Nuanced views of Iran deal, in Yediot Ahronoth

Positive Energy

By Ariela Ringel Hoffman
Published July 17, 2015, in Yediot Ahronoth (Hebrew edition), translation by Israel News Today (INT)

The reactions were as expected: at press conferences brimming with satisfaction in the six signatory countries, particularly in the US, which spearheaded the effort, the agreement that was signed with Iran was dubbed “historic,” in the Iranian Republic people danced in the streets, made the V sign, sung songs of praise to “dear Zarif and beloved Rouhani,” while in Israel, one after the other, top officials from the security establishment faced the microphones to explain how bad the agreement is, how great the danger.

However, it turns out that there are a number of Israeli experts who think otherwise and who are also willing to say so. They are aware of the weak points of the agreement, the negative developments that it enables, but on the other hand, they point out the advantages of the new situation that has been created and the potential for positive change.

A, a former senior official in Israel’s security establishment, sees no cause for panic. “This isn’t the Holocaust. And for those who’ve forgotten, it’s important to mention: Israel is not exactly a leaf that is blown by every passing breeze. It’s no secret,” he says, “that the State of Israel has been investing, billions, for many years, in an effort to have a response to the Iranian threat, including a nuclear threat, but not just a nuclear threat. This is reflected in acquiring the necessary means, in training, and in preparations. And none of that has been lost even after the agreement was signed.”

H., a very senior official in Israel’s intelligence community, also thinks that considering the alternatives, “the agreement improved Israel’s situation.”

Q: To that degree?

 “Yes. True, the agreement’s main test is in how it is implemented throughout the years, and mainly in the degree of supervision, but you have to remember that Iran was a few months away from nuclear capability [before the agreement]. The agreement bought us time. Ten or 15 years in the Middle East is an eternity. So if I assume that it is in the world powers’ interest to be strict about supervision, mainly so as not to endanger their public standing and credit, then this is the first time since the revolution that the conservatives have been forced to make open concessions to the West, mainly to the ‘great Satan,’ the United States, which shows the Iranian people the limits of the radicals’ power.

 “So while it’s true that the Iranians have a history of duplicity, and while it’s true that they have 24 days to approve an inspection and the entire mechanism is clumsy and complicated—with today’s technology, you can no longer hide your tracks. There were cases when they were forced to raze thousands of tons of dirt to hide evidence of radioactive material, and even so, incriminating signs were left. That said, if a country wants to conceal things, it can, at least for a certain length of time, so the real question is if it is in their interest to cheat.”

Q: Is it?

 “I don’t think so. Certainly not when compared to the alternatives.”

Q: The agreement’s detractors are troubled by the sanctions being lifted, by the billions that will stream back to Iran, money that will go to terror organizations.

 "I don’t ignore that. Iran has, is, and apparently will continue  to deal in subversion, and Israel’s concerns about the agreement in everything related to stability in the Middle East are understandable and in place, and Iran does indeed emerge economically and politically stronger from the agreement. But that is not necessarily related to the nuclear issue, where the situation is better than before the agreement was signed.

 “There will now be a period of  ten years to promote changes, and to all those reciting the same refrain and creating unnecessary hysteria, I suggest that they not panic. Israel is not on its own. Israel is the one that revealed the nuclear program, it is the one that put the subject on the international agenda long before the world powers realized what was going on in Iran, it caused delays in the process and also pushed for the sanctions, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had an important role in this. Now that the agreement is a fact, Israel has to play an active role in upholding it, and mainly, it must rehabilitate its relationship with the main player in the agreement, with the Americans.”

Not Perfect, the Lesser Evil

Prof. Uri Bar Joseph, a lecturer at the international relations department at the School of Political Science at Haifa University whose area of specialty is national security, intelligence and the Israeli-Arab conflict, shares this view. “It’s lucky that Israel can no longer use the military option,” he says, “even though I don’t believe that anybody here is even thinking seriously about this option,  despite the decision-makers telling us that Israel reserves the right to respond.”

