Israel’s Hostility Toward Iran Deal Is Not Really About a Nuclear Weapon

There is no place in Israeli geo-strategic thinking for a militarily and diplomatically powerful Iran—with or without the bomb.

Roy Isacowitz July 16, 2015

Secretary of State John Kerry. (U.S. Department of State.)

Let’s take Bibi Netanyahu at his word for a moment. Let’s assume that he gen­uine­ly believes Iran is hell-bent on devel­op­ing nuclear weapons and that those weapons real­ly do pose an immi­nent and exis­ten­tial threat to the sur­vival of Israel.

Israel’s regional strategy is based on the concept that it is, and must remain, the sole regional superpower.

This week, that threat was removed — or, at the very least, put out of the reach of the Ira­ni­ans for a very long time. The four most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary-eco­nom­ic blocs on earth — the Unit­ed States, the Euro­pean Union, Rus­sia and Chi­na — reached an agree­ment with Iran which, as Barak Ravid of Haaretz put it, will put Iran’s nuclear pro­gram in deep freeze for the next 10 years, force parts of it into regres­sion, and leave restric­tions on it for a generation.”

The nego­tia­tors spent close to two years on the minute details of denu­cleariz­ing Iran and con­comi­tant­ly lift­ing sanc­tions. But, impor­tant as those details are, they are not the clincher.

The deci­sive point is the fact that the Big Four pow­ers are all full par­ties to the agree­ment. Or, to put it anoth­er way: The agree­ment is guar­an­teed by the com­bined diplo­mat­ic, eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary might of every coun­try of con­se­quence on the plan­et. And they are all account­able for its suc­cess or its failure.

That is an his­tor­i­cal achieve­ment in the most lit­er­al sense of the world. I am not aware of any pre­vi­ous agree­ment in his­to­ry that has been under­writ­ten by a coali­tion of such breadth and pow­er. Not even the World War II Allies came close. The diplo­mats who final­ly took their pho­to call on Tues­day were not tooth­less Unit­ed Nations hacks; they were the for­eign min­is­ters of the world’s most pow­er­ful nations, rep­re­sent­ing their own coun­tries indi­vid­u­al­ly and pro­vid­ing a col­lec­tive guarantee.

And it’s worth remem­ber­ing that Israel, how­ev­er great its mil­i­tary capac­i­ty, is high­ly depen­dent on oth­er nations. In 1973, only an emer­gency Amer­i­can air­lift saved the coun­try from immi­nent dis­as­ter, a sit­u­a­tion that has been repeat­ed, though with less­er degrees of seri­ous­ness and urgency in all Israel’s wars. Dur­ing last year’s hos­til­i­ties with Hamas, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma had to approve an emer­gency grant to replen­ish parts for Israel’s Iron Dome mis­sile defense system.

Israel likes to think and pre­tend that it is entire­ly self-suf­fi­cient and self-reliant, but that is not the case. Even sov­er­eign nations need friends and partners.

Per­son­al­ly, if some­one was threat­en­ing to beat the shit out of me — or if I even imag­ined that was about to hap­pen — I would be grate­ful for any help I could get. And if that help came from the lead­ers of the four tough­est gangs in the hood, who also offered to stick around to make sure my tor­men­tor didn’t return, I would be way beyond grateful.

But I am not Bibi, of course, and Bibi was not grate­ful. In fact, Bibi was spit­ting mad. The agree­ment, he said, was a stun­ning his­toric mis­take” that makes the world a much more dan­ger­ous place today than it was yesterday.”

That is not ratio­nal, par­tic­u­lar­ly when not even Netanyahu has denied that the agree­ment, at the very least, puts con­sid­er­able dis­tance between Iran and a nuclear bomb. The cute draw­ing that Bibi bran­dished before the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly a cou­ple of years ago, which showed Iran as being only a red line away from achiev­ing mil­i­tary nuclear capac­i­ty, can be torn up and chucked away.

So what’s Bibi’s problem?

Those who know him would prob­a­bly agree that he’s inca­pable of grat­i­tude, but that’s nei­ther here nor there. To under­stand what Bibi is real­ly get­ting at, we need only look at the two key rea­sons he and his like-think­ing col­leagues have giv­en for dis­miss­ing the agreement.

The first is that Iran will be able to build an arse­nal of bombs in a decade or two. The Big Four pow­ers deny that vehe­ment­ly, but even if it were true, it would still be a lot bet­ter than achiev­ing a bomb in anoth­er three months, wouldn’t it? Sure­ly the ratio­nal response would be to wel­come a short-term solu­tion and work towards longer-term ones?

The sec­ond key point made by Bibi is that the agree­ment will pump bil­lions of dol­lars to the Iran­ian ter­ror and war machine, which threat­ens Israel and the entire world.” In a sim­i­lar vein, Edu­ca­tion Min­is­ter Naf­tali Ben­nett said that Iran will become a ter­ror pow­er­house in the next decade, because of the funds it will now receive.”

And there you have it. It is Iran as a region­al pow­er­house that real­ly per­turbs Israel. It was nev­er about the bomb to begin with – cer­tain­ly nev­er about the bomb alone. Israel’s own nuclear arse­nal has always been a more than suf­fi­cient deter­rent to nuclear attack by Iran, and Bibi has known that all along.

What real­ly con­cerns the prime min­is­ter — and has con­cerned every Israeli prime min­is­ter since the Six­ties – is hav­ing a region­al rival with the same deter­rent capac­i­ty that Israel has. Israel’s region­al strat­e­gy is based on the con­cept that it is, and must remain, the sole region­al super­pow­er. There is no place in Israeli geo-strate­gic think­ing for a mil­i­tar­i­ly and diplo­mat­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful Iran, with or with­out the bomb.

That deter­mi­na­tion to remain on top has only increased in recent years with the frag­men­ta­tion of the Mid­dle East (civ­il wars in Syr­ia and Yemen, the spread of ISIS) and the increas­ing­ly vis­i­ble role played by Iran in many of the region­al con­flicts. While Israel can only play a minor and clan­des­tine role in the cur­rent crises (the open sup­port of Israel would be the kiss of death for any side,) Iran has come into its own. That threat­ens to unbal­ance long-stand­ing Israeli strategy.

In fact, some Israeli offi­cials com­plained after the deal was announced this week that the Big Four nego­tia­tors had lim­it­ed them­selves to the nuclear issue only – as if their brief had been to do Israel’s bid­ding and ensure that Iran was emas­cu­lat­ed as a region­al rival on all lev­els. That indeed has been Israel’s approach through­out the negotiations.

Israel will now attempt to get the agree­ment buried in the U.S. Con­gress. If that fails (and even if it suc­ceeds), Israel will resort to the big shnorr, which has been its fall­back posi­tion all along. Amer­i­ca will have to pay big-time for its temer­i­ty in ignor­ing Israeli dic­tates in its deal­ings with Iran. The pay­back will come in the form of brand new, shin­ing weapons sys­tems for Israel — and lots of them.

What remains to be seen is whether Netanyahu has pissed off Oba­ma enough to keep him from sign­ing the checks.

Roy Isacowitz is a jour­nal­ist and writer liv­ing in Tel Aviv.
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