July 20, 2015 - The Iran nuclear deal and its aftermath

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This week, Alpher sums up the Iran nuclear deal, discussing additional pros and cons for Israel; the most important criterion for Israel in addressing the Iran nuclear agreement; what should be on the agenda for Israeli-American talks regarding security assurances; and given the discussed rationales for Israel to line up behind the Iran deal, what still concerns him about the deal and its aftermath.

 

Q. Last Monday, you offered criteria for assessing the Iran nuclear deal that was published a day later. Do you have any second thoughts regarding the pros and cons for Israel?

A. Last week I suggested that “at the strategic level our criteria for judging it must be based on an assessment as to which ‘take’ on Iran the agreement ends up verifying: Iran as a factor in regional stability or Iran as an aggressive, terrorist-supporting regional hegemon.” Obviously, the jury is still out regarding such a judgment, and probably will be for years to come. But now the deal is done, and it is almost certain that Congress will not overturn it or that, even if it does, the deal will proceed under Chinese, European and Russian guidance. Accordingly Israel must, for its own strategic good, muster a new set of shorter-term criteria for addressing the Iran nuclear agreement.

Q. What’s the most important criterion?

A. Like it or not, this is a done deal. This is now the only game in town. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s gathering campaign to persuade a two-thirds majority of Congress to scuttle it is wrong-minded and counterproductive for a number of reasons.

First, it was Netanyahu himself who spearheaded the international campaign for sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. The result is, at a minimum, at least 10 years and probably 15 without having to worry about an Iranian nuclear threat. This is a huge strategic achievement. True, the Iranian nuclear program has not been closed down completely and forever. Nevertheless, by opposing this agreement Netanyahu comes out looking like someone who simply can’t take yes for an answer, as if all along he was deceiving the international community. Note in this context the recent comment by UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond: "Israel doesn't want any deal with Iran," but rather "a permanent state of stand-off.”  True or not, this impression in itself is bad for Israel’s international standing.

Second, the odds of scuttling the deal by congressional veto are so poor as to not warrant the effort. Having failed in one controversial congressional appearance to prevent the deal, Netanyahu is about to compound the damage. The result is more unnecessary bad blood between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration.

Third, Israel’s legitimate concern that the deal will blind Washington to Iran’s ongoing violent drive for regional hegemony, reliance on terrorism and threats to destroy Israel was answered eloquently by President Obama in his next-day interview with Tom Friedman: “we are going to have to systematically guard against that and work with our allies--the gulf countries, Israel--to stop the work that they are doing outside of the nuclear program. But the central premise here is that if they got a nuclear weapon, that would be different, and on that score, we have achieved our objective.”

Does Netanyahu fear that the administration won’t follow through on this commitment? Is he, like many in the Middle East, afraid that the hundreds of billions of dollars that will now pour into Iran’s coffers will fuel these Iranian ambitions? These are legitimate concerns. As I write, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is in Israel to discuss precisely such contingencies. Of course it would be preferable to ensure that the Iranian expansion and terror machine did not benefit from this deal. But the deal is a fact that no amount of denial in Jerusalem will change. Hence this is hardly a reason to reject it on its specific merits. Quite the contrary, as a junior strategic partner of the United States, Israel’s best bet now is to accept the deal and enter into in-depth discussions with the US and perhaps the European members of the P5 + 1 (the international coalition that negotiated with Iran) regarding iron-clad assurances as to ways to oppose, together, both Iran’s short-term regional goals and even its long-term, post nuclear freeze designs.

Yet as long as Netanyahu is campaigning against the agreement, he can hardly enter into such talks in good faith. And once he has failed to scuttle the deal, his negotiating position vis-a-vis the administration regarding strategic assurances will be much weaker. He really should now simply declare victory and demand to discuss the spoils.

Q. What should be on the agenda for Israeli-American talks regarding such security assurances?

A. The agenda could focus on the specific weapons systems Israel might need in ten years or more to deal with a nuclear Iran, e.g., long-range stealth bombers, bunker-busting bombs and enhanced intelligence capabilities. And it could focus on security understandings and commitments between the two sides regarding not only Iran but the fragmenting Sunni Middle East. Another option would be to recruit US support and involvement in enhancing Israel’s strategic relations with Arab states that harbor similar concerns about Iran. Note, incidentally, that the latter--particularly Saudi Arabia and the GCC, the countries most directly threatened by Iran--have criticized the Iran deal but have also, unlike Netanyahu, hastened to acquiesce in it and openly seek closer collaboration with the US.

