Half-measures With Iran Will Mean More Isolation for Israel

A final deal - good for Israel and good for the world - would have to cover all of Iran’s key nuclear capabilities.

Emily B. Landau
Emily B. Landau
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Emily B. Landau
Emily B. Landau

Something has gone terribly wrong with the decade-long process of trying to curb Iran’s military ambitions. The best indication of this, as the next round of nuclear negotiations with Iran begins, the first since Hassan Rohani became president, is the fact that we have to pose the question: “What would be a good deal for Israel?”

This is because the goals of Israel and the international community should be identical, namely: To get Iran to back down from its military nuclear program and ambitions. There is therefore no apparent reason why Israel’s goals should not coincide with those of the international community. However, as Iran has moved closer to a military nuclear capability, and it has become apparent that in order to stop Iran stronger sanctions and threats of military force may be required, a gap has opened and it could be widening.

Because the United States and Europe do not want to reach the critical juncture of having to decide on military action, they have a very keen interest in continuing with diplomacy. While the Obama administration remains committed to stopping Iran, in the broader media debate, one increasingly hears that the world can afford to live with a nuclear Iran.

Complicating matters is Rohani’s recent offer at the UN of possibly improved U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations. With a so-called moderate Iranian leader – although we have yet to see any indication of his moderation in the nuclear realm – it may be even harder to garner the necessary international conviction to insist on a deal that effectively reverses Iran’s program. Rohani has pushed the bilateral issue to the forefront in order to raise the stakes surrounding a possible nuclear deal. And not surprisingly, some experts are now saying that the most important thing is not to squander the prospect of a deal with the new Iranian president. Even though Secretary of State John Kerry has said that a bad deal is worse than no deal, there is a question of what the U.S. would regard as a bad deal. In this new framing of the negotiations, Prime Minister Netanyahu – with his nuclear warnings – is depicted by pundits as the one out of step with the international community, rather than Iran.

In fact, the substantive points raised by Netanyahu in his UN speech regarding Iran’s nuclear program and Rohani’s past negotiating tactics, are indeed solid. Israel wants to ensure that Iran does not reach the point where the decision to develop nuclear weapons can be done at a time of its choosing. The United States remains focused on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but over the past few weeks it has been difficult to assess where the administration might draw the line in negotiations.

Will the U.S. allow uranium enrichment in Iran? U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice in late September said no. Will it be willing to lift sanctions? Officials have said that nothing significant will be lifted without significant steps by the Iranians. But what does that mean? The administration must be aware that if certain key capabilities remain in Iran’s hands, it will be able to move to a bomb in a manner that the United States will not be able to prevent.

Iran is going to focus on giving up the absolute minimum that it can get away with on its nuclear program, while gaining maximum sanctions relief. As Iran has been building up and diversifying its nuclear program over the past decade, it has also been creating cards to play in future negotiations, when it might have to display more flexibility – like right now. The possibility of halting its 20 percent enrichment - the highest level of enrichment it has acknowledged - is one such card. In light of the new generation of centrifuges that Iran has already installed and readied for testing in the enrichment facility at Natanz, it can afford to give some ground on the 20 percent issue.

A final deal – good for Israel and good for the world – would have to cover all of Iran’s key nuclear capabilities, which must either be stopped or subjected to highly intrusive inspections, because Iran cannot be trusted. Once Iran was found to be cheating on the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it lost its “inalienable right” to enrich uranium. If Iran is nevertheless allowed to maintain a very limited enrichment program, it will have to be constantly monitored; moreover, there is no reason to allow Iran to operate advanced centrifuges.

Similarly, Iran must not be allowed to engage in enrichment to 20 percent for which it has no plausible civilian explanation, and stockpiles should be removed. And Iran’s activities at the heavy water facility at Arak must be halted. Finally, Iran must clear up all questions regarding past nuclear activities – Rohani has said that Iran never conducted a military nuclear program, which is simply untrue according to the intelligence assessments of many states.

Anything short of this would be only a partial deal. The catch is that if sanctions were lifted for partial gains, Iran would lose any incentive to continue discussing a final deal. All of this, however, will most likely not be tested in the upcoming talks. Indeed, the most likely outcome of the current round is setting a date for the next round, where the parties will pledge to discuss proposals in-depth. Been there, done that.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).  

A part of Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak.Credit: AP