With Iran Deal Sealed, Don’t Expect Israel to Send Out the Air Force

That would be political suicide. Still, the agreement only stops Iran in place; it’s still well-positioned to surge toward a bomb.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The agreement signed early Sunday between Iran and the P5+1 powers in Geneva is an important, if limited, step in restraining the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Tehran agreed to a limited freeze in the program in exchange for a partial lifting of the international sanctions.

While the agreement stops Iran in place, it doesn’t push the timetable back significantly if Tehran decides later to push forward toward a nuclear bomb. It seems the question of Iran’s right to keep enriching uranium was deliberately left in a gray zone where both sides agreed not to agree.

Israeli intelligence reports that Iran is now potentially only some three months away from manufacturing a nuclear weapon - three months from when its leadership decides in favor of the project. American intelligence organizations are a bit more optimistic, but they also admit that in the best-case scenario the new agreement will lengthen the Iranian bomb making process by only a few months.

The interim agreement will apply for six months; it’s doubtful whether a permanent deal will be signed later because it’s not at all certain the Iranians want one. It seems more likely that the sides will sign a series of agreements extending the current situation, with no full, permanent solution.

The sanctions to be lifted are U.S. President Barack Obama’s responsibility; he doesn’t need Congress’ approval to end them. According to administration officials, this is a benefit worth $6 billion to $7 billion to the Iranian economy, not $20 billion to $40 billion as Israel warned.

But officials in Jerusalem are worried that the front has begun to collapse; enforcing the sanctions took a lot of work, and the moment they are relaxed, it will be hard to stop China, or European businesspeople who spot economic opportunities, from relaxing them more.

The Israeli government has lost this battle, as it feared it would once Hassan Rohani was elected Iranian president in June. The government didn’t convince the world powers to stand firm and make the Iranians crawl toward a more demanding agreement.

Bombing Iran: Political suicide

Despite the criticism Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed in public on Sunday, it seems Israel will have no choice but to swallow hard and accept the deal in practice, as problematic as it is. Later on its focus will shift to the sanctions front. Netanyahu may resume putting pressure on his friends in the U.S. Congress to try to make things harder on the administration and tighten the sanctions that are still in Congress’ purview.

Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence will try to reveal Iranian deception that would let Netanyahu keep telling the world “I told you so.” Israel has already warned that Iran could go the way of North Korea and build a bomb despite the global diplomatic effort.

But an Israeli military option isn’t in play, at least not at this stage. As long as there is such sweeping international support for the interim agreement, bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would be political and diplomatic suicide.

Obama, the first leader to win a Nobel Prize just for being elected, continues to rack up diplomatic achievements. The White House is certainly aware of the agreement’s weak points. But as far as Obama is concerned, if it’s assured that Iran won’t become a nuclear power on his watch, this will be seen as an accomplishment.

The American effort is focused on keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, not from being able to obtain one, which is Netanyahu's goal. The Geneva agreement joins the success in getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons in the September deal with Russia. (Washington officials tend not to mention the details that this agreement was accomplished in exchange for a promise that Syrian President Bashar Assad would remain in power.)

The American successes in reaching agreements to rein in the Iranian nuclear program and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons could also spur Obama, and mainly Secretary of State John Kerry, to keep up the pressure on the Palestinian channel in the hope of achieving a breakthrough there, too.

This is bad news for Netanyahu from two perspectives: The international community will view the top item on his strategic agenda, stopping Iran from going nuclear, as much less urgent; and he could soon face demands to make concessions in the negotiations with the Palestinians.

In recent months Israel has found unexpected allies in its fight against extensive concessions to the Iranians: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which fear Shi’ite empowerment even more than Israel does. Like Jerusalem, Riyadh will harshly criticize the agreement over the next few days.

But Saudi Arabia has already hinted at its willingness to consider a different response to the Geneva compromise, which it sees as surrender: A resumption of efforts to get a nuclear bomb of its own, maybe from Pakistan. The paths of Israel and Saudi Arabia would dramatically diverge at that point. A regional nuclear arms race, a fight between a Shi’ite bomb and a Sunni bomb, is the last thing Jerusalem needs.

For Israel, no alternative to U.S.

Netanyahu visited Moscow last week, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman acknowledged publicly that American involvement in the region had weakened (and by implication, that ties between Washington and Jerusalem had loosened). But Israel has no real alternatives for a best friend. While Netanyahu was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who continues to supply advanced weapons to Syria — and from there indirectly to Hezbollah — the United States funded another successful test of Israel’s David’s Sling anti-missile defense system.

Israel will continue relying on America in the future, too, despite the disagreements over Iran and the Palestinians. It is possible the Americans will now be asked to expand their package of defense benefits to Israel and the Gulf states to calm things down. But the bottom line for the moment is that the chances seem slim that Netanyahu will break the rules of the game with Obama, or go utterly against the international community’s position by attacking Iran. For a long period, Netanyahu spoke about the dilemma of choosing between an Iranian bomb and an Israeli bombing attack; for now at least, there will not be an Iranian bomb - and it seems there will not be Israeli attack, either.

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