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Israel, Iran and a not so splendid sense of isolation

Israel was quick to announce that it was not bound by this agreement, as they believed that the Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

It might have taken somewhat longer, but the deal to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions in return for the lifting of some of the international economic sanctions was sealed at last. There was a great sense satisfaction, if not elation, among the interlocutors in Geneva and in large parts of the world that a major international crisis had been resolved. The negotiators are confident that the agreement averted either the possibility of Iran developing nuclear capability or a military attack against Iran to stop her from doing so in the absence of an agreement. The celebratory atmosphere in Geneva was a stark contrast to the somberness around the Israeli Cabinet meeting on Monday morning, just a few hours after the agreement was announced. Prime Minister Netanyahu called the interim agreement reached with the six world powers an “historic mistake.” He went on to warn that the world, as a result of this deal, has become a more dangerous place … because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world.” His comments since the announcement of the deal have been more a sign of hysteria than one of reflecting any sense of history.

Optimal compromise

It is the nature of all agreements that they do not fully satisfy both sides; it is even a sign of a good agreement when both sides are equally unhappy. Despite Israeli protestations and an equally dissatisfied Saudi Arabiya, this is probably the optimal compromise which could be achieved at this stage with a view for a robust “long-term comprehensive solution” as the Joint Plan of action states. I argued here two weeks ago, that Israeli policy towards the negotiations suffers from a lack of tactical or strategic sophistication, driven by fear and rigidity rather than a rational assessment of the situation. Netanyahu’s argument that “this agreement and what it means endanger many countries including, of course, Israel,” confuses between the terms of these deal and whether Israel trusts the Iranians to stick with the obligations she committed to in Geneva. If Israel’s main concern is that Iran should not develop nuclear military capability, the agreement makes a clear pledge that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful” and that Iran will never seek nuclear military capability.

A more measured response from Jerusalem would have welcomed these aspects of the agreement, but at the same time would legitimately express deep concerns whether the process would be verifiable and transparent, or even if Iran could be trusted to adhere to her promises. A further understandable Israeli concern is the speed at which a nuclear program for civilian use can be turned into a military one. However, the Iranian-Israeli relationship has been tainted by decades long of vitriolic rhetoric which have overtaken almost any rational considerations. The unwelcome remarks by Supreme Leader Khamenei last week when negotiations were at their height, that the Zionist regime was despicable and evil and doomed to destruction, did very little to allay Israeli fears that about Iran’s intentions for dominance in the region. Arguably, Khamenei, resorted to this type of language for domestic reasons, rallying those who were apprehensive that the Iranian negotiators were about to compromise Iranian national interest in the name of relieving some of the international sanctions. Perhaps this reflects his true beliefs, regardless whether he genuinely supports an agreement on the nuclear issue or not. In Israel this is interpreted as part of the Iranian deception about their true intentions in the region in general and concerning Israel in particular.

United for world peace

The dramatic events in Geneva prove that when the international community is united over a fundamental issue for world peace, and is also ready to act against evasion and defiance, it is likely to succeed. Israel was quick to announce that it was not bound by this agreement, as they believed that the Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel. Nonetheless, there are limited options for the Israeli government to challenge the agreement. We can expect to hear the rhetoric about Israel’s right to defend itself, which the vast majority of the international community accepts entirely without question. However, threats by the Israeli Prime Minister that the country will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability, implies that the Israeli leadership might take a unilateral decision at some point in the future that Iran is deceiving the world and would then act militarily on its own to stop it.

Israel was quick to announce that it was not bound by this agreement, as they believed that the Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

Netanyahu’s approach leaves Israel isolated and vulnerable with very little influence on the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement, an agreement which is expected in the next six months. In his belligerent speech to the U.N. General Assembly back on October, he positioned Israel as standing alone against Iran in defending herself and the rest of the world by stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear capability. Now indeed Israel finds herself almost alone protesting vehemently, but with almost nothing else to do to change the new reality and risking a rift with her main ally and the international community. Despite the constant reassurances from President Obama and the Secretary of State in recent days that Israeli security and interests are high on their agenda in negotiating with Iran, it is hard to see how they will be able to support an Israeli policy which might derail an agreement which is supported by the Security Council and most of the U.N. member states. No rational Israeli leadership would act militarily against another country risking the wrath of the entire international community, let alone risk losing the support of the United States. Israel can, of course, resort to a secret war of sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities or embark on a diplomatic campaign to oppose the agreement, but neither is likely to have a big impact and might marginalize Israel internationally even further. Hence Netanyahu is either bluffing or has lost touch with reality. The first seems to have passed its sell by date the latter can only be plain madness.

Despite Israeli protestation, the deal achieved in Geneva is a historical one and with careful international mechanisms in place can stop Iranian aspirations for nuclear military capability and reduce tensions between Iran and the world. The political and economic rewards for Iran if it adheres to the agreement are immense, the dangers of violating it are equally enormous. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was received by a jubilant crowd in Tehran which reflected Iranians’ relief to see the immediate danger of war averted and a yearning for the economic benefits of this agreement. This is by far the greatest foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, which might create expectations for him to act more decisively on other fronts, such as the Middle East peace process or even the Syrian civil war. Against this growing sense of international achievement, Israel’s aggressive language is unlikely to find sympathy and Netanyahu and his ministers would best serve Israeli national interest by dealing with these new realities constructively and with less hype.

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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 College 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.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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