With Iran secure as a threshold state, has Israel failed?
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With Iran secure as a threshold state, has Israel failed?

There’s no deal, but the full dismantling of Tehran’s nuclear program, so ardently sought by Netanyahu, is clearly off the table. Could things have gone differently?

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

File: An Iranian student at a demonstration outside the Tehran Research Reactor to show support for Iran's nuclear program, November 23, 2014 (AFP/Atta Kenare)
File: An Iranian student at a demonstration outside the Tehran Research Reactor to show support for Iran's nuclear program, November 23, 2014 (AFP/Atta Kenare)

Hours before the deadline elapsed on Monday, Iran and six world powers agreed to extend their negotiations on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program until the end of June, 2015. Israel reacted with extreme relief. “The deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

No deal is better than a bad deal, officials in Jerusalem repeat tirelessly. If the international community keeps up the pressure on Iran, they assert, and ideally even increases the sanctions on the regime, there is a decent chance that Tehran will eventually cave and agree to fully dismantle its rogue nuclear program.

Except the P5+1 aren’t even pushing for Iran to dismantle the program. And a terrible deal is not off the table. The negotiations the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany have been conducting with Iran will continue and probably lead to an agreement. If not by July, then after that. This time the gaps couldn’t be bridged, but the idea that a future deal will satisfy Netanyahu’s declared requirements — the dismantling of Iran’s entire set of military nuclear capabilities — is beyond improbable.

Netanyahu demands that Iran be stripped of any uranium enrichment capability. But that train has left the station; the P5+1 have basically conceded that the Islamic Republic has the right to enrich uranium. Any conceivable future deal will disregard Netanyahu’s maximalist position and leave Tehran with some enrichment capability.

In other words: Iran is currently a nuclear threshold state, three to six months away from having enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, according to former IDF Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin. After a deal is cut, Iran will still be a threshold state, perhaps one or two years away from the bomb, but with an international stamp of approval — and without the sanctions regime that has been crippling its economy.

Netanyahu has been fighting against the Iranian nuclear program more determinedly than any other world leader — unsurprisingly, since Israel feels itself more threatened by Iran than perhaps any other state. For the last few years, he has been tirelessly exhorting the world to ensure that the world’s most dangerous regime not attain the capacity to produce the world’s most dangerous weapon. Any agreement that would leave Iran as a threshold state would be “a disaster of historic proportions,” he said earlier this month.

No deal was struck this week in Vienna, and some believe that the failure to reach an agreement this time means that there will never be an agreement. But however the negotiations now play out, the bottom line is that Iran will remain a threshold state for the foreseeable future — either because talks will fall apart, because of further extensions, or because a deal will be made.

Netanyahu has built his political career on the promise to keep Israel safe and secure. He has long emphasized the gravity of the Iranian nuclear threat, which he defines as the country’s greatest security challenge by far. And yet the way the negotiations have evolved, as he would be the first to acknowledge, has been disappointing and frustrating, and has emphatically not guaranteed Israel’s safety.

Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking to international media from his Jerusalem office, November 23, 2014 (photo credit Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking to international media from his Jerusalem office, November 23, 2014 (photo credit Haim Zach/GPO)

Does this mean Netanyahu has failed in what he considers to be his office’s supreme historical mission, his political raison d’être?

At first glance, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. While he deserves credit for warning the world of Iran’s terrifying plans before most other world leaders paid adequate attention to the ayatollahs’ nuclear project, and for pushing the international community into imposing sanctions on the Tehran regime, he has plainly failed in his bid to reverse and dismantle the Iranian nuclear program.

He warned of the Iranian threat in almost every speech or relevant meeting in recent memory. He gave countless interviews to Sunday morning talk shows and sent his ministers to brief foreign journalists. But sounding the alarm was self-evidently insufficient. Rhetoric could not replace a firmer policy, or perhaps more pertinently, action. Could he have done more?

Even if the military option was deemed unwise or premature — and then too late — was Netanyahu pursuing alternative means to achieve so critical a goal? And if so, what became of them?

Under Netanyahu, Israel chose not to launch a preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities when, from a diplomatic perspective, it still could have done so — when the deeply unsavory and seemingly unpredictable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the face of the regime, and President Barack Obama had not led the West into deep diplomatic engagement. The prime minister threatened; he tangled publicly with his own military and security chiefs, serving and retired; ultimately, he opted not to act.

Once Tehran and the world powers began serious negotiations, and with the smooth-talking Hassan Rouhani having replaced Ahmadinejad, to strike at Iran would be to defy the US-led international community. An Israeli strike became almost unthinkable.

It is entirely possible to argue that attacking Iran would have been emphatically not in Israel’s interest. And yet, you would expect a leader whose principal declared goal is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power to do more than pontificate about it. Even if the military option was deemed unwise or premature — and then too late — was he pursuing alternative means to achieve so critical a goal? And if so, what became of them?

Naturally, Netanyahu’s confidants reject the notion that the prime minister hasn’t acted effectively enough to prevent a nuclear Iran — that he, like the P5+1 he has so criticized, was outsmarted by the Islamic Republic.

