Tel Aviv — When the Obama administration and international powers inked a nuclear deal with Iran two years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied hard in the U.S. against the agreement he warned was a “historic” mistake. Israeli officials and cabinet ministers followed suit.
Now, amid weeks of anticipation that President Trump may step away from the deal in a policy address in the coming days, Netanyahu and the rest of Israeli officialdom have taken a vaguer public stance about how the U.S. should proceed. (Read our editorial on the issue here.)
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly last month, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the international community to either cancel or improve the agreement — “nix it or fix it,” he said. But there’s been few additional details about how Israel thinks the international community should handle the agreement going forward.
The nuclear agreement, reached between six international powers and Iran in 2015, lifted economic sanctions on Iran in return for limitations on Tehran’s nuclear program over 15 years. After the agreement, the Congress passed a law requiring the president to certify to lawmakers every three months that Iran is upholding the deal, not acting to advance its nuclear weapons program, and that the sanctions relief fits U.S. national security interests. The current deadline for certification is Oct. 15.
Should Trump withhold the certification — as he has signaled in recent weeks — but keep the U.S. in the agreement? Should the U.S. push its allies to try to reopen negotiations with Iran to improve the terms? Should the U.S. try to pressure Iran on other issues not covered by the agreement? Or should the U.S. Congress impose new sanctions and effectively pull the U.S. out of the deal?
Israeli experts acknowledge that Iran is upholding the letter of the Iran agreement, but add that Tehran isn’t acting in the spirit of the deal — such as its efforts to advance its ballistic missile program.
That said, what’s clear is that many in Israel caution that the “nix it” option would be self-defeating and shift blame onto the U.S. for the faltering of the deal — and potentially lift the limitations on Iran’s nuclear activity.
“It’s too late to renounce the deal; it would be lose-lose,” said Emily Landau, a fellow specializing in nuclear proliferation at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It would put all the focus on the U.S., as if the U.S. is doing the wrong thing, when it’s Iran” that is acting contrary to the spirit of the deal.
Calling the deal “deeply flawed,” Landau argued that there’s less transparency about Iran’s nuclear activities since the agreement was implemented. Iran isn’t allowing international inspectors into some of its military facilities, as called for by the agreement, and there’s concern that Tehran is developing advanced enrichment centrifuges. In addition to advancing its ballistic missile program, there is concern that Iran has crossed the limit on the amount of heavy water it can hold — a key material to build a plutonium bomb, she said.
The U.S. needs to push for zero tolerance of what some might consider to be technical omissions in Iran’s implementation of the deal, said Landau.
“The key here is pressure,” she said. “The key here is for Iran to understand that the U.S. gets it about what they are doing in the nuclear realm,” and how they are “trying to pull the wool over the eyes” of the international community.
“If the U.S. starts pushing back against Iran’s activities in the region and Iran’s Republican Guards, all of that is to the benefit of dealing effectively with Tehran’s nuclear ambition,” Landau said. “But if the international community buys this line that the is deal working, then Iran will get stronger and stronger. It’s not enough to look [solely] at the immediate and short-term” benefits.
Iran’s power in the region has grown significantly because the tide of the Syrian civil war has turned in favor of President Bashar Assad and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Tehran and the so-called Shiite axis are now closer to Israel’s northern border and pose a more immediate threat than at the time the agreement was inked.
Eiran said the desire to avoid an escalation with Iran’s allies in Syria and Lebanon has prompted Israel to take a more cautious public stance on what to do about the nuclear deal.
“The strategic environment has changed,” said Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University. “When Jerusalem or the military calculates how they approach Iran, they have to take more variables into account now.”
Since becoming president, Trump has so far re-certified the Iran policy even though he disparaged the deal on the campaign trail. If he de-certifies, it would likely shift the debate to Congress about what to do next.
Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser under Netanyahu, said that the “fix it” option is most closely aligned with the approach of top brass of the U.S. national security establishment as well many Israeli security officials.
The agreement has become a reality, and many see the option of the U.S. pulling out as a worse scenario than sticking with the current framework, even if it is viewed as flawed. Moreover, the European parties to the agreement have supported its continuation, Arad said.
In addition to tightening oversight of Iranian compliance with the agreement’s inspections regime, the “fix it” option could include other levers of pressure on Iran’s activity outside of the scope of the nuclear agreement.
The U.S. could lead an international campaign against Iran’s allies in Syria and in Yemen; it could remind its European allies to vigorously enforce banking restrictions on financial dealings with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; and it could also push for widening the number of Iranian organizations subject to sanctions for involvement in Iran’s missile program, according to policy paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Arad noted that additional restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are set to come into effect in the coming years, another reason why pulling out would be self-defeating. It’s also an open question, he said, whether the Congress could muster the votes to re-impose sanctions that would remove the U.S. from the deal.
“Initially our position was total objection, so much so, that the prime minister travelled to Congress to convince them not to approve the deal. We made our position known, but it didn’t carry the day,” said Arad, who has been critical of the prime minister’s handling of relations with the U.S. in recent years.
“Over the time, things have changed about our positions, because it’s not President Obama any more, it’s Trump. Trump shares our reservations. They are almost in complete agreement about the badness of the deal.”
Netanyahu and some in the U.S. have called for eliminating the agreement’s “sunset clause” which are decried as a glaring weakness of the deal because it will eventually lift restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities starting in about 10 years.
But that would require reopening the negotiations process with Iran — a development that Tehran is unlikely to agree to at this stage.
“Renegotiation will not happen, because Iran isn’t under obligation to renegotiate, and the sanctions that brought Iran to the table will not be re-imposed,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert and lecturer at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “The U.S. doesn’t have the backing for a new agreement. Why should Iran renegotiate? A deal is a deal.”
Even the Iranian hardliners who initially opposed the deal now support it, said Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the INSS. Though they are still suspicious of the West, the hardliners prefer that if the deal falters, the blame should be on the U.S.
“Iran is still waiting to see what is going to happen,” he said. “The Iranians have already realized that in many cases there is a gap between the harsh rhetoric of President Trump against Iran, and the actual policy.”