Why lone ranger Netanyahu is out to ‘kill a bad deal’

It would have been naïve to expect that any agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program would be greeted with universal approval. However, some of the venomous reactions coming from the Israeli leadership and a number Republican legislators in Washington, casts doubt as to whether they bothered to read the framework for the deal, or to understand the nature of a negotiated agreement.

I am left with a sense that most of them were delivering already prepared statements, slamming the agreement and its negotiators. This was in complete contrast to the broad smiles of the negotiators in the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland who were determined to reach an agreement and despite missing a deadline, averted a dangerous crisis – at least for now.

It has to be said that the agreement is a constructive compromise in which neither of the sides can claim complete victory, nor did any of them capitulate to the other’s demands. This is usually a sign of a good and workable agreement. For the next three months the final details of a long term agreement are going to be negotiated determining the exact parameters which will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear military capability in return for lifting the sanctions.

The almost overwrought reaction from Jerusalem and the Republicans on Capitol Hill was Pavlovian in nature. Instead of considering the numerous virtues of the agreement, they would rather focus on the potential shortcomings.

A bad agreement

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been telling whoever was ready to listen that the agreement brewing between the P5+1 and Iran on the Iranian nuclear program was a bad one which would not stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear military ambitions. Neither the interim agreement nor the current framework for a final agreement convinced him otherwise. The Republican-Israeli government axis on the issue rests on a number of unrealistic expectations and misperceptions.

I would not like to belittle the legitimate concerns of countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States of Iran’s growing influence and intervention in large parts of the Middle East

Yossi Mekelburg

The first of them is that Iran could have been cowed into giving up its entire nuclear program lock, stock and seven nuclear sites. This would have meant capitulation that no Iranian negotiator could have agreed to, let alone expect realistically to receive support at home for, or even survive politically. For all sides involved, especially the Iranians and the Americans, managing their own domestic constituencies and allies was very much part of the negotiation process. The second misperception by Netanyahu and his allies was that since sanctions helped to soften Iran’s position and bring them to the negotiating table, continuing the sanctions and even tightening them further would bring Iran to dismantle its nuclear program entirely.

Beside the lack of empirical evidence, it is a worrying and unhelpful approach to negotiations, even when one side seems to be considerably weaker than the other. Israel has tried this negotiation strategy with the Palestinians for many years, only to yield failure and prolonging of the conflict. Iran as a much more powerful actor than the Palestinians, and a proud nation that survived eight years of bloody conflict in the 1980s against the much supported Iraq, was not about surrender its nuclear programme altogether. Third the implausible expectation was that there could be an absolute guarantee that the Iranian regime would not violate the agreement, or try to deceive the international community. For this one requires a crystal ball.

Any agreement is both the end of a process and the same time the beginning of a process of implementation, including verifying mechanisms. The distrust of the Iranian government derives to an extent from a fourth and last misperception that the Iranian political elite is monolithic, aggressive and expansionist by nature. Therefore, the readiness of the Iranian negotiators to compromise is merely a smoke screen, hiding their true intentions.

Legitimate concerns

I would not like to belittle the legitimate concerns of countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States of Iran’s growing influence and intervention in large parts of the Middle East. Iran is clearly very astutely exploiting current crises in the region to increase its power, supporting subversion in different countries. Yet, some of it derives from a sense of insecurity as much as aggression.

The emerging agreement needs to be judged on its merit, including the implementation mechanism installed to prevent deception. In exchange for sanction relief and recognition of its right to maintain a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, Iran agrees to reduce its enrichment program and accept stringent inspections for a considerable period of time. First and foremost, Iran agrees to reduce its installed centrifuges by nearly two-thirds, not to enrich uranium over 3.67 percent, not to build new facilities and to provide “… the IAEA much greater access and information regarding Iran’s nuclear program, including both declared and undeclared facilities.” This means that for at least 15 years the country is giving up its ambition to develop nuclear military capability. Even if a future Iranian government changes its mind it would give the international community at least a year before Iran would be able to militarise its program.

Those who oppose this agreement, Netanyahu for example who is leading the chorus of resistance, argue that the agreement was a bad one. On Sunday Netanyahu embarked on a media blitz, claiming for instance on CNN that “a better deal would roll back Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure, and require Iran to stop its aggression in the region, its terror worldwide and its calls and actions to annihilate the state of Israel.” In all his interviews he gives no details as to what a better deal would entail and how would it be reached. He of course finds solace in people like Senator Mark Kirk, who argues that Obama’s policies towards Iran are worse than Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Risking Obama’s wrath

Netanyahu is entering into the U.S. domestic political fray, believing that with less than twenty months until U.S. presidential elections he can afford to risk Obama’s wrath without long term repercussions to U.S.-Israeli relationships. It is left for Obama to prove whether Netanyahu is right in his assessment, or an irresponsible adventurist. At the end of the day, he joins forces with the Republicans not only against President Obama but also in defiance of the main international powers, with an obsessive and illogical approach. A more rational leader would have operated behind the scenes playing a constructive role in indicating where in his opinion there are gaps in the agreement based on available intelligence and professional assessment. Instead Netanyahu erroneously embarked on an open confrontation with Israel’s closest ally and a large part of the international community.

The framework for the agreement created a new situation, which leaves a military option against Iranian nuclear installation, and even the tightening of sanctions by the U.N at this stage almost hypothetical prospects. The discourse should move to ensuring the implementation of the agreement to the letter. Moreover, what those who oppose the agreement fail to see is that there is also a considerable likelihood that the deal on Iranian nuclear is the beginning of a domestic transformation within the Islamic Republic.

One of the possible consequences of negotiating with Iran respectfully and reintroducing it into the international community is the empowerment of the more pragmatic elements in the Iranian political elite and society. The combination of ensuring that Iran adheres to its commitments in the nuclear agreement and a long term constructive dialogue, have the potential to take the sting out of those in Iran, who thrive on conflict and antagonism with the world. This possibility should not be underestimated.

 

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg

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