Iran isn’t going to rush to get nuclear military capability, but is instead “sneaking” toward that goal, said a leading expert on the history of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. “Iran is not going to have a breakout, they are sneaking toward the bomb, cutting the distance slice by slice,” said Avner Cohen, professor of nonproliferation and terrorism studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Cohen spoke at a panel discussion on Iran’s nuclear program during Sunday’s Haaretz-UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center national security conference.
Cohen also addressed Israel’s fear of losing the nuclear monopoly it has had in the Middle East for many years. He explained that “this monopoly is terribly important for Israel’s place in the Middle East, and losing it would undermine Israel’s position in the region significantly.” He said that this view was shared by every Israeli prime minister in recent decades, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Sima Shine, the head of the Iran program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that Israel is viewing the renewal of nuclear talks with Iran later this month with great concern. “Israel is quite worried by the idea of just going back to the old agreement from 2015,” she explained. “Israel views the American administration as eager to just go back to that agreement, but Israel is concerned that eventually, America will give Iran more for less – more sanction relief for less restrictions than previously on the nuclear program.” She added that Israel also wants to know how long the agreement will remain in place, “will it be a longer and stronger agreement, as President [Joe] Biden has stated, or something short with a sunset clause.”
Israel’s assessment, Shine said, is that Iran is mostly trying to buy time and improve its leverage, and is not truly interested in a comprehensive agreement. One positive development she mentioned, however, is that the new government in Israel led by Bennett “has decided to engage the Americans and have a dialogue,” without the confrontational approach of the Netanyahu years.
Amos Harel, Haaretz’s senior national security analyst, said that much of the current conundrum is a result of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in 2018, which gave Iran an excuse to speed its advancement toward military capability. That step was encouraged at the time by Netanyahu, and Harel said that the two former leader have a legacy of failure on the Iranian issue.
“History will judge Netanyahu quite harshly on the Iran portfolio,” Harel said. “Netanyahu applied pressure on Trump to withdraw in 2018, the Iranians began to breach the agreement, and finally they moved forward with enrichment. The end result of that is that we are in a much more dangerous situation now than we were a year or two ago.”
Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Studies, said that the new government in Iran, elected earlier this year, is “certainly more hardline than the previous one, and is eager to show that they can get more in the negotiations. The supreme leader still makes the final decision, but it’s clear that they want sanction relief, yet they are taking their time.
“They took many months to return to negotiations. They are not rushing into it, and they’re going to want some new things, which will make it difficult. They want a guarantee that no future U.S. administration will leave the deal like Trump did, which is going to be hard to guarantee in a democracy.” She added that in Iran’s internal discourse, the discussion is not of a “nuclear deal” but rather a “sanction relief deal.”
The conference on Israeli national security is a joint project of Haaretz English Edition and the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. The full conference can be viewed online here.