The Day After a Deal With Iran

The P5+1 and Iran are pursuing yet another round of negotiations and The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson is asking the pestering question on everyone’s mind “What will happen if neither side can take yes for an answer?” Fear not—it fortunately isn’t going to be war. The stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program that has lasted for a decade can extend indefinitely so if the current confab goes to pieces another one will be attempted at some later date when both sides grow weary of bickering. A deal is ineluctably coming and the only questions are when it will happen—sooner or later—and who will be making it. There is a chance that Russia and the EU will boot the U.S. out of the P5+1 and negotiate its own deal with Iran as Russia was prepared to do with Syria if the UN didn’t approve of Moscow’s chemical weapons disarmament initiative.

Another possibility is the U.S. is influencing conditions so that it eventually has no choice but to disband the P5+1 because Washington knows a deal can only be inked in one-on-one talks with Iran. That would explain why the U.S. conveniently allowed France to hinder an interim deal at the previous meeting. After splitting up the group for its inability to craft a unified position, the U.S. could then bring into the light of day the covert bilateral talks it has apparently been having since last year and from there conduct a successful negotiation. Having caught wind of these backchannel talks, the Israeli government has resigned itself to a deal happening regardless of what becomes of the P5+1.  According to Stuart Winer, “the expectation in Jerusalem is that a deal is on the way in the near future, even if it is not achieved during the talks in Geneva, the report [Winer is citing about the behind the scenes negotiations] said.”

Not that the U.S. achieving a deal matters all that much to Israel. Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu will shed crocodile tears and act as if the apocalypse is on the horizon when Iran is legitimized as a nuclear threshold state but, contrary to his public pantomime, he’ll have long since moved on. As I have written, Israel is inching towards containment and will have formed its strategy to counter Iran by the time all the sanctions are lifted. Containment will win out—especially as Israelis keep souring on the military option—and Shabtai Shavit, a former Mossad head, suggested that containment would be made more palatable for Israel if Iran underwent a political transition away from theocracy. When asked by Elhanan Miller “Could Israel conceivably allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons?” this was Shavit’s response:

“In a scenario where Iran changes from [a leadership] of Muslim fanatics to a civil society, we can decide that ‘OK, it’s not worth going to war over.’ Why? Because a civil society decides differently than fanatical Muslim leaders whose duty in life is to annihilate you.”

Well, if that’s the case Israel could drop whatever lingering reservations it may have over containment because Iran isn’t exactly governed by Muslim fanatics. As Muhammad Sahimi points out “After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, passed away in June 1989, the Iranian government began to gradually distance itself from his revolutionary policies,” and in the Nineties Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani “went so far as to declare publicly that “the era of Ayatollah Khomeini is over.” Dismissing the Arab states dread of Iran spreading its revolutionary values as “a fear that has no basis in reality,” Sahimi concludes “when it comes to foreign policy, Iranian leaders long ago set aside their ideological fervor.” Although Sahimi adds that the “only exception to this is Israel,” this doesn’t mean the mullahs are zealously committed to obliterating Israel but rather to seeing through a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So if Israel will have no problems containing Iran (theocratic or secular) why do Netanyahu, who has stressed that he prefers a diplomatic solution, and his supporters continue to rail against any deal?  In truth, these histrionics aren’t about the deal but about what Washington will do in the aftermath. Containing Iran will be a tall order and Israel frets that, if the U.S. pivots too much of its power to the Pacific, it will be left holding the bag and contending with a reinvigorated Iran. It is an understanding with the U.S. that Netanyahu wants and the Washington Post editorial board seems to have gotten the message. They suggest that “the Obama administration ought to be assuring Israel and Arab allies that it will continue to reject Iran’s regional ambitions, respond to its aggressive acts and support the aspirations of Iranians for a democratic regime that respects human rights.”

Doesn’t the Post’s recommendation for mollifying our Middle East allies sound strikingly similar to the mini cold war I predicted was going to happen in the region post-Iran nuclear deal? If this is the line of action that’s going to be promoted to bridge the gap, then I don’t think Israel and the Gulf States have a thing to worry about since it won’t take much convincing for the Obama administration to go along with this reassurance policy. The U.S. was going to keep some heat on Iran anyway as part of a larger confrontation with China. What Iran’s opponents do have to watch out for is pressing their luck and thinking they can get the U.S. to remain more involved in the region than it wants to be. Other than that, the U.S. and its allies will find a way to be on the same page for the day after a deal with Iran.

