Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a veteran critic of Iran’s nuclear program, swiftly denounced the preliminary nuclear agreement reached in Lausanne, Switzerland, as a naive capitulation with sweeping regional – or even global – ramifications.
“This deal would legitimize Iran's nuclear program, bolster Iran's economy, and increase Iran's aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond,” he told President Obama in a phone call after the US president heralded the “historic” deal. “Such a deal would not block Iran’s path to the bomb. It would pave it.”
On Friday, he added the demand that any finalized deal with Iran include Iranian recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
It was predictable that Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing allies would oppose the “framework” deal reached in Lausanne Thursday night. Naftali Bennett, who is angling to become foreign minister or defense minister in Netanyahu’s new government, called the deal “the 2015 Chamberlain agreement,” referring to the British prime minister’s ill-fated Munich deal in 1938 that paved the way for Hitler to expand his conquest of Europe.
But it is not just Netanyahu, fashioning himself as a modern Churchill, who believes the West made unwise concessions to a cunning Iran.
Yair Lapid, the centrist Yesh Atid party leader whose falling out with Netanyahu precipitated the collapse of his previous government late last year, said that when it comes to Iran there are no political divisions.
“We are all concerned that the Iranians will circumvent the deal, and Israel must protect its own security interests. The ayatollah’s regime has been peddling fraud and deception for years and progressing with its nuclear program. They will try, from day one, to cheat the international community as they have done in the past.”
Netanyahu convened a special cabinet meeting Friday to discuss the deal with intelligence and security chiefs, and said the cabinet is strongly united in opposing the deal.
Concessions of note
Many Israelis, who are as native to the culture of Middle East bargaining as their Persian or Arab neighbors, are dumbfounded at the degree to which they say American and European diplomats failed to leverage their strategic advantage over a country weakened by international sanctions.
“Instead of Iran pleading to end the sanctions, Obama pleaded Iran to sign the agreement,” wrote Tim Borodin, one of many commenters responding to an article about the deal in the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
Among the concessions of most concern to Israel are the fact that centrifuges at the underground Fordow plant that Iran developed in secret will remain in place, albeit not for uranium enrichment. Iran will also be able to continue research and development on advanced centrifuges, which could enable it to enrich weapons-grade uranium much faster in the future. And aspects of Iran's nuclear program with potential military dimensions (PMDs), such as Israeli assertions last September that Iran had developed a nuclear detonator at its Parchin complex, were hardly addressed.
“The dangerous aspect of this is that Iran actually will be able to maintain its breakout capability. As long as things are mothballed and not dismantled, then conceivably this could break down. And when it does, Iran will have its infrastructure basically intact,” says Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the independent Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) on Tel Aviv University’s campus. “We have no indication from this deal that Iran’s military aspirations have changed, and that’s the key to understanding this whole issue.”
No. 1 concern: regional aggression
Some see a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and frantically call attention to bellicose rhetoric such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement during last summer’s Gaza war that "Israel's annihilation is the only real cure.” The sentiment was reiterated just last week, even as work toward the framework nuclear deal was progressing.
But others, while acknowledging the extremely sensitive nature of nuclear deterrence, say the key fear is not that Iran will annihilate Israel with a nuclear weapon. Rather, nuclear weapons would embolden Iran to exert greater pressure on regional actors in order to increase its regional – or perhaps even global – sway.
Already, they say, Iran is heavily involved in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It has longstanding ties with the two most powerful militant groups opposed to Israel – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories – and has helped them achieve the significant weapons arsenals that have sent an unprecedented number of Israelis running to bomb shelters since 2006.
“When you have nuclear weapons capabilities, other states will be very wary of confronting you, especially coercively, in response to anything you would do aggressively in the region in order to bring to bear your hegemonic aspirations,” says Dr. Landau. “I would say that’s probably the No. 1 concern.”
Military and diplomatic options
Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s outgoing Minister of Strategic Affairs from Netanyahu’s Likud party, and Nimrod Sheffer, head of the Israeli military’s Planning Directorate, maintained Thursday that an Israeli military strike is still on the table. Israel has carried out such unilateral actions before, notably on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and a Syrian reactor in 2007.
Military analysts and former intelligence officials have cautioned, however, that an Israeli strike would not be capable of destroying Iran’s program, and would risk a wider and costly regional war. Such a move now would also likely plunge already poor US-Israel relations further into crisis.
Nevertheless, some say Israel would be willing to go ahead with a strike without tacit approval from Washington.
“Can Israel do it without coordinating with the Americans? Of course. The Americans didn’t coordinate the [Lausanne] agreement with Israel,” says Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s national security adviser from 2011-2013.
New missile shield
In the meantime, Israel is also improving its arsenal of missile defense systems. Last week it trumpeted a successful test of David’s Sling, a system designed to protect against attacks from Hezbollah, which has an estimated stockpile of 100,000 rockets. It is also working on a third iteration of its Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, which is designed to shoot down long-range missiles, including those fitted with a nuclear warhead.
On the diplomatic front, Israel’s options are limited, especially after the prime minister infuriated the Obama administration by imploring Congress to thwart the nuclear negotiations upon which Obama has staked so much of his effort – and perhaps his legacy as well.
But Israel is likely to intensify efforts to persuade the US as well as the international community to take a stronger stand against Iran ahead of the June 30 deadline for a final agreement.
“What we’ve been doing for a long time and we’re ready to keep doing … is to speak to reason,” Yossi Kuperwasser, outgoing director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told foreign media Wednesday, adding it was in that spirit that Netanyahu took the “very rare move” or speaking to Congress without the consent of the White House. “No doubt we paid a heavy price for doing that, but … we are the ones who are the first target of the Iranians – they don’t hide it.”