Opinion |

Israel Should Keep Threatening to Bomb Iran – for the Sake of Peace

If there's still a chance for the Vienna nuclear negotiations, then both Iran, by speeding up weapons-grade enrichment, and Israel, talking up its readiness for a military strike, are actually helping make such a deal happen

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
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An Israeli F-16 fighter plane: Israel’s military threats may actually push Iran closer to rejoining the nuclear deal
An Israeli F-16 fighter plane: Israel’s military threats may actually push Iran closer to rejoining the nuclear dealCredit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

As the drama of the nuclear talks in Vienna, has unfolded, pundits, experts and officials galore have created a lot of noise.

A day after Haaretz’s Yossi Melman declared bombing Iran was not a realistic option, Mossad chief David Barnea declared Israel would do "whatever it takes" to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. Across the Atlantic, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman humbly admitted, "No one knows" what will happen next in the negotiations to resuscitate the JCPOA.

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The situation feels dangerous, as Tehran and Jerusalem both engage in belligerent posturing; Israel talking about the possibility of striking Iran, talking about how close it is to passing the nuclear threshold.

But there's one form of analysis that's missing from all these takes on Israel’s and Iran’s behavior, whether ominous or perplexed, and this observation mode can clarify why the JCPOA made sense, why the U.S. pulling out didn’t and why the seemingly irrational or unreasonable behavior of both sides past and present has actually been quite rational. That under-utilized lens is conflict and negotiation theory.

First off, we need to understand how crisis management works and it relates to international economic and military agreements, particularly between foes.

Iran’s lead negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, right, leaving the Coburg Palais in Vienna last Friday.Credit: JOE KLAMAR - AFP

A political crisis emerges when one side challenges the status quo (militarily or economically), and the other side tries to enforce that status quo. In order to avoid military confrontation, both sides have to limit their objectives, limit the means used to reach them and leave the other side a viable way out. The danger of not doing so is inadvertently motivating the other side to resist, as realist theorist Alexander George observed.

Agreements are meant to build trust and cooperation, but they also recognize that rivals often view their relationship with one another as a zero-sum game – your gain is my loss. Agreements are supposed to be win-win situations, but those benefits usually are distributed unevenly, leading one side to want to renegotiate, to cheat or even to pull out. Thus, a crisis that led to one agreement can reemerge if one or both sides are dissatisfied with the new status quo created by the agreement.

Such is the case here. Iran and the West, with Israel and the United States in particular, have been in crisis since Tehran started trying to go nuclear some 20 years ago. Long, hard bargaining, with many missed deadlines, lead to the JCPOA in 2015.

That’s a good sign, according to negotiation theory, because it shows Iran was serious. If it had never intended to abide by the JCPOA, it would have signed it much sooner to alleviate sanctions, the true bane of Iran’s existence.

The sunset clause – Iran may resume producing and amassing weapon-grade uranium after 2031 – was necessary and not unusual when considering precedents like the two SALT treaties meant to slow down the arms race, which were set to expire five years and six years, respectively, after they entered force. It was expected that the U.S. and USSR two sides would negotiate a new treaty before the current one would expire.

The JCPOA was doing its job – keeping Iran further away from the bomb – when Donald Trump abruptly pulled the U.S. out of it. Iran stayed in the deal another year but finally abandoned it.

Protestors in Tehran burn U.S. flags in response to President Donald Trump's 2018 decision Tuesday to pull out of the nuclear deal and renew sanctionsCredit: Vahid Salemi,AP

This behavior by Tehran is entirely rational. If Iran were to comply while the United States defected, piling on even more sanctions, it would be political and diplomatic suicide. Enriching uranium is Iran’s only way to improve its bargaining position and the only reasonable option is to press for a better deal than the 2015 version. This posturing naturally scares Jerusalem, which takes us to Israel’s behavior during the current negotiations.

Yossi Melman says that the declarations by Israel's political and defense elite, talking up Israel's readiness for a military strike are empty and pointless rhetoric. However, Israel’s posturing reflects a classic defensive strategy of crisis management in response to Iran’s challenge to the nuclear status quo.

The American strategy of coercive diplomacy in the form of sanctions, which Trump tried, has clearly failed. Therefore, the West needs a different strategy to defend the status quo.

Enter Israel. Military preparations and diplomatic declarations signal Israel’s resolve to stop Iran from going nuclear. Sure, the saber rattling may look absurd to Melman, but the Iranians are the ones at risk of being attacked. They don’t know how far Israel is willing to go, or even whether Azerbaijan is bold enough to let Israel launch attacks from its territory, and it makes them sweat.

A photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, east of Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020. Credit: ,AP

Despite their threats to retaliate, they have yet to make good on their own threats after Israeli strikes on Iranian targets and Iranian proxies; Israel’s history of daring operations far from home makes Tehran nervous.

From a negotiation perspective, Israel’s threat may push Iran closer to rejoining the JCPOA. In contrast, if Israel were to throw in the towel and give up the military option, it would be inviting Iran to proceed without caution.

Melman is also off the mark when he states that a new deal would "enable Iran to continue shoring up and advancing its nuclear program."

Yes, Iran is now trying its best to become a nuclear threshold state, but for good reason. Essentially, the JCPOA didn't deliver the promised goods, leading the Iranians to reevaluate its position. They may have decided they are better off with no deal, or they want to keep their options open, but need to bargain from a stronger position, in order to permanently lift the threat of sanctions. After all, Iran’s long-term interest isn't being nuclear but rather shedding sanctions, so it can realize its economic and consequently its conventional military power.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem last weekCredit: AFP

It may be too late to save the JCPOA, and resuscitating it requires a delicate, intricate and dangerous dance. In pulling out, Trump hurt the interests of the United States, which will have to make some concessions if it wants to entice Iran to rejoin. Israel is providing the military threat to make Iran think twice about walking away. And Iran is using enrichment to improve its bargaining position so that if it signs a deal, it will enjoy more wide-ranging sanctions relief for a lower price.

And if Iran opts for nukes over a deal? Fortunately, Israel hasn’t committed to an ultimatum in the form of a deadline with a definitive date, which would force it to attack Iran or lose credibility should Iran ignore the deadline.

And if Iran should pass the nuclear threshold, we can find solace in Kenneth Waltz, one of the founders of neorealism, who already argued back in 2012 that Iran should get the bomb because it would restore the balance of power to the Middle East, an imbalance that has been a source of instability for decades.

As he observed then: "Although Iran’s leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction. It would be a grave error for policymakers in the United State and Israel to assume otherwise."

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct instructor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Twitter: @stevekhaaretz

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