Analysis |

The Iran Conundrum: What Should Israel Do if There’s No Nuclear Deal?

With Tehran calling a temporary halt to nuclear talks with the U.S., it’s time for Israel to drop the bumper-sticker platitudes and start developing a clear strategy for what might come next

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility in November 2019.
Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility in November 2019. Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Over the past six years, Israel has been very adept – though ineffectual – in articulating and emphatically conveying its criticism, disagreement, resistance, opposition, misgivings, reservations and anxieties to any deal with Iran curbing and limiting its military nuclear program. But other than grandstanding speeches and threats, Israel never devised a clear strategy on how to cope and possibly benefit from such an agreement. Nor has it ever proposed a detailed, robust, better deal than the one negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran in 2015, or the one being negotiated between the Americans and Iranians in recent months in Vienna.

And what Israel really hasn’t developed is a strategy to address what may happen in the coming months: a reality of no nuclear deal. An indefinite suspension of the talks, while Iran remains unsupervised and noncompliant with the original deal, which significantly limited its uranium stockpiles and enrichment capabilities, and prohibited any weapons-grade enrichment and development.

After 12 years of lofty and belligerent speeches against any agreement, Israel finds itself in a predicament: Iran is as advanced as it has ever been in terms of its “breakout time” to get a nuclear bomb – certainly more than it was when the original deal was implemented in late 2015. Iran did not collapse as a result of debilitating and crippling sanctions, and the ayatollahs’ regime is in no existential danger.

This is the state of affairs the Bennett-Lapid government inherited, and they must now scramble to craft a set of sensible principles, a sound policy and an elastic but grand strategy beyond the bumper-sticker platitude of “We will never allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons.”

True, both the United States and Iran apparently remain committed to a deal, reinstating the U.S. into the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), and neither has threatened to walk away from negotiations. However, there is an accumulation of evidence pointing toward the possibility of “no deal.” The likelihood of a deal may still be greater than no deal, but doubts are growing.

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during his first press conference, in Tehran last month.Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP

Iran’s decision to postpone the nuclear talks in Vienna until after Ebrahim Raisi is inaugurated as the Islamic republic’s new president, in early August, may seem like a politically motivated technicality with little, if any, bearing on the final outcome of negotiations.

Maybe that’s the case, and perhaps there is a genuine political calculus being made by supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to enable Raisi to reap the rewards of U.S. sanctions being removed and the subsequent considerable alleviation of Iran’s economic hardships.

At the same time, the (temporary) suspension of the seventh round of talks undoubtedly reflects substantive differences on the principles and contours of the agreement, the sequencing of Iranian compliance and U.S. sanctions removal, Iran’s advances since it violated the agreement in 2019 (following the U.S.’ unilateral withdrawal in May 2018), and raises doubts – in both Washington and Tehran – on whether a framework is still viable.

It also contains a vexing dilemma for Israel. In the absence of an agreement, which Israel ostensibly opposes and has real and grave reservations about, and in the event of a longer disruption in talks, Israel will be facing the specter of dealing with and confronting an Iran that is further advancing its military nuclear program by using higher-quality centrifuges, enriching more uranium at higher levels, and quite plausibly feeling emboldened to provoke Israel throughout the region.

Ironically, Israel may now have a vested interest in the U.S. and Iran concluding a deal, despite those inherent flaws that Israel will be quick and emphatic in pointing out. Paradoxically, a bad, imperfect and defective deal solves, temporarily at least, Israel’s dilemma of devising a new strategy for dealing with an Iran unbound by an agreement offering limitations, monitoring and supervision.

Democratic senators Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Chris Coons, a member of that committee, emerged Wednesday after a briefing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the status of the Vienna negotiations, saying they were “not optimistic.” Of course, it is unclear whether they are not optimistic that there will eventually be a deal, or not optimistic that there will eventually not be a deal. Notwithstanding, their lack of optimism reflected the current mood of uncertainty in Washington over the likelihood of an agreement being struck.

The prevailing and official attitude in D.C. is still that a deal is desirable, that it is certainly a better option than the ominous prospect of the no-deal scenarios, and that, in terms of policy, the United States will be better off with the deal.

Russia's governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mikhail Ulyanov, speaking to journalists after the closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna last month.Credit: JOE KLAMAR - AFP

The rethinking and recalibration in the administration stems from the realization that Iran may not necessarily want a deal. It pertains to a growing, though reversible, perception that Iran is content – and even enthusiastically endorses – its position as a nuclear “threshold state”; that it sees strategic and future negotiation benefits by further advancing its nuclear military program; and that it believes it can contain the effect of U.S. sanctions through assistance from China and Russia.

The United States, according to this approach, must not be dragged into lengthy, tedious and futile negotiations, expend precious diplomatic capital in the process and lose a diplomatic battle with China – all while distracting President Joe Biden from his ambitious and broad domestic agenda. Biden was patently elected to fix the ailing American republic, not the Islamic one.

If a deal cannot be reached and the U.S. announces, hypothetically, that “under the circumstances and given Iran’s intransigence, we see no point in continuing these rounds of talks in this format and modalities, but hope we can resume them in the near future,” Israel is essentially left almost alone to deal with the new reality.

Assuming that Iran, expecting negotiations to restart at some point, will accelerate its nuclear program as leverage, Israel may have to choose between three bad options:

1. A limited military strike, based on solid and publicly marketable intelligence, with only partial destructive effectiveness and a myriad of geopolitical downsides. Yes, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may be supportive to a degree, but China, Russia and Europe will be less enthusiastic.

2. Trying to convince a reluctant, war-averse, Middle East-fatigued U.S. to launch a strike against Iran. It is doubtful that Iran will be reckless enough to provoke the Americans and provide a pretext or incentive to attack. This option, just the idea of it, would surely place unsustainable strains on the U.S.-Israel relationship.

3. Wait it out, reach a maximal level of coordination with the U.S., but expect that a deal may not eventually materialize.

None of these are good options, which is predictable and natural in this area and on such topics. However, it is highly doubtful Israel ever imagined it would be better off if there is a nuclear deal rather than without one.

That should be a good starting point for new cooperation with the United States.

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