Guilty by association: Israel, Iran and North Korea

Israel no doubt would continue to warn the world about the danger of Iran becoming a nuclear power and her deceitfulness in the process

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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Not many would expect an Israeli prime minister to make a scathing attack on Iranian nuclear policy during his visit to the Far East. These trips are usually devoted to promoting fast growing economic trade relations and consolidating other areas of cooperation with the region. However, Prime Minster Netanyahu’s remarks about nuclear ties between Iran and North Korea during his visit to Tokyo last week were well-choreographed and well-timed. It was an attempt to link Iranian nuclear program with the much feared North Korean nuclear program, which threatens stability in this part of Asia. Establishing common interests between Israel and the Far East around the nuclear issue aimed to highlight that the Iranian nuclear program poses danger not only to the Middle East and Israel, but to the whole world.

The timing of Netanyahu’s comments was not coincidental, as negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over a long term agreement just resumed in Vienna. If successful, the agreement would aim to ensure that the Iranian nuclear program does not pursue a military component. It is part of Israeli strategy to rally as many states as possible to put pressure on those negotiating with Iran to avoid a deal which would leave room for Iran to develop nuclear military capability at some point in the future. In this context one can also explain the tacit co-operation between Israel and the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, and the effort to draw Japan into the Iranian nuclear issue. Israel fears that the looming expiration of the interim agreement between Iran and the international community on July 20, might cause the negotiators to be too hasty and keen to sign an agreement. Such an agreement might not be able to guarantee that Iran will not turn her nuclear program from peaceful purposes to military ones.

Only last month, the United States had to all but concede failure in reaching a framework for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians as another deadline to reach the a deal came and went. Some in Israel suspect that the U.S.and her partners in the negotiations with Iran are averse to the idea of another failure, even at the price of a less than satisfactory agreement. Israel sees a flawed agreement as worse than no agreement at all. For Israeli leaders, a less than satisfactory agreement would create a false sense of resolution. This might lead to Iran developing nuclear military capability free of economic sanctions. The decision makers in Jerusalem see this as the worst case scenario. The no agreement option, from Israel’s point of view, at least leaves the sanctions in place and allows Israel more room to maneuver in acting against Iran. This can be done either diplomatically, through covert operations or even through a very risky, one might say even irresponsible, military operations.

Israel no doubt would continue to warn the world about the danger of Iran becoming a nuclear power and her deceitfulness in the process

Yossi Mekelberg

Another element of this Israeli pressure was in series of meetings with high rank American officials, including Chuck Hagel, the U.S. secretary of defense , and U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. These meetings seemed to actually reveal that the gap between Washington and Jerusalem regarding the approach towards the nuclear negotiations is widening. The Americans would like the Israelis to keep a low profile during these complex negotiations, and are continually reassuring the Israelis and the Gulf States that the U.S. is fully committed to stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The Israelis insist that there is enough evidence that the Iranians are dishonest regarding their nuclear program. Whilst President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are presenting a more conciliatory face to the international community, their country’s nuclear program has never stopped in accordance with the terms of the interim agreement. This view is reinforced by a recent report by the U.N. Panel of Experts which highlighted that despite slowing down procuring materials for her nuclear program, Iran still continues to develop some aspects of her nuclear program that are forbidden by U.N. security resolutions. According to this report, Iran also continues to develop long-range ballistic missiles in further violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions. This is in addition to arms transfers from Iran to Syria, Gaza, Sudan, and Bahrain, which fuel further instability in the region.

Damaging commentary

To make things worse, the Supreme Leader Khamenei is providing unremitting damaging commentary, including labeling the international community’s expectations that Iran contain its missile development as “stupid and idiotic.” His rallying cry against Iran not bowing to international pressure in the nuclear talks, and urging the country’s Revolutionary Guard to intensify the production of missiles were populist and reckless, especially in the days leading up to the resumption of nuclear negotiations in Vienna.

Calling Netanyahu “a rabid dog of the region,” and saying that Israeli leaders "cannot be even called humans," is unsettling for the Israelis. It also provides ammunition to those in Israel, who believe that the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and the current negotiations are no more than an Iranian delay tactics. They believe that these delay tactics enable Iran to both develop their nuclear military capabilities and relieve the hardships inflicted by the sanctions. Israel might not be sitting around the negotiation table in Vienna, but her views are ever-present, as the negotiators are cognizant of her government’s determination to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

International pressure

The line that Netanyahu took in Tokyo was another tier in these efforts. He is trying to put international pressure on those negotiating with the Iranians, via those who might not be present at the negotiations, but still might be concerned that Iranian nuclear might directly or indirectly impact their security nevertheless. This combined with utilizing Israel’s well-oiled lobbying machine on Capitol Hill places pressure on U.S. President Obama to not give into concessions which might compromise Israeli security in the negotiations with Iran. The strategy at times has its own intrinsic rational of preventing an enemy from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, though at other times smacks of hysteria.

Israel no doubt would continue to warn the world about the danger of Iran becoming a nuclear power and her deceitfulness in the process. What is lacking from Israeli strategic thinking, however, is the development of a long term strategy to deal with Iranian capabilities if the negotiations fail. An even trickier situation may occur, if the negotiations are successful and all the issues of a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone are resumed with the international community requesting more transparency from Israel on the matter.


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.

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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