Analysis |

Israel’s Iran Policy Is Entering Dangerous 2015 Territory

Under two different prime ministers, Israel has focused all its efforts on denouncing the Iran nuclear agreement. Deal or no deal, it needs to devise an alternative Iran strategy

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Joe Biden.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Joe Biden.Credit: Artwork: Anastasia Shub. Photos: Vahid Salemi/AP hanohiki/Getty Images/iStockphoto AFP Avi Ohayon / GPO GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

The executive summary of “The Idiot’s Guide to Israel’s Iran Policy” would go something like this: Israel has been warning against the various direct and indirect dangers of a nuclear Iran since the late 1980s-early ’90s.

Israel claimed, convincingly, that a combination of messianic theocracy and nuclear capability would be catastrophic, constitutes an existential threat to Israel, will inevitably generate a nuclear proliferation chain regionally and be an ominous peril to world security, since an Iranian nuclear device could be outsourced or proxied to a terror organization.

After gaining the world’s attention and diplomatic traction, Israel then “Israelized’ the Iran issue, turning it into direct enmity, threatened to take independent action and, by doing so, to an extent lost world support.

But the world did see the basic logic and decided that, despite the alarmist and pontificating rhetoric, Israel had a point. So the world – the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Great Britain – negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2015.

But, lo and behold, Israel was steadfast against a deal that significantly curbed Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In fact, Israel actively lobbied against the agreement in the U.S. Congress. Why? Because it claimed it was “a bad deal,” a flawed agreement, an accord with more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese – despite the fact that for four years Iran essentially adhered to its letter and spirit. That doesn’t make Iran an amicable country or the ayatollahs’ theocratic regime peaceful. But those were the facts.

There is a better deal, Israel claimed with sanctimonious self-assurance, yet it never provided a draft or ideas for one. The gist of Israeli policy was reduced to: “It’s a bad deal, trust us.”

Sure, it was by nature and definition an imperfect document. Sure, it had inherent flaws. And sure, it did not cover Iran’s menacing regional nonnuclear behavior. But as far as the nuclear dimension was concerned, it curtailed the Iranian project and it worked.

So what did Israel do? Did it devise a strategy for the day after the agreement expires or in the event of gross Iranian violations? No. Strategy is for nerds and the weak. We do speeches.

Israel then encouraged the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal. Why? Because it was a bad deal and because it was President Barack Obama’s deal – something Trump would be riled about.

So the U.S. withdrew. What should be done in place of the deal? What was the alternative policy? That’s not for Israel to decide or propose. We do diagnosis, not prognosis.

A year after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the agreement and reimposed sanctions under an impressively named campaign of “maximum pressure,” Iran began violating core commitments. For a year Iran stated: “We will not renege on the deal if it is reinstated.” It wasn’t.

What did Israel do? Accuse Iran of flagrantly breaching the deal Israel was opposed to. Why? Because it was a bad deal.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking during a televised video conference commemorating the 1979 Islamic Revolution, last week in the city of Tabriz. Credit: /AP

Two years go by and Iran enriches uranium to 60 percent purity (90 percent is weapons-grade material) with advanced centrifuges, accumulating quantities of uranium it never had before. What does Israel do? First it declares that, “like we always said,” Iran could never be trusted. But then, former generals, defense ministers and chiefs of intelligence have a eureka moment.

The U.S. leaving the agreement was a net negative for Israel, they claimed. Iran surged, uninterrupted, and became a de facto nuclear threshold state. It has the knowledge, technology, capabilities and necessary components to produce a bomb, but politically chooses not to. So, Israel concluded, disrupting the deal was an adverse development. In fact, the Americans should have stayed in.

So, the Biden administration launched a negotiations process to reenter the agreement, with some modifications. What did Israel say from day one? That it is against the deal. Why? Because it’s a bad deal. Then, in January 2022, Israel made a series of public threats against Iran, in an effort to show its displeasure with the deal at a time it didn’t think it was viable anyway.

