Good, Bad or No Deal: Where Iran Nuclear Talks Leave Israel

Despite Susan Rice’s trip to Israel, Israel is watching from the sidelines during the next round of talks, hoping that the Americans won’t concede too much too soon to the Iranians.

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EU chief Ashton and Iran FM Zarif in Vienna for nuclear talks, April 8, 2014.
EU chief Ashton and Iran FM Zarif in Vienna for nuclear talks, April 8, 2014.Credit: AP
Emily B. Landau
Emily B. Landau

As negotiations continue between the P5+1 and Iran over a comprehensive nuclear deal, Israel remains in ‘wait and see’ mode.

During this week’s round, the parties are due to begin drafting the text of a final deal. U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s visit to Israel last week signaled the U.S. administration’s belief that this round warrants more high-level deliberations with Israel.

According to their public positions, the P5+1 and Iran are still far apart on key substantive issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but behind the scenes they may be getting closer. Israel surely used the meeting with Rice and her delegation to do the only thing it can do at this point: To attempt to convince the Americans not to concede to the Iranians critical issues that will enable Iran to retain a relatively quick breakout to nuclear weapons.

The most probable near-term outcome of the talks is neither a good deal (one that indicates Iran has backed away from its military ambitions), nor – at this stage – a quick move by Iran to upgrade to being a nuclear-armed state, without any deal.

There are three possible scenarios that inhabit the ground between the extremes of a ‘good’ deal, and one where Iran breaks out militarily: 

• A mutually agreed-upon extension of the negotiations for another six months after the July 20th deadline.

• An announcement by the P5+1 on July 20th that Iran is not cooperating and/or moving toward an acceptable deal, and that they will implement harsher sanctions.

• A deal with Iran that falls somewhere between ‘mediocre’ and ‘bad,’ enabling Iran to move relatively quickly to a military nuclear capability.

The first two scenarios would keep Israel in its current ‘wait and see’ mode, as the dynamic would remain squarely in the P5+1 court. In the third scenario, with Iran being enabled to advance towards military nuclearization, Israel would have to decide whether to live with the inherent uncertainty and instability of such a deal, or to take military action. But even if Israel believed that use of military force could affect a change, it would be constrained from doing so because the U.S. would have just given its blessing to the deal, however bad. Israel would be unlikely to act in direct opposition to the U.S.

It’s worth considering the consequences of the two less likely scenarios: Iran moving quickly to the bomb, or, conversely, a ‘good deal’ with Iran.

If Iran were able to opt-out of the negotiations and quickly move to a nuclear weapon unstopped, this would confirm Israel’s worst fears. This scenario is no doubt a major concern for the longer-term if the P5+1 make the historic mistake of agreeing to a ‘bad’ deal with Iran. But for the coming months it is unlikely. A nuclear Iran would elicit an Israeli review of its own deterrent policy, especially nuclear ambiguity, but Israel could very well decide to continue to rely on its low profile, but robust, strategic deterrence against existential threats. If Iran were to issue direct threats to Israel, this could force Israel out of ambiguity, and spark a dangerous rhetorical exchange.

Israel’s true challenge in this scenario would be finding channels of communication with Iran in order to begin reducing tensions and stabilizing relations. But Israel would also be faced with the challenge of conducting its entire security policy – for example, in the case of hostilities with a neighboring country – but with the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran on the sidelines. Dealing with this radically new situation could prove more challenging than deterring a direct nuclear strike.

Finally, there is the scenario of a ‘good’ deal with Iran. The advantages of such a deal are obvious, but it there is an implicit challenge to Israel even in this case. President Obama has in the past given his backing to a nuclear-free-world agenda. If ‘global zero’ remains a viable goal, demands for Israel to join the NPT following a deal with Iran could clearly gain traction. But how likely is this really?

Several years ago it might have seemed a more imminent concern. But judging from his current positions, Obama has loosened his commitment to that ‘global zero’, universal denuclearization, agenda. Indeed, it has become apparent how difficult it will be to implement this agenda, and the other nuclear states have not run to actively support Obama’s stated goal.

Moreover, Russian action in Crimea starkly underscored for Ukraine (as well as for active proliferators) the downside of giving up nuclear weapons. Within the United States as well, the imperative for maintaining strategic stability (through effective nuclear deterrence) has reentered the internal nuclear debate – vis-à-vis both Russia and China. Obama himself has an expensive plan for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Finally, Congress is no closer to ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) than it was five years ago, when this was targeted by the president as a key disarmament goal.

In view of the scenarios that could emerge from this round of talk, what should Israel do? Israel could make progress regarding the Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) conference idea, which was included in the 2010 NPT Review Conference’s final document. Israel has cooperated over the past year in preliminary discussions aimed at carving out an agenda for this conference. Significantly, Israel’s conception of this process - one that requires a vast improvement in regional relations as well as proven compliance on the part of Syria, Iran and others with their non-proliferation commitments - has gained traction among the conference conveners.

Now would be an opportune moment for Israel to put forward its own proposal for setting up a regional security dialogue forum in the Middle East as a sign of its commitment to these goals. Rather than being in the position of reacting – usually negatively – to the proposals of others in the region, Israel should consider being proactive, in accordance with its interests. If Israel’s initiative is stonewalled by other states, then that would be a clear and public indication of how committed those rejectionists really are to improving inter-state relations in the Middle East.  

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). Follow her on Twitter.

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