Tel Aviv — The recent deal between the world powers and Iran heightened the debate between Israel and the Obama administration about whether the agreement will push Tehran farther away from nuclear weapons, or leave it on the precipice of becoming the newest nuclear power.
Israeli and U.S. officials promptly began a public argument over a series of highly technical aspects of the agreement: the potential effect on the “break-out time” to build a bomb; whether or not the international community could rely on an inspection regime to monitor such a deal; what should be the fate of Iran’s existing nuclear installations; and whether Iran should have to expose to inspectors its nuclear research and development work.
But Russia’s announcement on Monday of a green light for sales to Iran of an advanced anti-aircraft missile system shifted the focus in Israel away from the bomb to a more conventional — but no less worrying — concern of the nuclear agreement: an expected boost to Iran’s regional standing and multiplying threats to Israel.
In a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained that the arms sale will only boost Iran’s “aggression” in the region and undermine Middle East stability. “After this weapons deal, is there anyone that would still seriously claim that this agreement with Iran will boost security in the Middle East?”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Tuesday complained that the sale of S-300 missiles to Iran — which would significantly improve its defenses against a possible Israeli or U.S. air assault — was a “direct result” of the framework nuclear deal. Yaalon and other analysts said that the deal was a signal that the regime of economic sanctions imposed on Iran by world powers was already starting to crumble.
“That’s going to have an impact by strengthening the Iranian economy, and at the same time the Iranians are continuing to arm the enemies around us,” he said in a video posted to his Facebook account.
The fear is that once restrictions are lifted on Iran’s foreign trade, Tehran will become flush with cash and will feel emboldened to deepen its support for allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Yaalon complained that the framework ignored Iran’s support for militant groups around the Middle East threatening pro-Western states like the Shiite-allied Houthis in Yemen. “That isn’t even discussed,” Yaalon said. “It’s one of the biggest holes in the agreement.”
While there’s a debate in Israel about whether a strengthened Iran truly poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, as Netanyahu has argued, there’s little debate in Israel that the agreement and a détente with the U.S. is expected to enhance Iran as a regional power.
“Now they [the Iranians] take into consideration a possible confrontation with the Americans,” said Eyal Zisser, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. “Signing an agreement to a certain degree frees their hands; that’s something that we have to take into consideration.”
“Clearly, Iran is expanding, and trying to establish its presence all over. This is not mere speculation, it’s happening on the ground. … An agreement, the removal of the sanctions will enable them to increase more financial support to these projects. More money means more support for Hezbollah.”
More evidence of Iran’s declining isolation in the wake of the deal came with Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s recent visit to Tehran. Despite the fact that the two countries are at loggerheads over regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the expected lifting of sanctions could clear the way for new energy deals, said Zisser.
But Ephraim Halevy, a former chief of Israel’s Mossad, cautioned against viewing the Russian weapons deal as a part of a “domino” effect of collapsing pressure on Iran. In an interview with Israel Radio, he did say that the missile deal should be seen as a Russian move — the first of many — to bolster economic ties with Iran. Like Israeli leaders, Halevy said that fallout from the end of Iran’s economic isolation would probably boost Iranian terrorism around the region.
While the approaching nuclear deal stokes fear in Israel that Iran will get a leg up in regional power politics, Ehud Eiran, a political scientist at Haifa University, noted that Iran and Israel share a common enemy in the rise of the Islamic State. Some of the fronts that Iran is fighting on are actually good for us,” he said. “It serves our interest.”
Most Israeli officials, however, have been focusing on Iranian “encirclement’’ over the last few months, according to Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Israel sees Iranian allies sitting on its borders — Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah — getting a boost from the deal. But Syria has been especially disturbing recently, Tabler said.
That’s because Hezbollah along with Iranian officers from the Revolutionary Guards have boosted their presence in southern Syria along the border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. And while Israeli officials have been worried for years about the potential for a flare-up along this frontier amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the new operations by Hezbollah along the border are considered a strategic threat — expanding the standoff with Hezbollah from Lebanon to a new and untested arena. If some in Israel once saw Syrian President Bashar Assad as the “devil that we know,” the increased reliance on Iran and Hezbollah has alarmed many that Iran may come to fill in the power vacuum along the Golan.
A nuclear deal between world powers and Iran would only make such a development even more problematic. That may explain why Israel launched a rare and potentially strike on a convoy of Hezbollah and Iranian officers in the Syrian Golan Heights back in January — a signal by Israel that a Hezbollah-Iran presence in southern Syria will not be accepted with a business-as-usual attitude.
“Everyone realizes that the framework is about much more than nuclear program,” said Tabler. “The constellation of forces around the Assad regime are much more problematic. The movement of Assad regime forces into [the Golan border town] Quneitra is not Assad retaking territory; it’s a strategic shift in favor of Iran.”