November 15, 2019

Chessmasters: Israel and the Iran deal

Critics of the Iran deal unfailingly say that the American negotiators, including President Barack Obama, were no match for their wily Iranian counterparts.

The Persians, they remind us, excel at the culture of the bazaar. The Persians, they point out, invented the game of chess. “We’re playing checkers on the Middle East game board,” veteran Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller warned in the midst of the negotiations, “and Tehran’s playing three-dimensional chess.”

That may be true, but it obscures the fact that — as long as we’re indulging in vast cultural stereotypes — there is another people I can think of who know how to drive a pretty hard bargain.


And when I take a step back and look at where we are with the Iran deal, I think that must be exactly what’s going on here. Either Israeli leaders, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and a phalanx of Jewish organizations are really aiming to destroy the deal — against enormous odds and with untold, possibly devastating consequences. Or what we are seeing unfold is that the Israelis have entered the bazaar — and they’re open for business.

Does that offend you? Tough. Is it shameful? Not at all. Israelis are the most upset by this deal because they have the most to lose from it — period. And in chess — or the shuk — no one gives up anything for nothing.

What Israel is giving up should be clear to anyone within earshot of, well, most Israelis. They are convinced the Iranians will cheat and the mechanism for catching and punishing them is too slow. They know Iran will use some of its money to fund terror. And they are incensed that Iran got far more than the right to enrich, which is bad enough. 

[As the Journal went to press, word arrived that Theodore Bikel died. A full obituary appears here, but no words can do justice to a man who lived such a full life. Two days before his death, in frail health, Theo went to hear a public discussion on Israel and Iran — his passion and commitment to his People endured to the end. This column is dedicated to Theo Bikel. — R.E.]

“If it’s just about nuclear weapons,” Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel asked me — rhetorically — “why does it specifically release Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s greatest terror mastermind, from sanctions? This deal will open the floodgates of terror financing.” 

On the other hand, while most Israeli politicians and 51 percent of all Israelis want to block  the deal, many Israeli military and intelligence officials, as well as numerous pro-Israeli arms control experts, have given it their approval. For instance, Uzi Even, a former lead scientist at Israel’s Dimona nuclear weapons facility, outlined why the deal works in a column titled  “Everyone Relax, Israel Can Live With the Iran Deal.” 

But, the Israelis are acting anything but relaxed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined forces with the opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, to convince American leaders the deal must be junked. Even though the majority of American Jews favor the deal, Israel and AIPAC want to get a veto-proof majority in the Senate to kill it. 

Or do they?

Most experts say that if Congress blocks the deal, the outcome will be far worse for Israel and the world. The sanctions and inspections regimes will crumble. With no deal, Iran could end up with billions of dollars and a bomb in time for Chanukah. 

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff disagrees. A defeat, he wrote, could set off a convoluted process that would force the negotiators and Iran back to Geneva, where better terms could be worked out.

The Israelis could gamble on that, or they could take the deal — the devil they know — and through a very noisy, public fight persuade Congress, the administration and the American taxpayers that Israel needs more weapons, more aid and deals about  the deal. 

I asked someone who has been active in this issue at the highest levels what possible strategy Bibi and AIPAC could be pursuing, knowing that the chances of blocking the deal are so slim. He pointed out that U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was in Israel as we spoke— and he’s not there for the hummus.

If that’s what this is about — good old-fashioned dealmaking — I’m all for it. 

“Israel harbors few illusions that much good will come out of attempting to undermine the agreement,” Ariel Levite, one of Israel’s top nuclear weapons experts, wrote in Haaretz on July 17. “Hence, it is supremely important to get the United States, France and Germany to make complementary commitments to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, contain and diminish the risk inherent in the agreement and strengthen Israel’s capacity to respond to those threats posed by Iran that the agreement might accentuate.”

In other words, Israel can pocket the deal’s upsides, and secure vast and expensive hedges against its downsides. 

“Chess …” wrote Garry Kasparov, the best player who ever lived, “teaches you how to problem solve in an uncertain environment.”

There is no more uncertain environment than being a Jewish island in a Muslim sea. And yes, it’s true the Persians invented chess. But of the 10 best chess players who ever lived, half were Jews — including Kasparov. 

Oh, and none were Iranian.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.