An edited version of this article appeared in
The Canberra Times – March 18, 2015
Now that the furore has subsided following Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United States Congress last week, the focus should be on the major issue. This is not the politics of the Israeli elections, or the state of US-Israel relations, or partisan splits in Washington, but the optimum strategy to prevent Iran, a terrorism-supporting rogue state, from acquiring nuclear weapons in defiance of international law. This is the question that will likely profoundly shape not only the increasingly volatile Middle East, but global politics, for decades to come.
This debate comes down to what is a “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear weapons program, since everyone agrees that, as US President Obama has repeatedly said, “No deal is better than a bad deal.”
Netanyahu argued that the deal currently being negotiated between Iranian negotiators and the US-led P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) is a “very bad deal.” He particularly objected to two aspects reportedly agreed upon:
1. The proposed deal does not substantively roll back Iran’s current industrial-sized nuclear enrichment complex, neither dismantling nuclear facilities, nor even centrifuges. It allows Iran to continue to run thousands of centrifuges, and to keep but disconnect the rest of the 19,000 that it has. Further, it allows Iran to continue to research more advanced centrifuges which will vastly cut down the breakout time to a nuclear bomb when constructed. Finally, he said that Israel estimates that if Iran decided to stage a “breakout” into bomb construction under the agreement’s reported terms, it would take much less than the year that the US Administration estimates.
2. The deal reportedly includes a ten-year sunset clause, after which all sanctions and restrictions on Iranian nuclear infrastructure will be lifted. While technically, Iran would still not be legally allowed to build nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, it could be a screw-turn away without breaking the treaty. At that point, if Teheran did decide to throw the switch and place the weapons-grade nuclear material they would be allowed to make in bombs – they are known to already have a viable design from Pakistan – they could almost certainly do so before anyone could do anything about it.
The US Administration and others dismissive of Netanyahu’s concerns largely do not essentially dispute his facts or analysis. Their argument amounts to “it’s this or nothing.” Without this deal, they say, Iran will either sprint for a bomb or we will have to use force. Since both those options are worse, and Iran will refuse to make any further concessions, they say, this is by definition a “good deal” because it is better than any alternatives. It’s pretty intellectually convenient – “No deal is better than a bad deal” but virtually any deal we reach, no matter how generous to Iran, is by definition a “good deal”.
Contrary to claims by the US Administration and some analysts, it is not true that Netanyahu offered no alternative to the US/P5+1 plan.
Netanyahu outlined a “better deal” that would ameliorate the two objections he raised. He asked that any Iranian nuclear deal do more to rollback Iran’s “vast nuclear infrastructure” and provide a longer break-out time (though interestingly, he did not repeat previous demands that all enrichment be halted.) In addition, he requested the sunset clause be conditional on Iran’s future behaviour – in particular, an end to Iran’s massive support for terrorism, its frequent interference in neighbouring regimes, and its threats to “annihilate” Israel.
Furthermore, he did propose a way to achieve this – ramp up the economic sanctions, which he noted, bought Iran to the table in the first place, and which Iran is particularly vulnerable to at the moment given the recent collapse in oil prices. He rejected arguments that Iran will simply walk away from the table, saying “They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”
The US Administration says it disagrees with his analysis of Iran’s reaction to renewed sanctions, but that is not the whole story. It is clear that the US Government is pursuing a general détente with Iran, and views the nuclear deal as facilitating this, along with alleged US-Iranian common interests in fighting ISIS. President Obama has even praised Iran as potentially a “very successful regional power” and called for a new regional balance to be created between Iran and the Sunni powers.
This detente hope appears to explain why the Administration is so determined to rule out any additional efforts to pressure Iran. However, it is also almost certainly a fool’s errand. The Iranian regime is an internally unpopular autocratic Shi’ite theocracy whose very legitimacy is based on both confronting the “Great Satan” and on a program of aggressive expansion abroad. The Ayatollahs who run the regime do not want to change this approach – and it might threaten their regime’s survival if they did!
Yet this improbable hope appears to be the lynchpin of Western strategy. The nuclear deal looks very dubious indeed – it raises endless questions about whether an Iranian breakout could be detected and if so how quickly; what would be done if violations were detected; about whether Iran has additional secret nuclear facilities; and about Iran’s ongoing failure to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency demands for transparency on its work on weaponisation, as well as Iran’s massive missile development program. Moreover, even if the deal is observed, it will make Iran a de facto nuclear threshold state. This will not only provide Iran with cover to greatly increase its support of terrorism and other efforts to subvert its neighbours, but as Henry Kissinger recently pointed out, will almost certainly start a frighteningly dangerous nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region – as the Saudis, Egyptians, Turks race to match Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
Thus, the proposed deal only looks likely to work if Teheran indeed has the change of heart that the US Administration is hoping for. It appears to be an enormous gamble, at very long odds, and the consequences of losing that bet are potentially catastrophic.
Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Previously, he lectured in Middle East Politics at Monash University.