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'No One Thought About How We Would Stop Iran After Withdrawing From the Deal'

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump in the White House last year.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump in the White House last year.Credit: SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD / Official White House Photo

Just over a month ago, I published an article about the new consensus that Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord with Iran, at Benjamin Netanyahu’s prodding, was a terrible mistake (Haaretz, September 27). In the Hebrew edition, the headline told of the collapse of the conception. The next day a senior official who was deeply involved in the Israeli effort to halt Iran called me and said, “You made one mistake in the article. No conception collapsed – because there was no conception.”

This was not mere semantics. For several minutes, the official went on to describe Netanyahu’s policy toward Iran in 2015-2018, from the signing of the nuclear accord until the U.S. withdrawal from it. “There was no policy. There were a lot of speeches and there were operations, but no one thought for a minute about what would happen if there was no accord. You can check Netanyahu’s schedule for those years,” he said. “There is not even one comprehensive discussion about strategy versus Iran. Netanyahu enjoyed fantastic relations with the Trump administration – he’d be sitting with us, and in the middle of the meeting he’d ask to speak with [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo or [National Security Adviser John] Bolton and within minutes they were on the line, but there was no clear policy as to where this was leading. Netanyahu ran things in a trio with [Ambassador to the U.S.] Ron Dermer and [Mossad chief] Yossi Cohen. No one else was really in the loop.”

This account seemed to strain credulity. Halting Iran was supposed to be Netanyahu’s great mission in life; could it really have been managed with such negligence and arrogance? I spoke with another one of the few people who were close to the triumvirate that managed these affairs. “Dermer was really right at home in the White House. It was quite something,” the official said. “Once, he met us when we were discussing strategies regarding the nuclear accord and what Trump might do. Dermer almost laughed. You don’t realize that this decision has already been made, Trump is withdrawing, he told us. We were taken aback. No one had notified us, no one had thought about how we would stop Iran after the withdrawal from the deal.”

I spoke with the two officials separately, they come from different security realms, yet it was amazing to hear to what degree, in their view, Netanyahu’s Israel behaved contrary to the national interest, and how the entire security leadership watched agape at the way Netanyahu managed everything all on his own. It got to the point, the second official said, that Netanyahu paid no heed to any of us, and he didn’t take anyone in the cabinet seriously either. You could see his disdain for them.

The nuclear accord is full of holes, the first official acknowledged, but it gave us at least 10 years to work on other things, to build capabilities. “The arms control agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union also had time limits attached,” the second official said. “But as the end of the period neared, the superpowers would meet for new negotiations and extend the agreement. There is no reason why this couldn’t have been done here. Bottom line, no Mossad operation, no matter how spectacular, could ever achieve what this accord achieved. Iran loading enriched material on a ship and sending it to Russia, centrifuges being shut down, strict inspection – these are tremendous things that were only achieved by the deal. We could have extended this agreement to 2035 and beyond. Do you know what 15 years is in the Middle East?”

Of course, I asked both officials the same question – what now? Until recently, Israel dreamed of a “longer, stronger” deal with Iran. Last Friday, Iran announced that it had enriched an unprecedented amount of uranium – 25 kilograms at an enrichment level of 60 percent, bringing it closer than ever to what it needs to produce its first nuclear bomb. At the end of the month, the nuclear talks will resume now that Iran has agreed to come back to the table. It’s not hard to figure who will be coming to the table in an inferior position and who will be feeling strengthened. The officials with whom I spoke saw no way to stop Iran, except with a new deal. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also knows that he really has no other options. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal will lead to a “weaker, shorter” deal – if a new deal is to be had.

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