Between the Iran Nuclear Deal and Pharaoh’s Dream

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after the IAEA verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal, in Vienna, January 16, 2016.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after the IAEA verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal, in Vienna, January 16, 2016.Credit: Reuters

July 14 was the first anniversary of the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, and in the analyses of the pact, the biggest headlines naturally went to the Defense Ministry’s comparison of the deal with the Munich agreement (and to the ministry’s clarification afterward). I’d like to offer a different comparison that might be helpful: The biblical story of Pharaoh’s dream.

In this story (Genesis 41), Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt, dreams two dreams with the same message. First he sees seven cows, or ears of corn, that are beautiful and healthy, but both times they are followed by seven ugly, emaciated ones. Joseph’s interpretation of the dream was that it represents seven years of abundance and plenty for Egypt, followed by seven years of famine.

The nuclear agreement with Iran contains a similar divide. Its early years are good ones, in which Iran reduces its stockpile of enriched uranium and enrichment equipment, and slows its industrial production of these components in a manner far more effective than any other means of achieving these goals. But in the following years, Iran will be able to legitimately build large-scale nuclear capabilities that would enable it to realize a military nuclear option within a relatively short time of deciding to do so.

Thus, over the long term the achievements of the “good years” appear in a less positive light: “And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:30).

There’s something else we can learn from the Biblical story. The heart of Joseph’s success wasn’t just in interpreting the dream – that is, in assessing the situation – but in translating it into a policy and plan of action that made use of the period of plenty to prepare for the years of famine: “And take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years” (Genesis 41:34). Similarly, the value of the nuclear agreement and its long-term significance will depend primarily on how “the good years” are used to prepare for the following years.

Israel would be wise to use the agreement’s early years to improve the conditions it will face later on, while also mobilizing its friends and those who share its interests. It should seek to build an international intelligence-alert system against regional nuclearization; to build up its capabilities for both covert and military action that might be needed in the future; to prepare for scenarios of either continuity (observance of the agreement) or disruption (its violation or collapse); to shore up its strategic relationships and mutual understandings with its most important ally as well as with its regional partners; and to create more convenient diplomatic and security conditions. All this should be done while the Iranian nuclear/strategic constraint is still years away and the overall security environment is relatively convenient.

Finally, it should be noted that the signing of the nuclear agreement doesn’t end the conversation between the international community and Iran. Negotiations are going on, and will continue, over the way the agreement is fulfilled and what Iran will receive in exchange, as well as on rules of behavior in other areas, such as terrorism, subversion, missiles and accepted international financial norms.

Given this outlook, it would also be wise to conduct an ongoing situation assessment with our partners about Iran, including its nuclearization and the other threats it poses, and, as the turning point in the agreement’s cost-benefit balance approaches, to prepare to reopen the discussion. At that point, the benefits of the early, “fat” years will already be stored in our granaries, and our capabilities for handling what comes next will be better than in the past.

The author, a reserve brigadier general, was head of strategic planning in the IDF Planning Directorate, and is now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

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