He does not think that there is an attempt to silence other voices, voices that also see the half full glass, “but yes, there is definitely a consensus. This includes the determined leader Yitzhak Herzog, it includes Yair Lapid. We’ve been in similar situations before. On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, for example, when 98% of the Israeli population was certain that we must not give up Sinai. Later, after the war and after the high price we paid in blood, we gave it all back. The situation is similar today.”

Q: And yet,  this agreement preserves the nuclear threshold abilities of a country that has declared, several times, its intent to destroy Israel.

“True. That is the first weakness of the agreement, it does not prevent, in practice, Iranian progress toward nuclear capability. And if Iran decides that it is advancing toward a bomb, it can do that. The second thing, which is even more problematic, has to do with the supervision mechanism, mainly to the fact that the Iranian have the right to object to audits, and further more, they can delay an inspection for 24 days. Indeed, this is not a perfect agreement.”

Q: And even so, it’s a good agreement for the West?

“Not just for the West, this is a global agreement of the P5+1 and it is in all of their interests to stabilize the Middle East. In contrast to the perception of the Cold War, when instability in the Middle East was good for the world powers, mainly for the Soviet Union, today Russia also does not want a nuclear arms race on its southern border and the only thing the Chinese care about is business. And all this corresponds to Israel’s interests.”

Q: Which is mainly troubled by the nuclear issue.

“True. And the international community also realizes that an Iran with nuclear weapons is less restrained than an Iran without nuclear weapons, just like Iran realizes this. And that is why the Iranian insisted so much on this specific issue, particularly after they saw what the West did to Saddam Hussein, who had no way to deter the forces of the alliance.

“It could be that tomorrow we’ll say oh my God, Netanyahu was right, this is the Munich agreement, and just as Churchill said ‘Between shame and war, we have chosen shame, and we will get war.’ But it is just as likely that there will be a positive dynamic. Not everyone is Hitler and not everyone is Nazi Germany. The agreement could strengthen the conservative forces in Iran, but it could, to the same degree, remove their control of the country because of the economic improvement, and if Iran’s situation improves, maybe there’s a chance that the Iranian phobia about the West attempting to topple the ayatollah regime—a phobia that has good grounds—will somewhat relax.”

Q: That’s the lesser evil?

“That’s the conclusion. Iran is very close to having nuclear capability within a short time, and the military option means never-ending confrontation, which will endanger our existence  on the day that Iran has nuclear capability, despite everything. I do not make light of Israeli capabilities, but we too are very vulnerable. Iran is a proud culture, and past experience, for example, in the Iran-Iraq war, teaches us that they are willing to pay a very high price, even hundreds of thousands of fatalities, to strike those who hit them.”

Q: Uzi Arad suggested a state commission of inquiry to examine how we reached this situation.

“Will it also examine what he did, as Netanyahu’s adviser? After all, they were a very close couple until not that long ago. There is contention that Israel’s transition from adopting a policy of restraint to adopting a public policy undermined American freedom of action and forced the Americans to reach an agreement earlier than they had planned. So instead  of the sanctions having an accumulative effect and forcing the Iranians to beg for an agreement, the Americans initiated  this, and it could be that this policy truly did expedite the agreement and worsened relations [between  Israel and the US]. This policy needs to be examined, even if there is no need to form a commission of inquiry.

“What troubles me is the question of why Israel’s best brains don’t think that there are also ways to resolve the situation without letting the IDF win or expecting the Americans to do the job. And why is every claim that there are also positive sides to the agreement and that it is better than the other options, perceived as left wing prattle?” 

Opportunity for an Alliance

What worries Dr. Soli Shahvar, who is the director of the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Haifa University, is the anti-Israel line that Iran has adopted for 36 years with no change.

“And now,” he says, “the agreement has upgraded Iran’s standing in the Arab world and has created a situation in which it will have more ways to fund and support terror activity.

