Why Netanyahu Deserves Credit for Iran Nuclear Deal

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
ARCHIVE - Technicians of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan, Iran, August 8, 2005.Credit: Reuters

In a parallel universe, the lead headline on Wednesday from the mouthpiece of the Israeli government might have read (instead of “Agreement of everlasting ignominy”): “Major achievement for Israel: Iranian nuclear project halted.” After all, there’s some logic to the claim that if the complex and problematic agreement signed between Iran and the world powers produces positive results in the long term, part of the credit will accrue to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For more than a decade, the international community took a lethargic attitude toward Iran’s nuclear push. Until 2009, Tehran seemed to be moving confidently toward the bomb. To prompt the international community to take a more serious approach to stopping the project, Netanyahu had to return to power and be obsessive about the Iranian threat – and the engines of Israel’s F-15s had to be kept warmed up symbolically on the runway. (Israel invested 12 billion shekels, or about $3 billion, in preparations for an attack, according to former prime minister Ehud Olmert.)

It’s unlikely that Tehran ever believed seriously that Israel would mount an attack on its nuclear facilities, but Netanyahu’s repeated declarations, together with the stormy debate among the top ranks of Israel’s military, drew attention to this matter in another capital: Washington. According to the memoirs of former leading members of the administration of President Barack Obama – including the defense secretary, Leon Panetta, and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton – the Americans were genuinely apprehensive that Netanyahu was ready to order the planes to take off in each of the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012. More than any other factor, it was concern about a possible Israeli attack, which could have touched off a regional conflagration and sent the price of oil soaring, that induced Obama to impose an unprecedented series of sanctions on Iran.

The sanctions, in turn, devastated the Iranian economy and led to an extraordinary decision by the country’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, to allow a relatively moderate politician (in Iranian terms), Hassan Rohani, to run in and win the election for president two years ago. From here it was a short path to the charm offensive conducted by Rohani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, the interim agreement reached in Geneva in November 2013, and the signing of the final agreement this week in Vienna.

Netanyahu will not acknowledge that anything worthwhile was achieved this week, of course, because all his efforts are now focused on undermining the agreement and showing up its flaws. Even though it’s been apparent for several weeks that an accord would be reached, all the official spokespersons in Jerusalem have been displaying shock and astonishment for the past two days, while accusing Obama of forsaking Israel’s security interests. At the same time, the prime minister’s political rivals will certainly not give him credit: They are too busy blaming him for being the cause of the greatest strategic failure in Israel’s history.

The value of the agreement will only be gauged in the years ahead. Some would say that the real test will not come for 10 to 15 years, when the clauses obliging Iran to freeze various activities at its nuclear sites expire. But it has to be admitted that there is some justice to Netanyahu’s allegations against the terms of the agreement. The most cogent allegation, which is echoed by senior figures in the defense establishment, is concern about a sharp increase in Iran’s regional influence. The approach displayed by the powers, like the planned removal of the sanctions, will likely lead international companies in Europe, China and Russia to rush to make investments and enter into commercial agreements in Iran.

With Iran no longer globally isolated and with its economy recovering and the country demonstrating its strategic status as a regional power (with potential nuclear capability in the future), Tehran will embark on vigorous activity across the Middle East, backed by its recouped wealth.

Unspoken terrorism issue

Iran’s insistence on preventing any discussion of its terrorist and subversive activity during the talks in Lausanne and Vienna proved itself. The Israeli effort in this regard failed, and all the steps taken that had to do with Iran’s involvement in terrorism are likely to fade together with the lifting of the sanctions. From this point of view, the agreement dovetails with the gradual process that has been unfolding in recent years: the reduction of American influence and presence in the region. That vacuum is being filled by Iran on one side, and by its rivals, the major Sunni countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, in part, Turkey), on the other.

One clause of the agreement refers to the lifting of the personal sanctions against Qassem Suleimani. Gen. Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds (Jerusalem) Force, was not involved in the nuclear project. But he is the chief commander of Iran’s terrorist and guerrilla actions in the region, from Iraq via Syria and Lebanon to Yemen. Henceforth, Suleimani, too, is no longer on the blacklist. (Some Internet sites claimed on Wednesday that the clause refers to a different Qassem Suleimani. Israel had not been able, as of yesterday, to get a clear answer to this question.)

