Stating that Israel has “no ability to influence the Iran nuclear agreement,” as reported by Haaretz on Monday, is an accurate recognition of reality, a sober depiction of Israel’s current dilemma and exposes the conundrum of devising an effective, durable and agile Iran policy for the foreseeable future.
It is also equivalent to pointing out that the pope is Catholic. The pope was always Catholic and Israel never had any substantial input or influence on the shaping of the Iran nuclear deal (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) – neither the original deal in 2015, nor the recent and current negotiations over America’s reentry into the agreement.
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While blaming the previous government has merit, particularly faulting former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for maneuvering Israel into an unwarranted position of diplomatic futility and allowing Iran to get closer than ever to becoming a military nuclear power, it is neither a recipe for policy nor justification for inaction.
The new Israeli government’s general working assumption was fourfold:
1. The United States’ reentry into the agreement from which it unilaterally withdrew in May 2018 is effectively a done deal;
2. Israel cannot realistically have an impact on the contours or main parts of the agreement at such a late stage of the process;
3. Israel should confine itself to expressing grave concerns and stressing its opposition to the deal based on substantive (rather than political) reservations, especially on the issue of Iran’s significantly shortened “breakout time” – from possessing the necessary components and technological capability to create a weapons-grade nuclear device; and
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4. Israel should focus on two aspects: First, working with Washington on the expansion of the deal to cover nonnuclear issues, most urgently Iran’s missile development program. Second, preparing for the next deal – deterring Iran once the deal expires in less than a decade.
These premises have not changed dramatically in the past two weeks as doubts and questions about Iran’s intentions surfaced in Washington, and a tentative policy recalibration was and may still be considered. The growing impatience in the Biden administration over Iran’s stalling, intransigence and insistence on a comprehensive lifting of sanctions without compensating for its own violations and transgressions led some in Israel to think the deal can still be modified and improved.
Israel conveyed its points and reservations via Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, in his recent meeting in Rome with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken; during outgoing President Reuven Rivlin’s meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and in the Washington visit by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
It remains to be seen whether Israel’s comments were factored into the Americans’ position, but that hasn’t changed the trajectory of a deal being concluded in the next few weeks.
Israel officially and ostensibly has two fundamental strategic imperatives that underline its Iran policy: First, that Iran never be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb; and second, that Israel will always maintain an adequate level of freedom of action and operational latitude against the Iranian nuclear program, Tehran’s precision missile development, and its expansive web of proxies and auspices of terrorism to advance regional activities.
A third strategic tenet is the U.S.: The compelling principle is that for political, deterrence and military-capability reasons, Israel’s Iran policy should be closely, intimately and credibly coordinated with the Americans – without Israel compromising or significantly constricting its freedom and flexibility of action. When Israeli and U.S. intelligence assessments and policy preferences diverge, a high-level mechanism of discreet consultations will be activated, rather than public grandstanding, lofty speeches, sanctimonious declarations and hollow threats. That principle was severely diminished by the Netanyahu government.
With these three strategic premises guiding it, the Bennett-Lapid government will need to craft a coherent, clear, modular and modifiable Iran policy based on three possible outcomes in descending order of probability:
1. A new JCPOA agreement is signed within the next month;
2. Negotiations stall and reach an impasse, but they still linger on;
3. The U.S. determines that under the circumstances and dynamics of the negotiations, a deal is either unattainable or is clearly weaker and more dangerous than the original agreement, given Iran’s subsequent advances in uranium enrichment and use of advanced centrifuges.
If the JCPOA is eventually signed, aside from expressing disappointment and opposition to it, vowing to prevent Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability (which, by virtue of a verifiable and monitored agreement, cannot happen – as was the case between 2015 and 2018 when the U.S. was party to the agreement), Israel’s Iran nuclear policy will be about long-term planning. It will focus on building a strong and efficient consultation-and-cooperation mechanism with the Americans to monitor the monitoring process, and looking ahead to the next agreement.
If there is an impasse but negotiations sluggishly continue, Israel will try to insert its inputs. However, if the U.S. accepts these ideas, an agreement is less, not more, likely. Such a scenario also inhibits Israel’s ability and need to devise a longer term policy toward Iran.
Lastly, Israel’s most vexing dilemma will be if the United States concludes that an agreement is impossible under the current conditions, Iranian demands and inflexibility. This may happen if Iran believes that the strategy of being a “threshold state” – being on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons capability but consciously refraining from actually doing so – serves it better.
If Iran believes China can mitigate the harsh economic costs of U.S.-imposed sanctions, it will be reluctant to proceed. In this scenario, an unsupervised and unmonitored Iran conceivably makes further progress with its nuclear program. How Israel, and the United States, respond to that is too speculative to seriously answer at this point.