The Middle East is a different place this Sunday. Iran, after several fits and starts, detours and mechanical troubles, covert sprints, technical innovations and failures, has finally pulled over to the side of the road — and been given international legitimacy for doing so — a short drive from the bomb. To some, the main point is the fact of the pull-over. To others, it is the short distance remaining and the lack of obstacles on the road ahead.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the start of his cabinet meeting Sunday morning, leaned heavily in the direction of the latter view. Calling the Geneva deal a historic mistake, he deemed the Iranian concessions “cosmetic” and said that they “can be canceled in weeks.” Moreover, he stated that Israel does not see itself as “bound by this agreement” — a defiant statement that implied Israel might strike Iran alone if it sensed Iran pushing forward toward the bomb.
The Times of Israel heard from several experts, familiar with both the nuts and bolts of the agreement and the overall picture, and received an assessment slightly rosier than that which was delivered Sunday to the cabinet — one that underscored the central truth of the interim agreement, namely that, for the first time in years, it halted Iran’s advance but failed to significantly hinder its breakout capacity.
Oded Brosh, a former senior analyst in the Prime Minister’s Office and current lecturer and researcher in the field of nuclear politics, strategy, deterrence and proliferation at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, called the situation a “half-full glass.”
Gauging the contents of that glass has to do with national predilections and geographic realities.
The US, a fundamentally optimistic nation — perhaps particularly with regards to the fates of others — believes that, as President Barack Obama said in his address late on Saturday, the deal allows the US to “begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations.” It erases some of the legacy of Mohammad Mosaddeq and the CIA-led coup to oust Iran’s only democratically elected prime minister. It fractures the notion of the Great Satan and supports President Hassan Rouhani. It shows the regime that if you’re nice, we’re nice. Or in short, while halting the Iranian nuclear program near the precipice of a bomb, it also pries open the doors of the Islamic Republic to the sort of soft power that, many believe, eventually won the Cold War.
Israel, particularly under its current leadership, is a pessimistic nation. It believes that the effects of soft power are limited in the face of fierce Shiite faith and what Hillary Clinton once called the theologically backed “military dictatorship” of Iran. It also believes that experience with genocide, along with unfortunate geography, go a long way toward dulling US optimism. In fact, Israel’s geographic proximity to Iran, coupled with the recent and rampant barbarism of the Middle East, helps explain why Saudi Arabia and Israel suddenly see eye to eye.
“There is no question that supporting Rouhani and [Iranian Foreign Minister] Zarif — the moderates, educated in Scotland and America — is the major driving force of the Obama administration’s support for this deal,” Brosh said.
These relative moderates, he added, had succeeded in their mission. “They brought home the sheep’s fat,” he said, providing the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei with a deal that delivers sanctions relief, but “does not hurt the core capabilities of the nuclear program.”
Iran committed in the deal to halt uranium enrichment above 5 percent, to neutralize its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, to refrain from installing next-generation centrifuges, to halt all progress on the plutonium track and to agree to more intrusive monitoring of its nuclear program, providing “daily access” by IAEA inspectors to the enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordo.
The accord did not, however, roll back Iran’s breakout capability to a bomb. The agreement “does not do anything to change that [breakout] time, except perhaps in a very minor way,” said Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a veteran of both the IAEA and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. All told, he said Sunday during a conference call arranged by The Israel Project, the agreed-upon limitations of the interim agreement freeze the program but, since Iran can maintain its 19,000 centrifuges and its right to continually enrich uranium to 3.5 percent, they add only “a few days” onto the regime’s clock should it decide to sprint toward a bomb.
Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett, who has been in lockstep with Netanyahu on Iran, likened the Iranian nuclear program to a large pipe. Rather than seeing it dismantled, he told CNN before the agreement was reached, the current deal merely shuts off the tap. Iran, he said, could and would turn it back on at a time of its choosing.
The former head of Military Intelligence and current director of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, Amos Yadlin, told Army Radio that the value of the agreement, which he termed “neither the dream agreement nor the destruction of the Third Temple,” would only be evident in six months’ time. If, then, Iran is not set farther away from the bomb, or the current agreement, on account of Iranian intransigence, becomes the final agreement, then Israel would have good reason to mourn, he said.
Meanwhile, he suggested, the American approach of strengthening the moderates and putting time on the clock had merit. “The fall of this regime before it gets the bomb,” he said, noting the rising discontent in Iran, “should be our objective.”