and move on is resistance. 

Netanyahu believes Israel must now shy away or tire when fighting great evil.

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