Israel: Not seen but very much heard at Iran nuclear talks

Fearful that Iran could still build a nuclear weapon, Israel is insisting sanctions be tightened further. But US negotiators are urging the opposite to give talks a chance.

Majid Asgaripour/Mehr News Agency/AP/File
A worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran, in 2010. Israel has led the speculation that Iran could be moving closer to having all the pieces ready for a nuclear weapon.

Israel is unseen but very much heard at the negotiating table as Iran and six world powers resume talks tomorrow aimed at putting permanent limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel is Iran’s arch-foe, and the United States' closest Middle East ally. US officials vow its security is sacrosanct, and have been striving to reassure Israel that any deal struck will address Israel’s insistence – also stated by President Barack Obama repeatedly – that Iran never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon. 

“To the people of Israel, I want to say the [Geneva] talks are the first step to stop the clock and prevent [Iran’s] nuclear program from going forward,” US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman told Israeli television on Sunday.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday called Israel “an illegal and bastard regime” that the Islamic Republic would forever challenge. Iran accuses Israel of assassinating a number of its nuclear scientists, and has warned the US not to let Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington dictate the policies of a superpower. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says a nuclear-armed Iran would be an “existential threat” to the Jewish state and has threatened military strikes to prevent that outcome. He has also demanded ratcheting up sanctions until Iran dismantles its entire nuclear infrastructure. But given the scale of Iran’s programs and extent of its homegrown expertise today, that demand is likely no longer feasible. 

Israeli security and Iran experts have a much more nuanced view about what Israel should expect.

“If Iran and the United States will come to a deal, it’s not going to be against the interests of the state of Israel, and I know that many people in Israel understand that,” says David Menashri, the founder of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and now president of Israel’s College of Law & Business. 

One Iranian scholar has told Mr. Menashri: “We are not stupid to think it is possible for Iran and the United States to have good relations, while Israel and Iran are fighting each other. It doesn’t go together. So be quiet, stay there, your turn will come.”

Speaking at the conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “The technology now is homegrown… You cannot… kill our scientists and remove the program."

“So how do you make sure this technology is peaceful?” added Mr. Zarif. “Enable Iran to exercise it in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”

Such changes will not come easily, however. Anti-US and anti-Israeli ideology have been “part of the DNA of this [Iranian] revolution,” says Manashri. “We cannot expect [President Hassan] Rouhani to become one of the ‘lovers of Zionism,’ as we say. We have to understand the limitations of what he can do and what he cannot.”

Mr. Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was known for anti-Israel, anti-Zionism diatribes that questioned the scale of the Nazi Holocaust and declared that Israel one day would “disappear from the face of time.” While Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric has not ceased under the new centrist president – chants of “Death to Israel!” have often been voiced alongside “Death to America!” at official events – its shrillness has been dialed back.

But Israel's overriding concern is still that the negotiations are a stalling tactic. Today, Mr. Netanyahu warned US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem against any initial deal that would allow Iran to continue enrichment as sanctions are eased.

In contrast, Zarif said in Paris on Tuesday: "I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week." He added that if there is no breakthrough, however, it is "not a disaster." 

The goal for Israel? “That at no point in the future will we wake up one morning and find that a capability that was dormant was suddenly activated,” says Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, who was instrumental in brokering Israel’s peace with King Hussein of Jordan in 1994.

Mr. Halevy described parts of a presentation by Zarif at the Istanbul conference as “exhilarating.” In it, Zarif laid out the framework of a win-win nuclear deal, in which both sides would accept and act upon the primary concerns of the other – Iran's right to enrich would be acknowledged by six world powers, while Iran would do everything it could to ensure that making a nuclear bomb would not be possible and allow that to be verified. 

But Halevy told The Christian Science Monitor that the prospects of a deal were “remote … because it’s almost too difficult to strike the degree of pain that both sides will have to endure in getting an agreement.”

“For Iran, it’s become a symbol for everything,” added Halevy. “And for the United States, it has become an issue in which the prestige of the United States is at stake." 

Iran has created a so-called Axis of Resistance against US and Israeli influence in the Middle East that includes ally Syria, Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  

“Of course, the Iranians say that Israel has no right to exist, et cetera, but they are not capable of really threatening our existence, our survival, even if they got nuclear weapons,” says Shlomo Brom, an Israeli peace negotiator with Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians who is now at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“I don’t think the Iranians are suicidal,” says the former Israeli Defense Force brigadier general. “The way they conduct their business. .. shows that they are completely rational [by] making cost-benefit analysis and operating accordingly.

“If a nuclear deal is made, it will be good enough for Israel – maybe not the dream solution, but good enough.”

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