In Israel’s case, the Obama administration has made it clear that it is willing. Obviously, a congressional majority is willing. This could be a rare moment of strategic advantage for Netanyahu in his relations with Washington. The only potential obstacle, beyond Netanyahu’s incredible misreading of the situation and of his options, could be the Palestinian issue. Interestingly, this may be one of the reasons why Netanyahu has apparently placed a freeze on new settlement construction (the other reasons being a desire to head off European sanctions, a confidence-building measure with the Palestinians, and a possible attempt to coax the Zionist Union opposition into the coalition). On the other hand, if Netanyahu ever wanted to request a two-year grace period from the administration regarding negotiations over a two-state solution, now would presumably be the time. As Alex Fishman concluded in Yediot Aharonot last Friday, referring to the Iran nuclear deal and Obama’s offer to upgrade Israel’s security capabilities, “The Americans understand they have complicated our lives, which is why they are prepared to compensate us”.

Q. Given this set of rationales for Israel to line up behind the Iran deal, what personally still concerns you about the deal and its aftermath?

First, leveraging the Iran deal to enhance US-Israel strategic cooperation requires an urgent move by Netanyahu to restore trust and confidence. He could start not only by backing off from challenging the deal in Congress, but by replacing Israel’s ambassador in Washington. Of course, replacing his reactionary right-wing government with a centrist coalition would also be a big help and might conceivably be an option somewhere in the fall after the deal has survived the challenge by Congress.

Right now, on the other hand, Netanyahu actually may persuade opposition leader Isaac Herzog to campaign for him in Washington against the deal. That would be bad for US-Israel relations and bad for Israeli politics.

Second, the infusion of money into the Iranian treasury, taken together with Washington’s eagerness to compensate both Israel and the moderate Sunni Arab states with weaponry, virtually guarantee a frantic new Middle East arms race. No matter how you look at it, that is bad for regional stability.

Third, while Obama has admirably testified to his ongoing suspicions regarding Iran’s regional behavior, the circumstantial evidence seems to be piling up that the US could end up favoring Iran as a strategic partner in the Middle East and even the Central Asian region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran, after all, is stable with ancient roots, with a huge territory and large and well-educated population, while the US no longer needs Gulf oil, Saudi Arabia exports extremism and the rest of the Middle East has been reduced to what Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt calls “the ruins of the Arab world”.

We hear this narrative increasingly from American strategists and columnists. US forces are already tacitly cooperating with Iran’s Quds force in Iraq and Syria. Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya, a keen observer of the Middle East, writes that “From the beginning of his presidency, President Obama looked at Iran, and saw the old Persia beckoning.” On the heels of the agreement, Obama called for a “practical conversation” between Iran and the Arab states--an appeal that fits right into the Iranian agenda wherein talks with the Arabs are the “most important priority” (FM Zarif), particularly to deal with Sunni terrorism. The mullahs in Tehran can be persuaded to choose “a different path”. The problem is that this dynamic ignores the Iranian reality: Shiite terrorism, extremism, and a hegemonic drive, spearheaded precisely by the Quds force, right up to Israel’s doorstep on its northern border and to Jordan’s doorstep and Lebanon’s doorstep.

This points to danger number four. With Iran now feeling triumphant and relatively unfettered regarding its Middle East objectives, the theater to watch is southern Lebanon and southern Syria, where Iran and its proxies might spark an incident to test Israel’s resolve. Or someone else might spark the incident to send a signal regarding the danger posed by Iran in its temporary post-nuclear phase.

Finally, I’m concerned about Washington’s decision-making acumen in the Middle East. Let’s leave the Iran nuclear deal aside, since it’s a done deal and the jury will be out for years. The US has in recent years shown poor judgment in the region repeatedly: backing off from its chemical weapons red line in Syria, supporting intervention in Libya, withdrawing from Iraq, returning to Iraq with too few forces to make a difference against ISIS, renewing two-state solution negotiations between Israel and the PLO based on non-credible premises, and tacitly collaborating with Iran in Iraq and Syria.

Q. To sum up?

A. To sum up, the Iran nuclear deal makes the Middle East a safer place in one extremely important dimension and for a reasonable period of time. If Netanyahu were wise, he would exploit the deal to Israel’s strategic advantage. Meanwhile, in the short term security is liable to deteriorate in other regional dimensions.

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