“You see what you see, and you don’t see what you don’t see,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said last week, possibly hinting at clandestine activity that may have been undertaken — indeed, may still be in play — to slow down the Iranians. Foreign press reports, and the outraged Iranians, have long linked Israel and the US to Stuxnet and other computer viruses, to the deaths of key scientists, to mysterious explosions. “You don’t see everything Israel is doing and I am not going to elaborate,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (L), at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (photo credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL/FLASH90 )
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (L), at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (photo credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL/FLASH90 )

While it is undeniable that the progress and direction of the negotiations has been unsatisfactory, Israeli officials have not been sitting around twiddling their thumbs, Steinitz asserted. Over the last year and a half, Jerusalem has made strenuous efforts to convey its positions to the P5+1, sharing intelligence and the evaluations of nuclear experts, the minister noted.

Steinitz traveled to Washington, Paris and London to meet with senior officials dealing with the Iran file. “We are doing whatever we can,” he said. “We’re not a global super power but we’re doing our best to influence with what we have.”

It was only at Jerusalem’s behest that last year’s interim agreement stipulated that Iran must give up its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, Steinitz noted, adding that Israel was thus instrumental in creating an important precedent.

“We are not running the show. We cannot dictate to all the five global super powers always our position. But we can convince, explain, share, and I think that sometimes it’s quite constructive,” he insisted.

By that telling, the government’s key achievement on Iran was to make a really bad situation a little better. And Yehezkel Dror, an expert of Israeli statecraft and former adviser to several Israeli prime and defense ministers, is not convinced that Netanyahu could have done much better.

“It’s certainly a policy that did not succeed,” Dror said of Netanyahu’s approach. “But this does not mean that there was a better option available. There is no clear-cut answer to what he should have done. Even if you do the best possible, in some situations you don’t succeed.”

The prime minister cannot be definitively blamed for not having attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities when the diplomatic and geo-political environment was seemingly more accommodating, because the consequences of such a move were unpredictable and potentially devastating, Dror noted. Even were so complex a military mission to have succeeded in significantly setting back the Iranian program, Israel might have been dragged into a bloody military confrontation, with potential regional repercussions, only to see Tehran rebuild the destroyed facilities a few years later, lusting for revenge and claiming new justification for the imperative to protect itself with a nuclear capability.

Foreign Ministers from the P5+1 nations - Philip Hammond of the United Kingdom, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Wang Yi of China, Baroness Catherine Ashton of the European Union, Sergey Lavrov of Russia, John Kerry of the United States, and Laurent Fabius of France - look for their place mark before taking a "family photo" in Vienna, Austria, on November 24, 2014. (photo credit: US State Department)
Foreign Ministers from the P5+1 nations – Philip Hammond of the United Kingdom, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Wang Yi of China, Baroness Catherine Ashton of the European Union, Sergey Lavrov of Russia, John Kerry of the United States, and Laurent Fabius of France – look for their place mark before taking a “family photo” in Vienna, Austria, on November 24, 2014. (photo credit: US State Department)

Even the most effective silent diplomacy, similarly, might have proven unable to prevent the P5+1 from sliding into the tactics that have allowed and evidently will continue to allow Iran to remain a threshold state, Dror posited. Israeli officials’ publicly aired criticism of US policy was misguided, he said, but even if Netanyahu had the best of relations with Obama, that would have been unlikely to change the thrust of the talks, and the US president would still likely indicate a readiness to allow Iran an ongoing enrichment capability.

Professor Yehezkel Dror (photo credit: YouTube screen cap)
Professor Yehezkel Dror (photo credit: YouTube screen cap)

A tougher US-led stance might also have softened, in any case, with the emergence of the Islamic State terrorist group. That changed the geopolitical situation so significantly that, even had it not previously been engaged with Tehran, Washington might have opted for a détente with Iran — seen as a possible ally in the fight against IS. And there would have been little Netanyahu could have done to change the Americans’ mind. “I don’t think Israel has enough weight really to impact on a critical policy of the United States vis-à-vis Iran,” Dror said in summation. “There are limits to the Israeli influence. Never mind AIPAC, the Republicans and so forth.”

While the US has geopolitical concerns that led it to seek a rapprochement with Tehran, the Europeans have commercial and economic interests, he noted. The Europeans, Dror argued, also don’t really take seriously the threat Iran poses to Israel, and are generally convinced that, as an assumed nuclear power, the Jewish state has enough deterrence that it need not worry about the ayatollahs’ regime.

Still, there are some who see the progress of the negotiations as a relative success for Netanyahu. “The [US] administration’s argument is that Iran is a threshold country, and has been one for some time,” said Patrick Clawson, the director of research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Iran Security Initiative. “What we’re going to do with this [eventual] agreement is keep Iran further away from the threshold than they’re at the moment. And that represents progress toward the prime minister’s goal.”

Could Israel have done better? Specifically, could Netanyahu have explored the “linkage theory” — asking Washington to take a tougher stance on Iran in exchange for Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians?

Dror was doubtful. After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while important, is “not the major game in town.” America’s relations with Iran and Russia, global oil prices and fighting IS are much bigger issues, he argued.

“Even if Israeli statecraft in everything relating to Iran had been as good as human minds can make it, I have doubts whether it would have made the difference,” he said. “I don’t think Israel had the power to change this policy. Even if it had behaved wisely, which it did not.”

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