An analysis of the agreement’s handling of Iran’s nuclear project is formidably difficult. As experts such as Dr. Ariel Levite, writing in an oped piece in Haaretz Hebrew edition yesterday, and Prof. Isaac Ben Israel noted the accord has its good and bad points. On the positive side, Iran has undertaken to restrict considerably its uranium-enrichment capability and to halt completely research and development in the nuclear military realm. On the negative side, the supervisory mechanism regarding possible Iranian violations of the accord is unwieldy, and will require joint decisions to be made with Iran. Seemingly, even if the Iranians are caught red-handed, they will have enough time to blur evidence of violations on their part before the arrival of inspectors for a pre-coordinated visit.

If we place the range of reactions in Israel on a scale, Netanyahu would be situated on its far right. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon shares Netanyahu’s criticism and suspicions about Iran’s intentions, but has refrained completely from invoking Holocaust analogies and from accusations of betrayal by the allies.

As for the Israel Defense Forces top brass and the intelligence community, although they are fully aware of the lacunae and the possible risks, they are treating the agreement pretty much as a done deed. No one was spotted in sackcloth and ashes this week in the corridors of General Staff headquarters. And it’s a safe bet that no unusual volume of requests for foreign passports was recorded among the top military echelons.

As reported here in June, the IDF’s strategic appraisal has long observed a decline in the nuclear threat against Israel, in light of – and not in spite of – the forecast that an agreement with Iran would be reached.

Attack improbable

The announcement in Vienna gave rise to some media speculation about a possible Israeli attack against Iran, together with the routine statements that all the options remain open. It needs to be said forthrightly that an Israeli attack on Iran now looks extremely improbable. In 2013, when the Americans were no longer apprehensive about an uncoordinated Israeli attack, Netanyahu appointed Ya’alon defense minister, despite the latter’s vehement opposition to such an attack in the preceding years, when the option was under discussion.

At the beginning of this year, Netanyahu signed off on the appointment of Gadi Eisenkot as chief of staff, despite the fact that a few years ago he received a copy of a letter written by Eisenkot, when he was head of Northern Command, expressing opposition to a unilateral attack.

Now, with the entire international community behind the agreement, it’s unlikely that there is even one person in the top ranks of the defense establishment – including the chief of the Mossad, the director of the Shin Bet security service and the commander of the air force – who supports an attack on Iran.

In fact, it’s still not clear how real the Israeli military option was from the outset. Historians will have to address that question in the future, when the archives are opened. The IDF’s assessment in 2012 was that an Israeli attack would delay the Iranian nuclear project by two years at the most. Possibly the only real opportunity for an effective attack was missed at a far earlier stage, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister, at a time when much of Iran’s enriched uranium was stored in an unprotected facility in Isfahan.

Next week, the new U.S. secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, will visit Israel. President Obama has already stated that his visit is intended to demonstrate America’s security commitment to Israel. For Netanyahu, the timing is embarrassing. It’s clear that Washington wants to discuss a compensatory security package for Israel in the wake of the agreement. The importance of that package will only grow, given the need to preserve Israel’s military edge in the region, in light of other similar compensatory deals, worth tens of billions of dollars, being planned for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But Netanyahu wants to put off discussion of the military package for two months at least, until Congress votes whether or not to approve the agreement.

Even though Netanyahu’s prospects in Congress look bleak, he is treating the possibility of scuttling the deal with all seriousness. Thus, the IDF has been forbidden to discuss Israel’s wish list of new military hardware in detail with the guest. A third F-35 squadron, precision munitions for the air force, financial aid for missile-interception batteries (Arrow 3, Magic Wand, Iron Dome) – all will have to wait until September, after the final act in Congress.

Even without a detailed discussion of weaponry, Ya’alon and Eisenkot will have plenty to talk about with Secretary Carter, in light of the agreement with Iran. Israel will have to coordinate with Washington the handling of future information about violations of the agreement, ensure better intelligence coordination between the sides (despite mutual denials, the tension between Obama and Netanyahu did damage relations in the past year), and deploy for a post-agreement regional reality.

The fact that Obama appears to be in a delicate position after the Vienna agreement can help Netanyahu in other ways, if he avoids over-personalizing the confrontation with the president. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said in interviews on Wednesday that the administration has no illusions about the true nature of Iran’s regime. The question is whether Washington will translate that statement into a tough approach toward Tehran because of its assistance to Hezbollah and the resumption of aid to Hamas’ military wing.

In the Palestinian channel, there is a clear American attempt to appease Netanyahu. A series of events – the French hinting last month that they would not advance a plan to ask the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state, the lowering of the Palestinian Authority’s profile in the international arena, and at the same time, Netanyahu’s admission to the settlers that he has suspended much of the construction in the settlements – all this shows that something is going on behind the scenes, with American encouragement. It also shows that Obama is ready to give Israel more of a tailwind, if its leaders don’t cross red lines in the struggle against him over the Iran accord.

Comments