WASHINGTON — While the Iran deal has brought Israel and Sunni Arab states together in ways few imagined just years ago, difference were still clear when former Saudi and Israeli spy chiefs shared a stage in a New York synagogue.
During the unprecedented event Sunday, Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, a former chief of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom and Efraim Halevy, former director of the Mossad debated the US President Donald Trump recently-announced strategy for amending the nuclear agreement, while also addressing Tehran’s ongoing non-nuclear provocations.
“If you want to put pressure on Iran, you have to do whatever it means to do that and decertification is one way of putting in that pressure to make them live up not just to the letter of the deal, but the spirit,” said Faisal.
“The signers of the deal, when they signed it, portrayed the holy picture that it was going to turn into a very friendly and open and hospitable place to do business with, but that hasn’t happened.”
Faisal spoke during a panel discussion with Halevy and Michèle Flournoy, former US undersecretary of defense for policy. Organized by the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal Middle East advocacy organization, the talk was moderated by its executive director David Halperin.
Faisal, who has appeared onstage with Israeli officials before, told the audience the summit was his first time in a Jewish synagogue. He said he hoped “it would not be the last.”
While the ex-Saudi official said he thought there was a “lack of clarity” regarding the Trump administration’s current policy, he praised their willingness to engage the region more directly and confront Iran actions outside the nuclear realm.
But Halevy, for his part, warned against that approach and said Israel did not want the US to go that route.
Instead, he insisted the deal should stay in place, if only because it prevents Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal for the next 13 years. During those intervening years, there will be opportunities to address the other issues
The US should “focus on the nuclear issue and nothing else,” he said. “The Iran deal was not an ideal deal. But this was because Israel did not wish the negotiations to include all the items on the agenda.”
Halevy went on to stress that Israel could handle the threat from Iran, a country that has recurrently said openly that it seeks the Jewish state’s destruction.
“Israel is indestructible. We are able to, if necessary, protect ourselves and emerge intact,” he said. “I have huge faith in our military establishment, our defense establishment, and our intelligence establishment.”
On October 13, Trump decertified Iran’s compliance with the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That in itself does not undo the pact. Rather, it punts a decision to Congress over whether to renew sanctions on Iran after a 60-day review period.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained to reporters that the administration wants lawmakers to amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), a domestic law that forces the White House to report to Congress every 90 days on whether Iran is abiding by the accord.
They will ask the Senate to use the two-month window to unilaterally impose new “triggers” on the deal that would outlast the JCPOA’s sunset provisions and prohibit Iran from developing and testing ballistic missiles.
The White House has explained this move as an attempt to extend its focus on Tehran beyond the nuclear realm, incorporating the Islamic Republic’s other destabilizing activities, as well.
Trump has said repeatedly that if Congress fails to enact the changes he seeks to the deal, he may very well just walk away from it on his own.
Faisal also urged the Trump administration to take a more hardline approach toward Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar Assad, and to persuade Russia to drop its support for his regime, which is responsible for the deaths of more than half a million Syrians during the country’s ongoing civil war.
“Assad is the biggest terrorist. He has killed more people than Hamas, ISIS or al-Nusra,” he said. “Therefore, the effort needs to be to convince Russia not to necessarily abandon, but to keep an arm’s distance from Mr. Assad. If that happens, we can get things happening in Syria.”