April 6, 2015 - The Iran nuclear agreement

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This week, Alpher discusses the positive aspects of the agreement announced in Lausanne last week from Israel’s standpoint; Netanyahu's response; what the agreement’s drawbacks are where Israel can make a case for a tougher approach; if the Iran agreement could affect Netanyahu’s coalition calculations; and is Netanyahu more likely now to be pressured by Obama and Kerry on the Palestinian issue.

 

Q. From Israel’s standpoint, what are the positive aspects of the agreement announced in Lausanne last week?

A. Assuming an adequate inspection regime is put in place, for the next ten years Israel can reasonably calculate that Iran will not opt for a “nuclear breakout” and that if it does, Israel will have adequate early warning and powerful allies against Iran. At a broader level, the Lausanne agreement constitutes a step toward nuclear nonproliferation among Israel’s existing and potential enemies.

At a more tentative level, this could prove to be a step toward integrating Iran into the region as a constructive player, depending on what now develops in Iran’s domestic politics and on US readiness to oppose Iranian regional expansion aggressively.

US diplomacy has registered an achievement, demonstrating the advantages of talking even to rogue states like Iran, Cuba and Myanmar, and garnering significant American public support. With a positive Israeli attitude, this could play to its advantage.

 

Q. But PM Netanyahu’s attitude is far from welcoming the Lausanne deal.

A. Netanyahu’s approach places in the same negative basket both the drawbacks of this agreement and the affront it constitutes to his politics.

We’ll start with the politics. The agreement constitutes a setback for the entire Netanyahu/AIPAC/Adelson/Republican-Likud alliance. Most congressional observers agree that the agreement is convincing enough to prevent the emergence of a senate super-majority to override a presidential veto of any effort by Congress to ramp up sanctions. Even Netanyahu’s public comments reflect recognition that Israel will have to live with this agreement.

Accordingly, Netanyahu confronts a dilemma: having failed to stop an agreement that he actually helped bring about by raising the alarm on Israel’s nuclear program, should he continue fighting it along with the congressional Republican majority, or should he accept President Obama’s invitation to engage in close strategic cooperation and try, through constructive consultation, to campaign for a tougher US approach during the next three months of negotiations with Iran and regarding Iran’s behavior in the region in general?

 

Q. What are the agreement’s drawbacks where Israel can make a case for a tougher approach?

A. While the agreement surprised Israeli and other strategic analysts with the depth and detail of the restrictions it places on Iran, Israel can nevertheless make a case for a tougher inspection regime that promises automatic penalties and unambiguous consequences for Iranian refusal to allow access to suspect sites or Iranian obfuscation regarding the nature of alleged violations. Israel can also point to the danger of Iran reverting to its previous military nuclear program the moment a ten or 15-year deadline expires, and ask what counter-provisions the US is prepared to work into a final agreement. Israelis can be forgiven for worrying about that more distant future when there is every likelihood that the current regime with its anti-Israel passion and support for terrorism will still be around when the agreement expires.

In his weekend interview with Tom Friedman, President Obama himself pointed out that Israel’s threat perception regarding Iran legitimately differs from that of the US:

"Now, what you might hear from Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, which I respect, is the notion, ‘Look, Israel is more vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of testing these propositions the way you do,’ and I completely understand that. And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security. But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them."

If he can only restore a relationship of trust and respect with Obama--a tall order, given his insulting behavior--Netanyahu should seize on this statement and ask two key questions. First, why shouldn’t the final nuclear deal with Iran be tailored to Israel’s vulnerabilities rather than just to the sensitivities of the international community? After all, Israel is the country that Iran keeps threatening to destroy. And second, what exactly are those security commitments that you are prepared to give Israel in the event it is attacked? Can Israel receive them before, rather than after, the US-Iran deal? While Netanyahu’s demand last Friday that Iran recognize Israel’s right to exist as a condition for a final nuclear agreement goes beyond the parameters of a nuclear deal (and while it also hints at grudging Israeli acquiescence in the deal), it does understandably refer to the fact that Israel, and Israel alone, has an existential problem with Iran that the US must address more forcefully.

Then there is the issue of Iran’s aggressive and expansionist behavior in “the neighborhood”. Many observers fear that Iran will interpret the nuclear deal with its relaxation of sanctions and promise of greater prosperity as a kind of yellow or even green light to proceed with its hegemonic designs in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and possibly elsewhere. Those designs have already placed Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces on Israel’s northern borders. Given the Obama administration’s unimpressive record dealing with Middle East regional crises--the ill-timed withdrawal from Iraq, the disastrous international offensive to depose Qaddafi in Libya, backing off from the Syria chemical warfare ‘red line’, the Kerry peace effort between Israelis and Palestinians that helped precipitate last summer’s Gaza war--Israel’s concerns, and those of its Sunni Arab neighbors, are very understandable.

Nor are they limited to Iran. Israel needs assurances that a relaxation of sanctions will not mean Russian and Chinese sales to Iran of advanced weaponry like anti-aircraft missiles that could constitute regional strategic “game-changers” and encourage Iranian aggression.

In this context, it is not comforting for Israelis and Saudis to hear Obama tell Friedman that “what’s possible is you start seeing an equilibrium in the region, and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran start saying, ‘Maybe we should lower tensions and focus on the extremists like [ISIS] that would burn down this entire region if they could.’ ” In Israeli, Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian eyes, the Iranians too are extremists: they too are a mortal threat to the region. Obama states that Iran is a potential partner for delivering stability in the region. In the eyes of the Saudis, who aspire to lead the 80 percent of Muslims who are Sunni, “equilibrium” with the 15 percent who are Shiites and who look to Iran for leadership is out of the question. Certainly Netanyahu would be fully justified in asking Obama to clarify his position on this issue and to recognize the validity of Israeli and Sunni Arab concerns regarding Iranian aggression.

 

Q. Could the Iran agreement affect Netanyahu’s coalition calculations?

A. If Netanyahu now recognizes that he must repair relations with the Obama administration and appear in Washington as a more moderate and balanced leader, then appointing Isaac Herzog minister of foreign affairs could be a sound idea. In contrast, with the right-wing coalition Netanyahu appears to have been contemplating until now, that task of reconciliation with Obama will be much harder. For his part, Herzog, despite having committed Labor to lead the opposition, has not slammed the door on this prospect. Over the weekend, prominent Labor MK Eitan Cabel conspicuously posted a statement of support for Netanyahu’s position regarding the Iran agreement. And Netanyahu has thus far closed tentative coalition deals only with the ultra-orthodox, whose sectarian demands Herzog (grandson of a former chief rabbi of Israel) can presumably live with.

 

Q. With or without a more moderate coalition, isn’t Netanyahu more likely now to be pressured by Obama and Kerry on the Palestinian issue? After all, the diplomatic wind is in Washington’s sails. . .

A. One indication that the Iran agreement has catalyzed possible movement on the Palestinian issue came late last week when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reversed himself and agreed to negotiate with Netanyahu (who has not offered) without conditions. Abbas also again endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, which a number of sources have predicted will now be promoted, directly or through proxies, by Washington as an avenue for discussing a two-state solution. Abbas is, wisely from his standpoint, positioning himself as accommodating any new US initiative.

This brings us back to the option of a Likud-Labor unity government. Herzog and Livni would be very useful for Netanyahu in dealing with US and possibly Arab pressure on the Palestinian issue. Yet surely they realize by now that Netanyahu would thwart any genuine move toward progress that threatens to alienate him from his pro-settler base. . .

 

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