Deal or No Deal, Israel Gets a New Nuclear Neighbor

Writing about the eleventh hour collapse of an interim agreement with Iran which will be delayed by ten days, the NewYork Times editorial board asks “all those inveighing against any deal—namely members of Congress, Israel and Saudi Arabia” what is the alternative? Many—the White House included–have answered that war would be the inevitable result but that scenario has no chance of taking place. I’ve given reasons aplenty as to why no one will attack Iran but here’s a new one reported by Chemi Shalev: In internal discussions, [Obama] Administration figures have also said that even if there was a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, the sides would still have to return to the negotiating table to work out a the same kind of deal that they are discussing now.” Attacking Iran, violating international law in the process, only serves to dig Washington’s diplomacy hole deeper and deeper.

This is especially true if being bombed provokes Iran to produce nukes. Diplomacy would then center on negotiating away Iran’s nukes—a not impossible feat, one which the U.S. is presently attempting with North Korea and could succeed at if it had the political will. So there’s really no such thing as total diplomatic failure when it comes to the nuclear Iran issue; the latest talks can fail but not the entire effort. Should they fail the outcome would be the implicit recognition of Iran as an eventual nuclear armed power. But should they succeed and there is deal, this recognition would likewise occur, as Israeli columnist Shimon Shiffer explains:

“If at the end of the day the world powers and Iran reach understandings, Netanyahu’s declarations that Israel will not be obliged by the agreement will be meaningless. The option of an attack, it seems, no longer exists. Let’s just see the Israeli PM dare send US-made Israel Air Force jets on his own to bomb the nuclear facilities in Bushehr and Fordo against an agreement signed by the Americans. Those hoping to be rescued by Israel’s friends at the Congress should not get their hopes up. History shows that on matters related to foreign policy, the Congress tends to eventually go with the president–both Democrats and Republicans… The bottom line is that Iran is soon expected to join India, Pakistan and Israel… in the club of countries in possession of nuclear bombs or just a stone’s throw away from them”

Deal or no deal, Israel is going to behave as if it has a new nuclear neighbor–because Iran is immune from attack and will always have an unobstructed path to the bomb—and therefore will have to embrace containment. Some Israeli officials have been making comments flirting with containment and last week one academic gave it a robust endorsement. Professor Uzi Rabi–who, according to Yakov Lappin, doesn’t “think a nuclear Iran will cause a regional disaster”—is counseling that “Israel will need to start thinking about how to contain a nuclear Iran together with Arab states that are also threatened by the Islamic Republic.” Rabi and these officials, however, are late to the containment party when that position has been in vogue among the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies think tank and a majority of Israelis for over a year.

In January 2012 there was an AFP piece concerning a study done by the INSS preparing for the fallout of Iran testing a nuclear weapon because Israel had “shifted its position following recent United Nations’ reports” about Iran’s Fordow nuclear facility. The INSS expected that “the US would propose a defence pact with Israel, but would urge it not to retaliate.” In a Peace Index poll conducted in the summer of that year, 60 percent of the Israeli public was convinced it was time to switch gears and felt that “Israel should accept the fact that it apparently will be impossible to prevent Iran from nuclearizing, and accordingly, Israel should formulate a new defense strategy based on the assumption that it will not be the only nuclear power in the region.” As for the Israeli government, it can only risk rupturing relations with the U.S. for so long over its resistance to the interim agreement and, once it’s signed, will soon drop the facade and declare openly for containment.

Israel is girding itself for an Iranian bomb–that much is clear. But why then would Israel lean on France to throw a spanner into the Geneva proceedings and delay a deal by a few weeks at most? Maybe because the push to temporarily halt the talks didn’t originate in Israel but in the U.S. Things may have been moving a bit too quick for Washington’s taste and it isn’t inconceivable that Secretary of State John Kerry gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the go-ahead to hysterically oppose the progress. But why would the Obama administration want to drag its feet on a deal so plainly advantageous to the U.S. and the Pacific Pivot? It’s all about the President’s legacy. A nuclear deal and possible détente with Iran will be Obama’s Nixon-goes-to-China moment and this foreign policy piece de resistance would be all the more triumphant if he accomplishes it in the midst of seemingly bitter conflict. For it to truly be the “deal of the century” it must have been won against long odds.

