Iran’s nuke deal: Israel’s best hope or worst nightmare?

For Israel the biggest challenge is to avoid exacerbating relations with its major ally, the United States

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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International treaties are not designed for those who are either eternally gullible or incurably skeptical. The success of international agreements is measured in terms of a combination of factors: their overall vision, how well they express the reconciliation of conflicting interests, and meticulous and smart implementation. Such agreements are always less than perfect for both sides (which is also their strength), and therefore must be considered as a living organism which has to be constantly nurtured and coaxed. The agreement between Iran and the world’s main powers regarding the Iranian nuclear program is no exception, and out of the thousands upon thousands of words in it that outline all the details, the two key words that are repeated often in the document are “good faith.” Supporters of the agreement see only the hope in it and its detractors only the dangers. Neither sees it for what it is – a working compromise which is less than perfect. The hope, in the words of the agreement itself, is that Iran “… under no circumstances will… see, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons,” and in the process will become a much more agreeable participant in international affairs. The fear on the other hand, is that Iran will lull the international community, which is unwilling to confront it militarily or even economically anymore, into a false sense of security. This would, so the argument goes, enable Iran to covertly develop nuclear military capability and become an undisputed regional hegemon in the Middle East.

Is an Iran with less financial and other constraints more likely to increase its support of, for instance, Hezbollah in Lebanon or the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria? It would be foolish to dismiss these concerns as out of hand. However, they represent a worst case scenario

Yossi Mekelberg

Predictably, the Israeli government has been the most vociferous in its objection to the agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, which was approved on July 14. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a mistake of historical proportions, which will grant Iran a sure path to nuclear military capability. In his usual brazen manner, he argued that the removal of the international sanctions awards the “the terrorist regime in Tehran, with hundreds of billions of dollars in cash bonanza which will fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide…” Netanyahu claims that the negotiators, in their haste to reach an agreement with Iran, struck a bad deal with a country which aspires to destroy Israel. Within mainstream Israeli politics there is a broad consensus that the agreement is a bad one, and that the country’s security is worse off as a result of it. A major source of criticism in Israel is what is perceived as unsatisfactory safeguards intended to prevent Iran from deceiving the international community about its supposedly ‘real’ intentions over developing nuclear weapons.

Fuelling the rumor mill

Domestically, the agreement fuelled the rumor mill which suggested potential reconfiguration of the Israeli government by adding the Zionist Camp (Labour), a left of center party, to the coalition. The aim of this political maneuver is claimed to be an attempt to help the campaign to thwart the agreement with Iran. It is a rather obvious ploy by a number of the Likud Party and certain Zionist Camp leaders to exploit security concerns over Iran in order to change the makeup of the current Israeli government, despite strong opposition from within their own parties.

It would surely be irresponsible to ignore Israel’s and other countries’ legitimate concerns, mainly in the Gulf region, as to whether the deal can provide an absolute guarantee that Iran has abandoned ad infinitum their aspiration to become a nuclear military power. Moreover, it understandably has not allayed deep concerns over the direction that a sanction free Iran will take. Is an Iran with less financial and other constraints more likely to increase its support of, for instance, Hezbollah in Lebanon or the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria? It would be foolish to dismiss these concerns as out of hand. However, they represent a worst case scenario, ignoring the opportunities presented in the deal, and its potential to lead to rapprochement with Iran –a move that could result in empowering the more pragmatic elements in Iranian politics and society. Furthermore, this approach ignores that possible transforming impact this agreement could have on Iranian society.

The P5+1 negotiators have never pretended that the deal they reached was a miracle solution for stopping nuclear proliferation in the region, or eliminating the challenges presented by Iran’s behavior. Nevertheless, at least on the nuclear issue, they brought about an Iranian commitment backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution to abandon the military aspect of its nuclear program. It allows for the establishment of an inspection regime and provides for sanctions to be reinstated almost immediately in case Iran attempts to violate the terms of the agreement. Indeed the agreement as such has a life span of 10 to 15 years, but this should provide a clear enough indication of the direction Iran will take. This would require a very alert international community that does not accept the development of nuclear weapons by Iran or subversive actions by it, but that also within reason accepts that Iran is a major regional power with its own strategic concerns and interests.

Left with few options

Despite its protestations, Israel is left with very few options to oppose the agreement. Increasingly former officials in Israel’s security establishment either question whether in fact the Iran nuclear agreement is that bad for Israel, or suggest that Israel has no other option but to accept it as a fait accompli. Considering that Iran agreed to rigorous inspection arrangements, it is a far better situation that the pre-existing one. Moreover, in opposing the agreement, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated. To choose a military option would be a declaration of war not only against Iran, but against the international community which supported the deal through the Security Council. It is inconceivable that Israeli leadership would embark on such a politically suicidal course of action.

Another option that seems to be favored by Netanyahu’s government to derail the agreement is lobbying an already skeptical U.S. Congress to reject the deal with Iran. The American legislators seem to be bent on opposing any policy originating in the White House, though the two-thirds necessary to bury the agreement is unlikely. Secretary of State Kerry has warned Israel that it might regret getting her wishes of convincing the U.S. Congress to kill the deal, since the world would hold it responsible. The relationship between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be beyond repair, and an active campaign by Israeli officials in Congress to vote against the wishes of the American administration over Iranian nuclear agreement might push Obama’s patience to the limit.

For all the Iran nuclear agreement’s merits and faults, for Israel the biggest challenge is to avoid exacerbating relations with its major ally, the United States. Netanyahu’s approach to the negotiations failed miserably. Instead of playing a constructive role in raising legitimate concerns and suggesting constructive solutions, he preferred to present a dogmatic uncompromising approach, which leaves his country isolated and out of touch, and worse with no influence on the negotiations and their outcomes. It left an impression that the decision makers in Jerusalem are behaving less rationally than their counterparts in Tehran. Not an achievement to boast about.


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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