Just two years ago, Israel was in an uproar over the nuclear deal with Iran. It was termed a serious threat to Israel’s security, an American surrender, proof of President Brack Obama’s irresolute and unreliable character, a historic error. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu risked a severe rift with the president and divided U.S. Jews and other supporters of Israel when he stood up to the president in Congress, in a heroic battle to save his nation.
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A small riot recently erupted in Washington, when the deal’s second anniversary happened to coincide with President Donald Trump’s decision to certify, for a second time, that Iran remains in compliance and therefore to renew the deal for a further three months, until the next periodic review. The president’s certification was given with great reluctance, under heavy pressure from advisers and cabinet secretaries, and he stressed that he does not wish to have to do so once again.
In Israel, conversely, the second anniversary passed with a gaping yawn. Netanyahu, his defense minister and heads of the defense establishment all remained silent, a nonevent, even before the recent disturbances on the Temple Mount broke out. Two factors can explain this surprising silence. First, the defense establishment, unlike the political leaders, considers the nuclear deal to be a positive and stabilizing factor, what the army chief of staff called a “strategic turning point” that serves Israel’s strategic interests. Netanyahu and his ministers will not admit that they were wrong, of course, and that they led Israel to an unnecessary confrontation with the United States. Second, it is abundantly clear today that there are no better alternatives, especially at a time when an incompetent and rash president, who is unfamiliar with the details of this complex issue, is in office. Under these circumstances, the agreement has come to constitute an insurance policy to be extended.
The battle to prevent Iran from going nuclear and from expanding its regional influence will be long-term. It will require a multiyear, even decades-long effort, and we have must be prepared for this, both emotionally and strategically. Despite its flaws, the nuclear agreement provides the basis for a coordinated Israeli policy, on three levels.
First, it is essential that an ongoing effort be made to ensure that Iran remains in full compliance with the agreement and, as a precondition for this, that the president abandon any intention of abrogating it of his own accord and continues to adhere to it both in letter and spirit. Israel can play an important role in persuading the president.
Second, it is essential that understandings be reached between Israel and the administration, and between the administration and the other co-signatories to the agreement, regarding those Iranian actions that would be held to constitute violations of the agreement, along with the measures to be adopted in response. Understandings must also be reached with the United States, and through it with the other co-signatories, regarding the measures to be taken to ensure that Iran can never cross the nuclear threshold, even once the agreement expires.
It is doubtful that the Trump administration, mired in internal scandals, is capable of such long-term thinking. Israel, too, does not excel at long-term planning and is similarly preoccupied with its domestic difficulties, but it must do its utmost to promote an in-depth strategic dialogue with the United States about this.
Finally, a concerted effort must be made to contain Iran’s regional influence, including its expanding presence on Israel’s northern border and its growing missile arsenal. Opponents of the deal stress that it does not prevent these developments. True. The deal wisely focused solely on the nuclear issue, the foremost threat Iran poses. The hiatus gained on the nuclear issue, however, even if temporary, provides the basis for a U.S.-led international effort to contain Iran, provided that the administration formulates a coherent policy toward it. Here, too, there is room for an important Israeli contribution.
What are the alternatives?
One possibility is to carry out Trump’s promise to “rip the deal to shreds” and ostensibly realize Netanyahu’s fondest dreams. The problem is that Iran is in compliance with the agreement and its abrogation will lead not just to a crisis with it, including the danger that Iran will respond by renewing its nuclear program and even crossing the nuclear threshold, but also with the other partners to the agreement, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, with have made their opposition to this clear. The United States would be isolated.
A second possibility is to reopen the deal and introduce various improvements, as Netanyahu has suggested. The problem is that there are simply no partners for this option and it is entirely unfeasible.
Washington, surprisingly, is toying once again with the idea of regime change, itself an appropriate goal and not a new one, the beliefs of some members of the new administration notwithstanding; it has been U.S. policy since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Here, too, there is a small problem: No one knows how to do it, despite a considerable investment of thought and resources in the United States and elsewhere. Regime change will happen, if at all, from within.
A targeted military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites also remains an option. The problem is that Iran has the know-how to reconstitute the program after an attack, and only a few years would be gained. The nuclear deal gains far more time; as long as Iran remains in compliance, a military strike is pointless. Moreover, it would likely encourage Iran to end compliance unilaterally and rapidly seek nuclear capability.
Thus, a realistic assessment indicates that the nuclear deal remains the best of several bad options. Politics, as we know, is about what can be achieved, not only about what we want. Netanyahu repeatedly sets goals that may be desirable but are unattainable, as in his handling of the nuclear deal, negotiations with the Palestinians, the rounds with Hamas and the recent decisions to install, and then remove, metal detectors at the Temple Mount. It is to be hoped that at least in regard to Iran, he will adopt a different approach.
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.