How demise of Iranian nuclear deal rekindles Israel’s dilemma

Dina Kraft

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waged one of his signature political and diplomatic battles against the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement. The losing effort contributed to his alienation from former President Barack Obama, who brokered the deal.

President Donald Trump, who has been warmly embraced by Mr. Netanyahu, ran for office in part on criticism of the deal, from which he withdrew the United States. He then embarked on a campaign of renewed “maximum pressure” against Iran.

Now Tehran, too, has walked away from the agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which it signed with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, along with the European Union.

Following the Jan. 3 U.S. assassination of the powerful Qods Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran said it would no longer refrain from its production of enriched uranium as proscribed in the agreement.

And Israel, once again, faces the prospect of its arch enemy being as little as six to 10 months away from having enough fuel to create its first nuclear device. Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this story.

For all of its flaws, experts say, the JCPOA would have brought Israel – and the rest of the world – a hiatus of about 10 years from confronting the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

But now, Israel could find itself back in the same dilemma it faced before it was signed: “Do nothing and accept Iran on the verge of being a nuclear military force, or strike back,” says Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

“I don’t think in Jerusalem there’s someone who believes, if Iran is months away from a bomb, that President Trump ahead of elections will do something on his own,” says Dr. Zimmt, a research fellow at the Tel Aviv think tank. “He might tell an Israeli prime minister ‘You have a green light to act,’ but this is not something an Israeli prime minister would like to consider. The bottom line is we are in a very risky situation right now.”

Most senior Israeli intelligence and military officials were not as emphatically opposed to the deal as Mr. Netanyahu was, although none of them saw it as a “good deal” because restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development would begin phasing out after eight years – but this time with international legitimacy and no threat of international sanctions.

Nevertheless, they hinted at relief that extra time had been bought ahead of what’s called the “breakout time” for Iran to become a nuclear power.

Iran’s ambitions: Deterrent or threat?

Despite the latest crisis, Iran is still allowing for international inspections – the last vestiges of the deal to remain in place. They also have not closed the door to future negotiations on a deal, but as their research and development continues, it may prove difficult to turn the clock back on any progress they make in the meantime. 

On Sunday the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany urged Iran to return to full compliance with the deal.

Some Israeli experts, among them Elisheva Machlis, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, argue that Iran is ultimately a rational actor.

Despite the threat Iran potentially poses as a nuclear power, she says, it’s important to ask if Iran would seriously consider actually using nuclear weapons.

“The question is always: Why does Iran need nuclear technology? What is it for?” says Dr. Machlis, arguing it should be understood as part of its regional strongman strategy. “If it’s really for deterrence, the question is, ‘Are they really going to use nuclear weapons?’”

She also argues that Iran, still battle-scarred from a long war with Iraq that lasted for most of the 1980s, is loath to engage in full-scale confrontation and prefers to operate with proxies. She says that’s why Iranian officials have been sending out signals they don’t want to further inflame tensions with the United States.

But whatever Iranian intentions are, few in Israel suggest it not take the threat of a nuclear Iran seriously. Of all the myriad threats facing the Jewish state, a nuclear Iran is considered existential, not just by Mr. Netanyahu, but by security officials across the board.

“No Israeli prime minister will say, ‘Let’s wait and see if Iran is serious.’ No one will take that risk,” says Dr. Zimmt. “With all the damage [conventional ballistic] missiles can do, they cannot eliminate the state of Israel. But nuclear weapons can do that.”

America’s role

But Israel’s options are considered to be limited. Israel can push for more international pressure, namely through intensifying economic sanctions, or the U.S. or Israel could launch a military strike that would seek to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

“I think at this stage Israel prefers a lower profile and to leave it to President Trump to take initiatives concerning Iran,” says Dr. Zimmt. “The Israeli policy is to not interfere too much, to support American economic pressure on Iran, and not to make statements that would indicate it would use force.”

Some Israeli analysts note, however, that with U.S.-Iran relations at low ebb and the two nations at loggerheads over nuclear sanctions, the strategic situation is deteriorating.

“This is the situation and it’s worsening all the time,” says Ephraim Asculai, who worked in the past for the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and is now a senior researcher at the INSS.

“And the deal is dying because Iran is really withdrawing slowly from all prohibitions of the deal. It was not a good deal to begin with, but it’s getting worse now,” says Dr. Asculai, who adds he has some concerns about whether the U.S. would stand behind its pledge to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. “As the Iranians accumulate more enriched uranium, the situation is getting more dangerous.”

Dr. Ascoulai and others argue that it’s essential to push further economic sanctions ahead, which have proven effective in weakening Iran. And he calls on Europeans to be as forceful as possible on sanctions as well.

Future negotiations

But Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center-Herzliya, a private research college, sounds a more hopeful note.

The inspections the Iranians are still allowing are still better than what existed before the Iran deal, he argues.

“The question is political will: whether they want to make a nuclear weapon or not,” Mr. Javedanfar says. “I don’t think they want that. What I think the Iranians are doing by taking these steps on removing limitations on enrichment and number of centrifuges – is … to strengthen their hand in negotiations with America.

“If there is a Democrat in the next White House or if [Mr.] Trump is re-elected they know they will have no other choice but to sit down and talk to them,” he says. “They will have no other choice because of the economic situation.”

Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research in the Israeli army’s intelligence branch who recently served as head of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, argues that only intense and ongoing pressure on Iran will result in a nuclear deal that actually prevents Iran from creating a nuclear weapon.

“This deal should have never been born. It’s proof of the weakness of the West that Iran was given carte blanche to have a nuclear arsenal,” he says.

“We should remain focused on preventing Iran from moving forward and … say they are no longer contained,” says Mr. Kuperwasser, senior project manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative research institute. “This should concern everyone.”

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