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Ukraine conflict could spark rush to Iran deal, ex-national security adviser warns

Former top Netanyahu aide Meir Ben-Shabbat says Tehran must not be allowed to take advantage of world focus on Russian invasion

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat during a ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport prior to visiting Bahrain to sign a series of bilateral agreements between Jerusalem and Manama, October 18, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL via FLASH90)
Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat during a ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport prior to visiting Bahrain to sign a series of bilateral agreements between Jerusalem and Manama, October 18, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL via FLASH90)

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entering its fifth day, the world’s attention — and, it seems, that of Israel’s government — has been firmly focused on Eastern Europe.

At the same time, talks on Iran’s nuclear program, a far more direct threat to Israel’s security, seem to be coming to a head in Vienna.

The Times of Israel spoke (in Hebrew) on Sunday about Russia, Iran, and the connection between them with Meir Ben-Shabbat, who served as national security adviser and head of the National Security Council from 2017 to 2021. Today, Ben Shabbat is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The Times of Israel: Are you surprised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine? What do you think Putin wants to accomplish?

Meir Ben-Shabbat: The warnings the Americans gave the entire world were extremely vehement and were quite detailed. The Americans themselves not only warned that a Russian invasion into Ukraine could happen “at any time” – in the words of the defense secretary a week ago – but also took actions that showed they truly believed that an invasion could occur in the immediate future.

Despite this, since the decision to go to war remained in the hands of one person – President Putin – it was difficult to estimate until the very last moment how much influence talks with the Americans and steps taken by the West would have on his intentions, and whether they would bring about a change or delay of the invasion plans. In the end, the intelligence warnings were accurate but were not enough to change the direction of developments.

This episode once again reminds decision-makers, as well as security and intelligence professionals, of an important lesson — that in all places and at all times one must always make assessments according to the capabilities that the other side is building, and must not wait until their intentions become clear. This, by the way, was what was actually done here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on as he visits the construction site of the National Space Agency on the premises of the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre in Moscow, Russia, February 27, 2022. (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

As for the goals of the war: Though Ukraine is the country caught in the eye of the storm, as in every crisis between superpowers, in this conflict [Putin’s] reasons and goals go beyond the borders of the theater itself.

Russia wants to reclaim lost glory and secure its status as a world power, as well as its interests in the global system. It wants to stop what it sees as a violation of the regional balance of power, in the wake of both NATO’s spread to the east and the relationship America and Western nations enjoy with former Soviet countries.

Its concrete demands, which are evident from the announcements put out by the White House in the days leading up to the invasion, included a withdrawal of NATO forces from eastern Europe.

How do you view the way in which this government has maneuvered between Russia on the one hand, and the US and the West on the other? Would you have done anything different?

I would not presume to give out grades or give advice to the sides. Israel has a desire to see this conflict reach its conclusion as quickly as possible through non-violent means. This was our approach before the invasion, and this is what we are hoping for now.

Is there a risk that Russia will take revenge against Israel in Syria if Israel supports Ukraine too openly?

First, I want to stress that I do not currently fill any official role and therefore my answers should not be seen as any official Israeli position.

As for the question – Israel does not need to prove which worldview, ideological outlook, and morals it sides with. This is quite clear to everyone. Everyone is also aware that Israel and the US have what is called, not coincidentally, a “special relationship.”

At the same time, Israel has additional interests that it must take into account as well.

Israel soldiers stand near a Merkava IV battle tank parked in a military post near the Syria border in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on January 24, 2022. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

Is it conceivable that Israel would host negotiations between Russia and Ukraine here?

Absolutely, but the question of hosting is secondary. The more important question is the assessment of the conditions and chances to produce an agreement between the sides.

How will this conflict affect the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna?

There could be effects in both directions. On the one hand, it could get in the way of the rush toward an agreement, because of the difficulty of bringing representatives to sign the agreement during this time. On the other hand, it could lead to the mistaken conclusion that a deal must be signed quickly in order to remove this issue from the agenda and to focus on the crisis in Europe.

Specifically, does it help Israel that the world’s attention is on Ukraine, and not Vienna?

The campaign in Ukraine has already pushed the Iran issue from the center of the world’s agenda. Iran must not be allowed to take advantage of the global tumult in order to make progress on the nuclear program and other areas.

I want to point at a unique opportunity the US administration has right now. America’s allies in the Middle East are looking at the events in Europe and are drawing their conclusions, which are not necessarily good for America’s status in our region.

The talks on the nuclear agreement – yes, specifically the talks – can provide the US the opportunity to fix this impression. Through the Iran issue, the US can signal a change in its approach.

It can stop the current process of returning to the 2015 deal and employ every means of pressure it has in order to achieve a “longer and stronger” agreement, as the Biden administration promised. This is possible, even at the bottom of the ninth.

How close are the sides to an agreement in Vienna?

It looks like they are very close, but nothing is final until everything is agreed upon.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, and Deputy Secretary General and Political Director of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Enrique Mora stand in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Why has Israel failed to influence the emerging deal? Is this a failure of the current government?

Israel is not a party to the agreement. An agreement is a means, not an end. The end is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state or a nuclear threshold state. An agreement that does not achieve this goal is not a good agreement. No deal is better than a deal that does not achieve its goals.

A bad deal is worse than no deal at all because, for one thing, it gives the illusion that there is a solution to the Iranian challenge while in actuality it does not guarantee this. And it gets in the way of a search for other means.

Second: It gives Iran legitimacy and frees up significant funds that will be used to build up strength, and will result in Iran’s power growing, as well its activities in all domains and in all regions.

Third: The other players in the Middle East understand this and they will not stand by the wayside. Instead, they will begin to take actions that will result in a nuclear arms race. This will make the region and the entire world less safe and less stable.

Is there a ‘Plan B’ that can actually prevent Iran from advancing toward a nuclear bomb if it so desires?

This is the sort of thing that should be discussed in private and in the appropriate forums. In any event, it is hard to come up with cases in which an agreement alone caused a country to give up its military nuclear program. It didn’t happen in Iraq, it didn’t happen in Libya, it didn’t happen in Syria, and it didn’t happen in North Korea. There is no reason to assume that it will happen in Iran.

Only when the ayatollahs’ regime believes that its insistence on a military nuclear program could endanger its survival — only then is there a chance that it will give up or truly suspend its nuclear program. It can be made to arrive at that conclusion only through paralyzing means of pressure employed over time, alongside a credible military threat.

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