Why Israel has Stopped Worrying and Learned to Live With the Iranian Bomb

I have argued before that the United States and Israel aren’t frightened by a nuclear-armed Iran and that they aren’t sanctioning Iran over its civilian nuclear program but for entirely unrelated reasons. Israel supports the sanctions scheme to keep Iran against the ropes while Washington supports it as part of waging a cold war against China. Over a year later, my position is being vindicated by comments from retired Israeli officials that strongly suggest their nation is quietly undergoing preparations to live with Iran possibly having atomic bombs. For example, here’s the concluding exchange of an interview between The New Republic’s Ben Birnbaum and former defense-intelligence chief Amos Yadlin:

“Birnbaum: But you’re saying it’s wrong to think that Israel has another year to stop Iran.

Yadlin: It’s more correct to say that the next year, unlike previous years, is really the year of decision. Decision is not necessarily an attack—it can be an attack, it can be leaving the problem to Obama to solve, a decision to live with problematic deal, or a decision to live with the bomb, with all its ramifications.”

Not necessarily an attack is right. That particular decision definitely will not happen and so the next two decisions are equivalent to an acceptance of the lattermost choice. Whether the deal is good or bad, the Iranians will still be able to sprint toward a bomb, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points out without fail, because Iran knows no one will to attack them for doing so. Netanyahu is also mindful of this and that could be why he’s advocating the total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program. His maximalist demands are ultimately about reducing Iran’s nuclear capacity so that if Supreme Leader Ali Khameini ever does green-light bomb construction it will give Israel (and the West) enough time—not to attack—but to begin taking steps towards containment.

How do I know that, out of Yadlin’s four decisions, Israel is favoring containment? Well, Netanyahu has lately emphasized Israel’s new-found opportunity to grow closer to the Gulf States over countering Iranian hegemony. If that doesn’t sound like a budding containment strategy, what does? In addition, there’s this most revelatory quote from Former Air Force Commander Ido Nehushtan. He told an audience at a cultural event in Beersheba “If we’ve reached a point where Iran has nuclear weapons and we’re too late, that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way forever.” Wait, Iran can actually develop the world’s most destructive weaponry and yet Israel can count on Iran somehow not retaining it? Just what is Nehushtan insinuating? I doubt he has lost his mind and is imagining some fantastical epic covert operation where Iran’s nukes are smuggled out of the country. No, my guess is he is looking at the U.S’s approach to North Korea and believes Iran’s future nuke stockpile could be negotiated away.

Yes, I know diplomatically getting North Korea to abandon its cache of nukes hasn’t borne any fruit but there’s no reason to expect that it never will. Back in April when tensions between the U.S. and North Korea were soaring, Reuters reported that North Korea’s “top military body said the denuclearization of the peninsula would begin when the United States removed nuclear weapons that North Korea said Washington had deployed in the region.” The National Defense Commission then added that the denuclearization could then “lead to global nuclear disarmament.” As threats were swapped, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to offer the Kim regime a “diplomatic off-ramp” where “any concessions made to North Korea could come only once the North stops its threats against the United States and its allies, agrees to a moratorium on missile and nuclear weapons testing and implements a promise made in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in return for security, economic and energy benefits.”

“The shape of a possible eventual deal,” Obama administration sources told CNN, “is likely to take the form of previous attempts at satisfying what the United States sees as North Korea’s ultimate goal of survival, which could include security guarantees, a road map to a peace treaty and a lifting of sanctions. North Korea wants all three of these elements as part of any potential agreement with the US.” If the peace treaty’s security guarantees included the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and Washington vowed not to hinder the reunification process then that’s all the more incentive for North Korea to denuclearize. When there’s no need to deter others from overthrowing the regime, there’s no need for nukes.

Nehushtan, gleaning a lesson from North Korea’s position on denuclearization and the opportunities available there, is likely thinking of removing a hypothetical nuclear-armed Iran’s need for deterrence. He knows that, like the Kim regime, the regime in Tehran values staying in power above all and would think nothing of using their nukes as bargaining chips. But if it would take a grand gesture from North Korea to be persuaded to denuclearize, what could the West and Israel offer to a nuked-up Iran? How about Israel’s own nukes? The Israeli government could finally endorse the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone that Iran has been advocating since 1974. There are indications that Israel is readying itself to head in that direction. That Israel would attend such a conference short of its own requirement of there first being peace in the region is confirmation enough for me that Israel has indeed decided it can abide an Iran with the bomb.