Just how bad is the Geneva nuclear deal for Israel?

Jerusalem will likely get far less than its demand that Iran be stripped of all enrichment capability, former top official says — but can always intervene later

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, the EU's Catherine Ashton, center, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, right, hold talks over Iran's nuclear program in Geneva, November 9, 2013. (Photo credit: State Department/Twitter)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, the EU's Catherine Ashton, center, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, right, hold talks over Iran's nuclear program in Geneva, November 9, 2013. (Photo credit: State Department/Twitter)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been denouncing the emerging — but not finalized — agreement between six Western powers and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as a “very dangerous and bad deal for peace and the international community.”

But is it really as atrocious as Netanyahu believes?

The exact terms of the proposed interim deal are still unclear, but it would likely entail a freeze of Iran’s nuclear progress in return for limited sanctions relief. Whatever the final terms, it appears certain that Netanyahu’s maximalist demands will not be met. On the other hand, the deal would seriously slow down Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon — for the first time in years — while leaving the most painful part of the sanctions regime firmly in place until a permanent agreement is signed.

US Secretary of State John Kerry tried his best in the early hours of Sunday morning to assuage Israel’s fears. “As President [Barack] Obama has said, his goal is… to make certain that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon,” he told reporters in Geneva, moments after Iran and the P5+1 powers — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — came close to signing the deal and suspended talks for 10 days. “That remains our goal because we remain committed to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and we remain committed to protecting our allies, particularly our allies in that region where security is so critical.”

The most crucial elements in determining whether the deal is viable relate to a) the amount and level of enriched uranium Iran is left with, b) the future of the heavy water reactor in Arak, which can produce plutonium used in nuclear bombs, and c) how tightly the agreement’s parameters would be subject to rigorous third-party inspection.

The plutonium issue, Kerry said Sunday, is “very central” to the success of the talks, and the US is “absolutely adamant [that it] must be addressed in the context of any kind of agreement.”

The crux of Israel’s vehement rejection of the deal is the uranium enrichment capacity Iran is left with; while Israel sees it a zero-sum game, the so-called P5+1 powers seem more flexible.

Nobody who seriously cares about Israel’s security is ecstatic about the proposed deal. But while for some it is utterly unacceptable, others reason that, in the absence of better alternatives, it’s worth pursuing. Kerry’s key point at his press conference was that the interim deal would freeze the Iranian program; in its absence, the Islamic Republic is still moving relentlessly toward the bomb.

Israel will have little choice but to accept the compromise if it is agreed in the next round of talks, a former senior Israeli defense official said. The West or Israel could still intervene militarily if Iran betrayed the deal and moved toward a weapon, he argued.

But Netanyahu isn’t the only one broadcasting dismay, and he may attempt to build a potent alliance of opponents.

“Given the Iranian history of obfuscation regarding its nuclear program, I am deeply concerned by reports that the administration is prepared to cut a deal providing sanctions relief for minimal, and reversible, Iranian concessions without requiring a full and complete halt to its nuclear efforts,” Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner said Friday. “The administration does not have a good answer to the concerns raised that this potential deal will allow Iran to continue to enrich and to build new centrifuges, while buying time to develop a breakout nuclear capability.”

Iran expert and Foundation for Defense of Democracies director Mark Dubowitz lamented that the proposed arrangement would allow Iran to keep in place its complete nuclear infrastructure and “maintain a still dangerous uranium breakout capacity” that would allow the regime to weaponize uranium whenever it pleased. “It does nothing to address centrifuge manufacturing, which is the key element to Iran’s secret enrichment program,” he told Bloomberg.

According to Channel 10, the deal in the works would have the Iranians halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, and their existing stocks of 20% would be converted to fuel rods; enrichment to 3.5% purity would be able to continue at Natanz and Qom. Further, operations at the Arak facility would have to cease. In exchange, the station reported, the Iranians would have sanctions lifted on petrochemical products, gold, auto and airplane parts, and assets worth $3 billion would be unfrozen. The sanctions on the country’s gas and banking industries would remain in place.

Netanyahu has said he simply cannot accept such a deal. He demands the Islamic Republic not be allowed to retain any uranium enrichment capability. As long as Tehran can enrich uranium and maintain its nearly 20,000 centrifuges — or even fewer, as their quality improves — the regime is too close to breakout capability, he argues, because even low-enriched uranium can be upgraded to weapon-grade material in a matter of months.

“There are those who would readily agree to leave Iran with a residual capability to enrich uranium,” Netanyahu said at the United Nations last month. “I advise them to pay close attention to what [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani said [in 2005]: ‘A country that could enrich uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent. Having fuel cycle capability virtually means that a country that possesses this capability is able to produce nuclear weapons.’ Precisely. This is why Iran’s nuclear weapons program must be fully and verifiably dismantled.”

In addition, Netanyahu demanded the removal of all already enriched material, the closure of the underground nuclear facility in Qom and the end of all activity at Arak.

Chuck Freilich (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chuck Freilich (photo credit: Courtesy)

According to Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, Netanyahu’s are unrealistic demands, and Israel will have to accept an imperfect deal — as long as some basic angles are covered. “To be realistic, we’re going to have to agree, to some point, to compromise,” he said Thursday. “And to compromise means that we’re going to have to agree that Iran will retain a civilian-level of uranium enrichment — that’s 3.5 percent. They will have to in some way mothball or close down the primary facilities of concern, Fordo and the plutonium reactor in Arak. But they will be left with the civil program.” Iran, under any acceptable agreement, would also have to be subject to highly intrusive inspections, he added.

Such an arrangement is far from perfect, as it would leave Iran with the potential to renew its nuclear program, admitted Freilich, who is now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. But at least it would take the regime a few years to reach breakout capability and produce weapons-grade uranium, he said.

“I think it’s a compromise situation that, for lack of a better alternative, we can and have probably have no choice but to live with,” Freilich continued. The only alternatives to the currently discussed deal are a policy of deterrence and containment on the one hand, or a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities on the other. The military route won’t do much more than buy two or three years’ time, as the nuclear program is too advanced and can no longer be entirely destroyed. If the P5+1 can delay Iranian nuclear weapons capability for just as long through diplomacy, this option appears preferable. Even if Iran decided to attempt to breakout, Israel or the US could then still intervene militarily, Freilich said.

The bargain nearing completion in Geneva, complete with its promise of limited sanctions relief, could cause the international community to lose focus and allow the unraveling of a complicated sanctions regime that took years to construct, some argue. But “I’m not terribly afraid of that happening,” Freilich said. “I don’t think the US has any intention to sell us out on this issue — not because of us but because of their own strategic reasons.”

Jerusalem argues that only tough sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and that if only they were toughened rather than eased, Tehran would eventually cave and completely dismantle its rogue nuclear program. That may or may not be true. But, as the Geneva talks this weekend underlined, the P5+1 is not of a mind to put the theory to the test.

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