But didn’t Israel just state that the U.S. leaving the deal was disastrous and enabled Iran to make significant progress? It did. So surely it must support the new deal, right? Wrong. Why? Because it’s a bad deal, of course.

“The new agreement is shorter and weaker. It will create a more violent, less stable Middle East … we are very concerned,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday. Israel, of course, has a better deal in mind. Where is it? In the same place as the Loch Ness Monster. Nowhere.

It should be stated clearly that there is no deal yet, and the chances of an agreement or the U.S. quitting because Iran isn’t serious are about even.

A partial, 20-page draft leaked to Reuters details the sequence of a would-be agreement. The broad idea, according to this draft, is to return to the original 2015 framework and phases – especially the capping of uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent fissile purity, down from the 60 percent Iran has been enriching since it started breaching the agreement in 2019 (following the U.S.’ withdrawal in 2018).

The draft describes a series of pre-implementation steps: suspension of enrichment above 5 percent; unfreezing $7 billion of Iranian funds held in South Korean banks due to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions in 2018; prisoner releases.

Only once this series is completed will “re-implementations” commence and sanctions be lifted, including periodic 90- to 120-day waivers of sanctions on Iranian oil exports.

Iran is still insisting – but will not get – guarantees that a future U.S. administration, in either 2025 or 2029, will not violate the deal and withdraw again. If the United States cannot guarantee this, which it most certainly cannot, Iran is reportedly asking for a clause that will allow it to return to 60 percent enrichment – something the Americans refuse to consent to.

Then there is the issue of Congress. There is no question that Republicans, and perhaps some Democrats, will try to hinder the implementation by undermining or refusing to lift sanctions. Hundreds of sanctions – although not the major ones – were imposed through and by virtue of anti-terrorism laws, and their removal requires congressional approval, not an executive decision.

President Joe Biden is not constitutionally required to submit the agreement to Congress. It is neither a treaty that requires Senate approval, nor a bilateral agreement, but rather a reentry to an existing agreement that was already authorized in 2015 – when Congress failed to override President Obama’s veto after it had already voted against the original agreement.

Obama set a precedent with his gesture to Congress in 2015, yet Biden is under no obligation to do the same.

What the Republicans in Congress intend to do is create a political debate delegitimizing Biden’s decision. They will most likely seek to do so through the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA), which requires that any agreement related to the Iran nuclear deal be submitted to Congress for approval. Yet it is not clear that the new agreement actually triggers INARA, since no major modifications are made to the original agreement, just an adjusted timetable.

Congressional Republicans have already signaled their intent after 33 senators and over 160 House members signed a letter stating they will oppose any deal if it is not subject to Congress’ review. Biden knows they will oppose it anyway, so the letter hardly constitutes a credible threat.

Where does all this leave Israel? Essentially, in the same place.

Between then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “It’s 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany” rhetoric but absence of policy, and Bennett’s much more measured, mellow and balanced “We oppose the agreement because it’s a bad agreement,” Israeli thinking dangerously atrophied.

In 2015, Israel’s main substantive concern and justifiable opposition was that the agreement does not cover the nonnuclear dimension of Iran’s policy. The precise, long-range missile program, the destabilizing arming and employment of proxies: Hezbollah, Hamas, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Syrian militias, Houthis in Yemen. The same applies now, with the unsettling addition of a “strategic partnership” between Iran and China, a 25-year $400-billion agreement.

By “Israelizing” the Iran issue and picking unnecessary and ill-advised fights with Obama, Netanyahu marginalized Israel. Bennett will not confront Biden in the same reckless way Netanyahu did with Obama, but in terms of policy there seems to be little difference. Whether there is an agreement or there isn’t – two diametrically opposed contingencies – Israel must stop sulking and devise a new, smart, long-term Iran strategy that addresses both the nuclear and nonnuclear aspects.

The “fortune cookie” foreign policy of coming up with a familiar cliché on a slip of paper has exhausted its life span.

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