ISSN 2330-717X

Israel Faces A Major Nuclear Deal Dilemma – OpEd

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By Yossi Mekelberg*

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Slowly and surely, but hardly with certainty or a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, the US and Iran are edging ever closer toward a possible agreement on a new version of the 2015 nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

After nearly 18 months of negotiations Washington and Tehran are mulling over an EU draft proposal, which reflects not only the misgivings of both sides on certain aspects of the proposed agreement but, more than anything else, the complete lack of trust between them.

Meanwhile, these developments are being followed with great concern and suspicion by the political and security establishment in Israel. There might be disagreements about whether it is still possible to avert such a deal altogether, or how best to curtail its effects, but there is a broad consensus that what is on offer can only harm Israel’s national interest and is a threat to stability in the region and beyond.

A vociferous rejection of a potential agreement gathers momentum in Israel the closer it comes to becoming a reality. It reflects an underlying, and probably unsolvable, dilemma presented by the proposed agreement: Mainly, that it concentrates on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear military capability but not on preventing the other destabilizing activities conducted from Tehran.

If we assume — and this is far from being certain — that such a revived agreement would, at least for its duration, halt Iran’s march toward nuclear military capability, this comes with a price tag: The removal of current sanctions imposed on Iran, filling the government’s coffers and possibly those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This would enable the regime in Tehran not only to continue its disruptive policies in the region but to do so with greater vigor.

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Moreover, it would enable the Iranian government to utilize some of the extra funds, which come mainly from exports of oil and gas, to improve the dire economic situation the country is facing and, consequently, curb social unrest, thus strengthening and prolonging its grip on power.

On the other hand, the four years that have elapsed since President Donald Trump withdrew from the original nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed strict sanctions have not stopped Iranian authorities from developing their nuclear program, or contained domestic unrest. Exactly the opposite, in fact, as Iran is closer than ever to assembling a nuclear bomb.

While there is broad consensus that Trump’s decision, accompanied by a strong Israeli tailwind, to withdraw from the deal was a mistake that only succeeded in enabling Iran to continue its nuclear program with added zest, this does not necessarily convince decision-makers in Israel that the renewed agreement that is currently on the table is the answer to the challenges posed by Iran to the security of Israel and the wider region.

This concern extends beyond the nuclear arms race, originating from Iran’s presence in Syria and Yemen, its Shiite-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and its support of militant groups in Gaza.

This leaves Israel between a rock and hard place. To make things even more complicated, unlike Benjamin Netanyahu — who was the prime minister of Israel at the time of the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, was itching for a confrontation with US President Barack Obama over the issue and was ready to risk the special relationship between the two countries in the process — the current prime minister, Yair Lapid, will not take the risk of straining relations between the US and Israel.

In balancing Israel’s interests, efforts to work with the US and avoid long-term damage to relations between the two countries should remain a high priority, and rightly so. This does not prevent senior Israeli officials from expressing their deep concerns about the consequences of the nuclear deal and attempting to convince Washington, if not to abandon it, to at least tighten its terms and conditions.

Most outspoken among the Israeli critics of the nuclear deal is David Barnea, director of Mossad. He is reported to have said that “eventually, this will be an agreement based on lies,” mainly because Iran recently refused to enter into a new agreement unless the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, ended its three-year investigation into man-made uranium particles found at undeclared research sites in the country — a discovery which, if confirmed, is likely to reinforce the assessment that Iran’s ultimate aim remains the development of nuclear capabilities.

In Barnea’s opinion, if a deal is signed the investigation will either be dead and buried or, even if it concludes that there was foul play, this will not lead to another US withdrawal from the agreement.

These concerns resulted in Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s decision to rush to Washington for a meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to convey the message, later repeated by Lapid, that the US must retain a viable military option with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, separately from any agreement, as a sort of insurance policy and deterrent.

During a visit to Switzerland, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose current role is largely ceremonial, added his voice to the calls for the continuation of the probe into Iran’s past violations of its obligations under the previous nuclear deal, which indicates that this is a topic where there is an almost universal consensus in Israeli society and politics.

Despite these concerted diplomatic efforts to prevent the revival of a nuclear deal, the decision-makers in Israel are well aware that if the Biden administration, which committed itself to such a strategic move during the president’s election campaign, decides to sign it there is scant chance for Israel to stop it from taking place.

What is left for Israel is to reach understandings, especially with Washington, that allow it to continue its clandestine operations in an attempt to contain Iran’s nuclear program and other hostile activities in neighboring countries and elsewhere.

Israel will also, most probably, continue to pressure the international community for tighter inspections of Iranian nuclear sites and will itself continue to develop a military option, knowing that this is not only a last resort but one that might, at best, be of very limited success, especially if is carried out without at least tacit international consent, which makes it unlikely and probably impractical.

The threat by Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi to destroy Israel if it attacks his country’s nuclear installations might indicate some level of panic in Tehran or, alternatively, an attempt at constituency management to protect the regime from domestic criticism of its readiness to make some unpopular concessions in return for having sanctions lifted — and a realization that bellicose language toward Israel is always a convenient distraction.

However, whether a new agreement is reached or not, the hostility between Israel and Iran will remain a constant feature of Middle Eastern politics, with low-intensity confrontation in various arenas and a genuine risk of escalation that might get out of hand.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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