Israel’s last ditch efforts to stop a nuclear agreement

The Israeli Prime Minister was leading the condemnation of an agreement which has not even been finalized

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

As negotiators were intensifying their efforts in Lausanne, Switzerland and closing the gaps left for a deal on the future of Iranian nuclear, it became evident that Israeli decision makers were becoming increasingly nervy.

The Israeli Prime Minister was leading the condemnation of an agreement which has not even been finalized. In a weekly cabinet meeting he stated, and this time not only for the benefit of his ministers, that: “After the Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad axis, Iran is carrying out a pincer movement from the south to take over and occupy the entire Middle East. The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous to humanity and it must be stopped.”

Netanyahu feels more than ever exonerated in his approach to Iran, hence escalating the rhetoric about Iran in terms of its threat to humanity. Since the late 1990s Israeli leaders have perceived and portrayed Iran, especially one with nuclear military capability, in terms of an existential threat to it. The aim was to mobilise the international community to take tough measures against Iran in order to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, which Israel perceives as potentially posing a deadly threat to the Jewish state.

It is hard to imagine any agreement on the Iranian nuclear program that Israel and its Prime Minister would find acceptable

Consecutive Israeli governments succeeded in alerting the world to this threat, which combined with concerns elsewhere in the international community, has led to sanctions being imposed on Iran. The combination of the Iranian nuclear issue along with Iran’s growing support of Israel’s enemies, such as the Hezbollah and the Hamas, became central to Israel’s main strategic concerns. The outlook of the Israeli strategic thinking is that Israel’s long-term security is not threatened by the Arab world not even by the Palestinians, but by Iran.

Hawkish outlook

It is hard to imagine any agreement on the Iranian nuclear program that Israel and its Prime Minister would find acceptable. The Israeli elections are behind him, leaving him in a comfortable position to form a new coalition government with an even more hawkish outlook of international affairs than his previous one. Unlike his, U-turns regarding some of his behavior during the election campaign, he is not apologetic about his stance on Iran and seems hardly bothered whether this stance will deepen his rift with the American administration and President Obama himself.

If anyone expected Netanyahu to be contrite about his address to U.S. Congress last month, in an act of thumbing his nose at Obama, the exact opposite sentiment is obvious in his attempt to undermine nuclear negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu’s rhetoric against the negotiations is intensifying as well as his co-ordination with those who oppose any future deal with Iran in the American Congress.

Prime Minster Netanyahu, as most of his ministers, operates under the assumption, that regardless of the specific details of the negotiated agreement the Iranian government intends to violate it. They insist that Iran has embarked on a grand deception ploy with the aim of diverting attention from their real intentions of developing nuclear military capability. From the outset the Israeli decision makers never bought into the Iranian claim that their nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. Hence, allowing Iran to continue its nuclear programme, as argued by Jerusalem, is an existential threat not only to Israel but also for the region and the rest of the international community.

Direct action

Based on this argument Israel is adamant about keeping all her options open, including covert and overt military operations against the Iranian nuclear installations. Self evidently, overt and direct military operations against Iran are not very probable, however, the Israel diplomatic efforts to maintain the international pressure on Iran, no doubt will continue. As a consequence of the signing of the interim agreement with Iran last year and the looming deadline for a permanent deal, the decision makers in Jerusalem express even more alarmist language against it.

Sources around the Israeli prime minister allege that the formulas that are on the negotiation’s table confirm their worst fears. In other words, it will not provide the guarantees that Iran will be prevented from developing nuclear military capability. This is a fear which the Israeli government shares with most of the other governments in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.

Though the negotiations that are taking place in Lausanne are with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, Israel believes that its main leverage is over the United States. Stopping the U.S. from signing it, through Congress, seems to the Israeli government a more likely scenario than attempting to convince the other four permanent members, who all need to support an agreement to make it official.

Subversive force

For Israel and Netanyahu events such as the one in Yemen is an additional proof, in case they needed one, that Iran is ever-present as a subversive force, and which if uncontained will take over the entire region, if not directly, then by proxies. The Iranian support of the Houthis is just another tier in Iranian expansionist strategy according to this approach. It comes on top of Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq, its involvement in the Syrian civil war, its unwavering military and political support of the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas in Palestine, among other tactics. Israel might not have a direct interest in the current conflict in the Yemen, but it is for its decision makers another illustration of Iranian foreign policy tendencies and behavior.

Israel argues that while in Lausanne, Iran is presenting an apparent readiness to engage in diplomatic efforts to resolve its differences with the world. Yet, in the region Tehran is unchecked in its efforts to become a regional hegemon. Of all weeks this is the one that Netanyahu and his government are longing for the world to internalize the idea that the real Iran is the one that needs to be checked everywhere in the region, and not the one that is negotiating in Switzerland concerning the future of its nuclear program.

However, if an agreement is reached between the interlocutors in Lausanne, the practical options for Israel to oppose it are extremely limited, since it will be voted on and approved by the Security Council. Any attempt by Israel to undermine the agreement would be in direct confrontation with the leading international power brokers. Not a luxury Israel can afford.


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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