Israel has been trying for years to frustrate Iran’s efforts to develop a military nuclear capability. We have developed impressive capabilities and carried out stunning operations that undoubtedly helped delay the Iranian project, but the project wasn’t stopped. The Iranians have made progress in enriching uranium, building a plutonium reactor and even developing the weapons system.
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Fortunately for us, Israel’s battle against Iran’s nuclear project is totally different from Israel’s other battles against its enemies. This isn’t a campaign of “Israel versus the Arabs,” it’s Israel and most Arab countries versus Iran, with the participation of the whole West led by the United States and the European Union, and with the limited participation of Russia and China.
Economic and diplomatic pressure spurred Iran in 2015 to sign an agreement with the six great powers (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China). Tehran was forced to give up over 90 percent of the enriched uranium it had stockpiled, and to agree to other severe restrictions and a regime of unprecedented inspection of its facilities.
The agreement, which was limited to 10 to 15 years, wasn’t the best deal possible, but it was, in the opinion of many Israeli defense officials, reasonable. It marked a substantial retreat by Iran; no other step against it had such an effect. Iran was distanced from its declared objective.
Even after the signing of the agreement, Israel had to continue its surveillance efforts, both on its own and in cooperation with other countries, so that the Iranians wouldn’t be able to violate the accord. We should continue doing this. It was also necessary to make clear to Iran – mainly by the United States – that any violation would immediately encounter a grave response.
Benjamin Netanyahu twice opposed the U.S. administration; the first time, he declined the Obama administration’s offer to take part in consultations before the sealing of the agreement and tried to prevent the signing. Netanyahu even spoke in Congress against the accord, but Congress rejected his request, as expected, and the agreement was signed.
The second time, Netanyahu worked with the Trump administration to get Washington to change its mind about the signing. Here he succeeded; Donald Trump took the United States out of the agreement.
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Netanyahu identified the gravity of the Iranian threat and was very preoccupied with it, but he erred twice; once when he missed the chance to influence the accord and failed to prevent its signing, and when he convinced Trump to abandon the agreement without crafting a different policy to halt Iran’s progress.
The cancellation (in effect, violation) of the agreement by the United States was detrimental rather than beneficial to Israel. By leaving, Trump basically released Iran from its commitments. In fact, since abandoning the deal, the Americans have put heavy pressure on Iran, which didn’t surrender to the sanctions regime and has made progress with its nuclear program. After the steps by Netanyahu and Trump, Iran is closer to a military nuclear capability than it was after the signing in 2015.
The Biden administration intends to talk with Iran on improving the nuclear agreement and wants to discuss the issue with Israel, too. Netanyahu and his emissaries declared that there would be no commitment to such an agreement. That’s a serious mistake, and the new government should reconsider the issue.
Israel has a clear interest in stopping Iran’s progress to a military nuclear capability, and we’re also interested in the post-2025 period (10 years after the signing). We have an interest in halting Iran’s missile project (which is not included in the nuclear deal). We have an interest in stopping Iran’s military penetration of Syria. We have an interest in restraining Hezbollah.
All these issues, which are very important for our security, must be brought up in talks with the United States so that they will be addressed during the negotiations with Iran in a way that serves our interests.
We weren’t asked to stop what we were doing on our own to delay Iran’s project. We must continue to do what is possible and effective, but it’s also possible and right to talk. The policy of “we’ll do everything only on our own” is foolish and dangerous. First, if an agreement is signed with Iran by the United States and the other powers, Israel won’t be able to act with force as if there were no agreement.
Second, instead of exploiting the unique situation in which we have shared interests with the Arab countries, the United States, the EU and all the others against Iran, we’re likely to miss an important opportunity to influence the agreement in a way that takes our interests into account. It won’t be good if all the others sign a deal that extricates Iran from its isolation and isolates Israel.
The United States is a friendly country headed by a friendly president. This time we have to work with it rather than against it. Israel is a strong country. If there is no choice – and if we have the capability – sometimes we will have to act alone. Still, the large and rare coalition headed by the United States can achieve far more. We must not miss this opportunity; it is crucial for our security.