Having been told that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu equated Iran’s anti-Israeli ploys with a biblical Persian anti-Jewish plot commemorated during the Jewish holiday of Purim, Mohammed Zarif said: “He even distorts his own scripture.”
In the Iranian Foreign Minister’s narrative, it turned out, “the Persian king saved the Jews,” whereas in the Jewish narrative the decree “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews” was “issued in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet.”
That was in March, as Jews celebrated Purim. In April it turned out that the biblical debate was but a prelude to the political controversies surrounding one of the most contentious diplomatic deals in the post-Cold War era.
By the time they sat for the Passover Seder in early April, Israelis were digesting fresh news of a “framework” understanding outlining a future deal over Iran’s nuclear program, a deal which largely left them feeling like their forebears, wedged between freedom’s promise and hatred’s threat.
The deal, signed between Iran and the representatives of the P5+1 group of world powers, outlines a long-term framework for shrinking, downgrading, and delaying Iran’s nuclear program in return for the rest of the world’s retreat from its sanctions against the Iranian economy. If the framework produces the deal it is deadlined to deliver by the end of June, its strategic, global, and regional repercussions can be momentous, for better or worse.
The deal itself, as summarised by Henry Kissinger, reflects the Western retreat from its original aim to eliminate the Iranian program to a new aim – which is merely to limit its scope.
According to American officials, the measures proposed – limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can run, capping at a low level the amount of enriched uranium they can stockpile, mandating intense inspections, and modifying the Fordow enrichment facility and Arak nuclear plants – will promise that until 2025 the Iranians will be kept at least a year away from the ability to assemble a bomb.
For their part, the US, EU and UN would lift the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
Yet in the spirit of that biblical exegetic debate, it soon emerged that the deal’s sides differ not only on what should happen come June, but on what already happened in April.
The Americans said inspectors would be allowed wherever they would wish to go, at any time, and on the shortest notice. The Iranians denied this, saying they would never be allowed into Iran’s military sites. The Americans said sanctions would be removed gradually, according to Iranian compliance, and would potentially be restored at will. The Iranians, meanwhile, are insisting that all sanctions be removed, by all parties, immediately upon the prospective agreement’s initial activation.
The Israeli response to the framework deal was harsh. “This will harm Israel,” Netanyahu reportedly told President Barack Obama who called him several hours after the deal’s announcement. Citing an Iranian reiteration the previous week that its quest to see Israel vanish is “non-negotiable”, Netanyahu told Obama that the deal would legitimise Iran’s nuclear ambitions, consolidate its strategic status as a nuclear-threshold state, and intensify its terror apparatus’ ventures worldwide.
Labor leader Isaac Herzog concurred. “There is no coalition and opposition on the Iranian issue,” his party said in a written response to the deal. Echoing Netanyahu’s doubts over the Iranians’ reliability as partners to any deal, Labor called Iran’s “a dark regime,” and added: “Some of the deal’s parameters are problematic and carry long-term risks.” Labor suggested that, rather than spend his time lamenting the deal’s flaws, Netanyahu now seek its improvement.
Overall, Labor’s response has been almost identical to Netanyahu’s, reflecting the main opposition party’s reliance in this regard on former head of Military Intelligence Maj-Gen (res) Amos Yadlin. A soft-spoken former fighter pilot who flew one of the jets that bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981, Yadlin is on good terms with Netanyahu, and is believed to have been quietly advising him on Iran before becoming Labor’s candidate for defence minister.
In fact, the Iranian issue is so consensual in Israel that one of the improbable results of an Iranian-American deal might be a broad Israeli government.
As of this writing, coalition talks between Netanyahu and the prospective members of the conservative coalition he is expected to assemble are dragging lazily, raising speculation that he is actually seeking a unity government with Herzog – despite the fact that both Netanyahu and Herzog ruled such unity out before the election on March 17.
An emerging nuclear Iran could be a suitable excuse for such a truce, which Herzog would have to somehow justify to his party colleagues, many of whom think Labor should remain in the opposition.
In a Likud-Labor government, Herzog would be foreign minister. Pragmatic, worldly and eloquent, Herzog would be far more welcome in Obama’s White House than Netanyahu, and as such may be more effective in impacting the deal with Iran, whether in terms of its content, or in terms of its acceptance, particularly by Congress.
