Israel's 'Maximum Pressure' Failed in Gaza. Why Would It Work in Iran?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Representatives of the six powers and Iran at the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna, on Monday.
Representatives of the six powers and Iran at the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna, on Monday.Credit: EU Delegation in Vienna / Reuters

In its intense campaign against talks with Iran, Israel is presenting the need to continue with harsh sanctions and to oppose “Iranian blackmail” as a vital, effective means of forcing Iran to pull back from its nuclear program.

This has been a constant Israeli strategy, automatic and by now outdated. The interesting aspect of this strategy is its internal contradiction. The demand for sanctions recognizes Iran as a rational state, driven by cost-benefit considerations. According to this conception, the economic crisis it is mired in, its (incomplete) isolation in the world, the internal fury and frustration that threatens the regime’s stability and even its survival, are the factors supposed to bring Iran back to the original accord and ensure it will not develop a nuclear bomb. But the demand for sanctions contradicts Israel’s mistrust of the original accord and its ability to block Iran’s nuclear designs. If that is the case, how will sanctions help, and how have they helped thus far?

Sanctions on their own have not changed Iran’s policies. The country has been under a sanctions regime for over 40 years. Even the “maximal pressure” applied by Donald Trump effected no change. Iran signed the original nuclear accord with Barack Obama in 2015 because it found in him a partner who was willing to understand its concerns and agree to a version that addressed Iran’s needs. Iran adhered to the accord even when Trump was elected president, and waited a year after he withdrew from the accord before beginning to publicly flout it. Even so, it never said it was withdrawing from the agreement.

The election of Joe Biden and his determination to return to the nuclear accord provided Iran the opportunity to go back to the negotiating table. Is it now trying to buy time so it can continue to enrich uranium and build a bomb? The assumption in Israel is that this is indeed its intention. If so, why would Iran resume negotiations? Is it worried about its reputation, lest the international community blame it for violating the accord, providing the justification for a military assault on it?

This interpretation doesn’t only contradict the conception by which Iran is a rational state, it ignores the fact that a military assault requires taking into account the expected responses of Russia and China, Iran’s allies. Moreover, Israel’s efforts at persuading the United States to continue with its sanctions is based on the recognition that Biden does not intend to be a partner to a military assault. Thus, the Israeli argument that Iran is a nuclear threshold state, requiring an immediate military response without waiting for a bomb to be displayed in some military parade, does not jibe with the demand for sanctions or with reality.

Israel should have internalized this lesson a long time ago, since for 14 years it has been conducting a hopeless miniature version of applying “maximum pressure” in the Gaza Strip. The rationale for imposing a suffocating blockade on Gaza has changed over the years, but in principle, the blockade was meant to prevent Hamas from threatening Israel militarily, to stop its armament and even to generate a revolution in which an impoverished, frustrated and desperate public toppled it.

In contrast to the conflict with Iran, Israel has on endless occasions brutally exercised its “military option.” And the result? Israel, with its Arab partners, is trying to reach a long-term agreement with Hamas, which will include the lifting of sanctions, providing assistance in economic rehabilitation and the building of an infrastructure that would motivate Hamas to hold its fire.

Such an agreement, Israel understands, will not grant it recognition by Hamas nor change its ideology nor lead to its disarmament. This is the kind of accord the powers are trying to reach with Iran, only with a bonus – a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments