By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
Given the short attention span of international news coverage, it is hardly surprising that the war in Ukraine has captured most headlines recently, while the attempts to revive the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna have been pushed to the sidelines.
For the negotiators, this might come as a blessing that allows them to navigate the rough seas of reaching a deal without the constant glare of public scrutiny. However, events in Ukraine make the need to reach an agreement — and in a manner that prevents Iran from developing a nuclear military capability — more pressing than ever. The will to extend the talks beyond last week’s deadline indicates that both sides are interested in reaching a deal that would avoid tougher sanctions on Iran and even possible military confrontation.
Although not a participant in these talks, one country with a keen interest in their outcome is Israel. For the duration of the negotiations in the Austrian capital, Israel’s political top brass have kept a rather low profile. This can partly be attributed to the general approach of the current government, which avoids the hyperbole that characterized the Netanyahu years. Nevertheless, Israel seems resigned to the fact that to oppose any deal, especially in public, will not achieve its desired result — that Washington does not rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — and will also strain relations with the Biden administration. There is also hope that, with a change of presidency in Iran from the more pragmatic Hassan Rouhani to the hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, it is the Iranians who will derail the negotiations by presenting unreasonable demands that will undermine any return to the 2015 agreement.
Israel insists that, since it is not party to the agreement, it is also not obligated to its terms and its dealings with Tehran will be dictated solely by its own security considerations. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned recently that the agreement would allow Iran to install countless centrifuges, something that his government will never allow. The notion of the so-called sunset clauses, under which most of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, together with all sanctions, will be removed by 2025, is seen by Israel and most of the region as a license for Iran to develop nuclear military capability, and with increased resources to do so.
At this point, Israeli decision-makers’ working assumptions are that any dramatic change in Tehran’s approach to developing such a capability is highly unlikely, as is a radical change in the regime itself; and equally that it would be unfeasible for the international community to take military action against Iran. According to the Israeli press, in a speech at Mossad headquarters, Bennett made it crystal clear that “the great, monumental mission on the shoulders (of Mossad) is to prevent a nuclear Iran. It is a mission you have been grappling with for many years, but it looks like we are nearing the moment of truth.”
It remains to be seen how this “moment of truth” is operationalized but, based on experience, it entails Israel leaving on the table not only the continuation of its clandestine operations and cyberattacks aimed at derailing Iran’s nuclear program, in cooperation with other countries in the region, but also maintaining a doomsday plan for a wider military operation, as remote as this option may be. It stems not so much from a deep concern at the possibility of Iran possessing nuclear military capability in itself, but from fears that an Iran shielded by nuclear weapons might become an even greater destabilizing force in the region.
An irony of which Israel is doubtless aware is that it opposed the initial signing of the JCPOA and actively encouraged President Donald Trump to withdraw from the agreement. Now, as a result of that unilateral decision by the US, Iran is closer than ever to becoming a nuclear power. Moreover, as much as Israel repeatedly states that preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power is its top priority, the avenues for carrying out a military operation directly aimed at Iran’s nuclear program are limited. But the message — as delivered as recently as last week by Defense Minister Benny Gantz — is that: “Whether (a return to the JCPOA) happens or not, Israel will continue to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from becoming an existential threat and possessing nuclear capability.”
A return to the nuclear deal is perceived as a double whammy by Israel, since not only will its sworn enemy enjoy increased revenues with the lifting of sanctions, but this time with less treaty-based limits and financial limits to its nuclear ambitions and adventurism in the region. Moreover, the sanctions imposed on major oil and gas supplier Russia as a result of its attack on Ukraine will likely benefit Iran as the price of energy rises. This is especially so with the discovery of the huge Chalous natural gas field in the Caspian Sea, which could help Tehran become an even larger gas producer for Europe if the negotiators in Vienna reach an agreement and sanctions are lifted.
Israel regards the international community’s approach to Iran in general and its nuclear program in particular as no more than kicking the can down the road. And at the end of that road the consequences for regional security and for Israel itself are too dire for it to countenance.
The war in the Ukraine also poses a tricky situation for Israel, as it cannot afford to stay neutral — not only because not supporting the heroic Ukrainian resistance is morally wrong, but because to sit on the fence would certainly outrage Washington and major allies in Europe. However, Israel is also apprehensive of a possible retaliation by the Kremlin in Syria, which would hinder its operations against Iranian and Hezbollah targets that have thus far been tolerated by Russia.
Containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is becoming a more complex issue for Israel, but it remains convinced there is no alternative that will not leave its survival in the hands of Tehran.
• 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