Wherever it ends up leaving Labor, the burgeoning deal’s contours as viewed from Jerusalem seem clear, and their repercussions ominous.
Israeli leaders expect Iran to emerge from the deal feeling its nuclear quest has survived the assault it faced, despite the constraints and impositions that still remain.
For a nation that has existed for thousands of years, 15 years are but an instant, and once they elapse, if not before then, the Iranian bomb will have been born. That is the Israeli understanding of the Iranian rationale behind the deal.
At the same time, Israeli officials and experts believe US President Obama is out to refashion Iran as an American regional anchor alongside Washington’s other regional allies. This suspicion has first been voiced not by Netanyahu’s camp, but by Labor’s Yadlin, who warned on Israel Radio that the current State Department does not understand the sensitivities at play, most notably Iran’s marginality in the Middle East as a non-Arab and non-Sunni nation.
Moreover, assuming the long-term deal passes and sanctions are removed, it will give new life not only to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, but to its regime.
What until now seemed like a foregone conclusion, that the Ayatollahs who took hostage American diplomats in Teheran and massacred American troops in Beirut would always be seen by Washington as its enemies – can no longer be assumed.
Following the events of spring 2009, when the mullahs effectively imposed a military regime after widespread election-fraud riots – the feeling in Israel was that popular pressure on the Islamists from within, coupled with sanctions pressure from without, would sooner or later erode the ageing revolutionaries’ grip on power. Now the impression is that Washington is not prepared to do much to empower the thousands Teheran has jailed since 2009, and Obama is in fact prepared to legitimise their jailers.
Meanwhile, Teheran’s progress in its relations with Washington is enhancing its long-standing concord with Moscow.
Ten days after the nuclear framework deal’s announcement, the Kremlin said it was lifting its ban on selling Iran advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. In a conversation with Netanyahu, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that the missiles were strictly defensive – but Israel views them as not only helping make Iran’s nuclear program much more resistant to military counter-action, but also providing a potential umbrella for offensive action. For their part, the Russians are believed to be motivated by a concern that Washington’s budding rapprochement with Teheran might come at the expense of their own status in the Islamic Republic.
Emboldened by this diplomatic popularity and by their nuclear program’s survival, the mullahs are expected to intensify their regional meddling.
Having effectively established itself as the hegemonic power in Baghdad and Damascus, and having established Hezbollah as political paralyser of Lebanon, Teheran is now advancing in Yemen, having fueled the local Shi’ite minority’s recent takeover of Sana’a.
That is why Netanyahu’s main aim, as he tries to minimise the nuclear deal’s damage, is to steer the powers to expand the talks to also address Iran’s foreign policy.
Such a change in the agenda, Netanyahu hopes, would include Western demands concerning Iran’s hostility to Israel as the sponsor of Hezbollah, and financer of Hamas in Gaza.
If Teheran’s interlocutors force its retreat from terror, that would be a major achievement from an Israeli viewpoint. However, the official American stance so far has been that the talks with Iran are about its nuclear program and nothing else.
Then again, the talks are not only about nukes, but also about sanctions, and on this front there actually is a ray of light even from Israel’s viewpoint.
If restored, economic freedom would further flood oil markets, thus reducing crude prices even more than they have already plunged since last year.
Western negotiators likely hope for a lot more than that, perhaps assuming that economic restoration in Iran would intensify its people’s quest for normalcy, as well as empowering the commercial class for which regional adventurism and the threat of renewed sanctions would be anathema.
Netanyahu does not share this optimism. As he sees it, an economically relieved Iran would feel not only legitimised in its nuclear ambition and emboldened and empowered in its regional bullying, but also increasingly tolerated by the population it oppresses thanks to the economic rewards it will be able to offer.
Passover, meanwhile, had elapsed and Holocaust Remembrance Day arrived on April 16, when Netanyahu faced the eternal flame, lowered flags, guard of honour and stern-faced audience of local and foreign dignitaries that packed the Yad Vashem Memorial’s courtyard. “A country says expressly that it intends to annihilate six million Jews,” he said of Iran, before referring to “the bad deal” that is shaping with it. “History’s lesson has not been learned,” he asserted.