“However, from the moment that Israel could not longer stop the agreement, we have to look at what it does provide: it reduces the number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000, it reduces nuclear waste from 6,000 kilograms to 300, and it provides for supervision that did not exist before. Another positive aspect is that as a result of the agreement, Iranian isolation will weaken. The world will open up to Iran, Iran will open up to the world and 80 million Iranians who expect change will not be silent if the oppression, the abuse and the corruption continue.  Israel’s best friend against Iran is the Iranian people, who realize that Israel is not their problem, and  this is what the Obama administration was aiming for: an agreement that would  also obligate the regime to move forward.

“Iran will become a regional power, but this agreement also gives an opportunity for the moderate countries—Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—to form a counter bloc. This is a very serious opportunity for Israel to turn the periphery countries around, to forge an alliance with the Arab center to block Iran, after making an agreement with the Palestinians, of course. This will also encourage cooperation with the Persian Gulf countries.

Dr. Raz Zimmt, a lecturer at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, is a member of regional think tank, “a forum of Middle East experts who think that the Israeli discourse is unilateral and that the Israeli public does not know the more complex picture of reality.” He says that the agreement’s weakness is indeed ‘due to the fact that it leaves Iran with a nuclear infrastructure, but we have to examine it in light of reality.

“In an ideal world, it would have been demanded of Iran that it dismantle all of its capabilities, but that is not realistic. The military option is also no longer realistic, and in any case, it is agreed that it would not succeed in keeping Iran from having nuclear capability except for a number of years, but would greatly strengthen Iranian motivation. Even intensifying the crippling sanctions is no longer realistic and ignores the fact that the sanctions also depend on China,  Russia and on India, and they could not continue to be effective in light of their economic interests. So what’s left? An agreement that will improve the situation of the Iranian citizens, improves Iran’s standing in the world, and could turn out to be a two-edged sword for the regime. Opening an American embassy in Iran could lead to a queue of thousands of Iranians trying to get a visa.

 “I understand  the Israelis’ concerns, I don’t much accept its Pavlovian response. It would have been nice if Israel’s demands had been accepted, but Israel took an unrealistic position, and this  ship has sailed. And in the meantime, what is happening is that Israel, in its sincere and understandable attempts to ruin the agreement, is badly hurting American interests.”

Dr. Eldad Pardo, a lecturer at Hebrew University, a specialist on Iran, who heads the Impact-SA Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, has just finished a large study on the subject of Iranian textbooks. “They contain some things that are worrying, for example, Iran’s imperial dreams, a return to the Persian Empire of Cyrus, or they depict Iran as the leader of the oppressed, as the leader of the Muslims and as the leader of the entire world. The wish and the need for respect also emerges from them, and since they live in a world in which fantasy has a respectable place, children learn to talk to and hear God, just the same as the leader.”

Q: And how is that related to the agreement?

“Now there is a binding agreement and there is supervision and  there is somebody that is taking an Iran that is chaotic, both emotionally and organizationally, and is regimenting it.”

Q: So is the agreement “good for the Jews?”

“On the one hand, I am troubled by the claim that the Iranians view this as a temporary agreement, as a kind of admission of the fact that ‘at the moment, we are weak, but in another 15-20 years, we will continue our battle.’ On the other hand, Khamenei will not live another 15-20  years. On the third hand, they are involved up to their necks in local revolutions in many countries, and if they have more money, that will be easier, but on the fourth hand—they are holding a dialogue with six world powers in whose clear interest it is to quell Iranian terror. Furthermore, the agreement has to get through the American Congress and by then, its details will be reported at greater length and all the experts, Americans and others, will be able to read them, go over them, and if it emerges that there are major problems in the agreement, they will come to the fore. And Iran will also have to toe the line.

“The bottom line is that it is impossible to predict and say that this is a negative event that will have negative consequences, and vice versa. Obama’s great hope, which is shared by people in Iran, is that merely opening up to the world will bring about far-reaching changes.  As Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam from Tehran University said: there can be no economic changes without their also leading to structural changes, to a free market, and along with it, a freer discourse. And what we have to ensure is not to let the conservative elements, inside and outside Iran, stand in the way and block this change.”