Analysis |

The U.S. Can Live Without an Iran Nuclear Deal. Can Israel?

Israel's line for two decades now has been that a nuclear Iran is a grave danger. If that's the case, Israel shouldn't automatically oppose any deal meant to address the problem

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
Long-range S-200 missile fired in a military drill near Bushehr, Iran, December 29, 2016.
President Joe Biden's envoy said the United States will "continue to reject unreasonable demands" from Tehran. Credit: Amir Kholousi/AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

After over a year and eight (and a half) rounds of negotiations on a U.S. reentry into the Iranian nuclear deal, it seems the United States, without unnecessary drama or fanfare, is willing to call it quits and concede that for now a deal is unattainable.

"We do not have a deal ... and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous," Rob Malley, Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

As Malley put it, referring to the nuclear agreement, "If Iran maintains demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA, we will continue to reject them, and there will be no deal."

Malley, viciously maligned and falsely accused in Israel as the main culprit, a man obsessed with “a quick agreement at any cost” – as the accusation has been in Israel – has demonstrated not only patience and reservations over the past year. He has also been honest to admit that the prospects of a renewed agreement are slim.

His testimony in the Senate followed Biden's decision, as reported by Politico, not to delist the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The Guards were only designated a terror group in 2019 as part of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran that followed Washington's unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018.

Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, in Vienna last June.Credit: Florian Schroetter/AP

The pompously announced policy produced zero tangible results, failed to alter Iran’s behavior in the region, didn’t come close to destabilizing the ayatollahs' regime and actually accelerated Iran’s nuclear production, with uranium enriched at 60 percent by more-advanced IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges, entirely unsupervised.

The original nuclear agreement in 2015 limited Iran to the IR-1, a centrifuge still based on a Pakistani one adapted for Iran by Pakistani nuclear villain Abdul Qadeer Khan, based on technology he stole from Germany and the Netherlands in the 1970s. In the original agreement, enrichment was capped at 3.67 percent, and Iran complied until it violated the agreement in 2019 after the U.S. withdrawal.

Weapons or military-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent, and 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of uranium is needed to produce a military device, or one Hiroshima-power atomic bomb.

Malley’s unvarnished testimony and the Revolutionary Guards' decision – with the caveat that it was never clear that Washington ever seriously considered delisting the Guards – points to a broader policy approach: The United States sees no urgency in sealing a deal, certainly not at any cost. Neither do France, Britain, Germany, China or Russia, the other signatories to the 2015 agreement.

Posters of late Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, with missiles in the background, in Tehran in January. Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP

Furthermore, since last summer, when the United States detected Iranian stalling at the Vienna talks, it gradually slowed the pace. Yes, a deal is desirable, and yes, an imperfect deal is substantially better than no deal, a situation that could lead to an escalation and miscalculations in the region regarding Iran’s intentions. But the United States has come to terms with the absence of a deal and the reality of Iran as a “nuclear threshold state.”

That’s not the outcome the United States had hoped for, but it's one it can live with. With increased resources allotted to challenging China, and with current attention allocated to boosting Ukraine, the United States can't and shouldn't expend political capital and reputation on a nuclear deal with Iran if the Iranians are dragging out time.

That leaves Israel in an ambivalent situation, or in a strategic predicament, depending on how Iran will act. On the one hand, official Israel seems happy that there’s no agreement. On the other, former and current Israeli defense officials want an agreement. How do you reconcile the discrepancy? You don’t, because it conveys confusion and a lack of policy rather than a coherent policy.

Some critics say Israeli policy on the nuclear deal oscillates, that it's full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Nothing is further from the truth. According to Israel. Just follow patiently, with an open mind, how lucidly clear Israel’s policy is.

Israel has always been against, but “against” is a complex term. In short form, the policy is crystal clear: Israel was against an agreement but also against a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, even though it pushed the United States to withdraw from the agreement it was against. Now Israel is against an agreement but also against not having an agreement, which it's against.

Got it? Maybe a further elaboration is necessary.

Benjamin Netanyahu. As prime minister, he turned Iran into an almost exclusively Israeli issue. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel was against the nuclear deal from the outset because it contended that is was a bad agreement. Israel said there was “a better agreement” but was against publishing it. But Israel was also against a no-agreement situation because that’s as bad as a bad agreement, maybe more.

Retroactively, Israel was against the U.S. withdrawal, though at the time it encouraged Washington to withdraw from the agreement it was against. Israel is naturally against a renewed agreement, because it’s as bad as the original agreement that, obviously, Israel was against.

But Israel is also against not having an agreement, though it's vociferously against the agreement that it was always against.

A failure to reach a deal will potentially leave Israel alone to face Iran. There is no real “Sunni-Israeli coalition,” and talk of an Israeli-Saudi-Emirati front to face Iran is more strategic fiction than a practical reality.

This is where Israel finds itself now, being against and for an agreement, threatening Iran at a time when no one around the world has any bandwidth left to address a confrontation in the Middle East that would invariably pull in the United States to one degree or another.

In the Senate, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch, said that “the Israelis have vowed to handle that end [the nuclear program] of the problem, and they will. Iran knows it, and we know it."

It’s almost as if Risch had drunk Israel’s Kool-Aid. He obviously meant well, but the paradox is that he believes that the United States isn't exempt from dealing with Iran because Israel keeps bragging that it will.

And that encapsulates arguably Israel’s greatest policy folly on the Iran issue: the “Israelization” of the Iran threat. When he was prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu turned Iran into an almost exclusively Israeli issue. Every day was Nazi Germany 1938: If Iran isn’t stopped, the world is in danger and Israel will lead the way, not by appeasement but by resolve.

When you've convinced the world, particularly the United States, that a nuclear Iran is a grave danger, and that the coupling of a messianic, revolutionary theocracy with weapons of mass destruction is a recipe for disaster, you can’t oppose any deal or accommodation addressing that danger. In the end, you’ll remain all alone and no one will pay attention.

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