No one is happier about the apparent deadlock in the nuclear talks between the United States and Iran than Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Had the Iranians finally agreed to a new and even weaker agreement than the one that Barack Obama negotiated in 2015, it would have been a political disaster for the head of the makeshift temporary Israeli coalition government. Lapid has been all-in on the notion that soft-pedaling opposition to President Joe Biden’s reckless push for appeasement of Tehran was more effective than a stand that would seek to mobilize opposition to such a disastrous policy. A new agreement would also expose Lapid to devastating criticism from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in advance of the Knesset election on Nov. 1.
Fortunately for Lapid, the Iranians have not yet tired of their never-ending game of pushing the Americans for more and more concessions. Their tough negotiating policy paid off with an Obama administration that was desperate for a deal at any price. And they have every reason to believe that eventually Biden will do the same and agree to a pact that will enrich and empower them even more than the original deal. At the same time, it would, as did the 2015 agreement, guarantee they obtain a nuclear weapon rather than preventing them from getting one because the deal’s sunset clauses will expire by the end of the decade.
Election-year politics in both countries appear to be behind the Biden administration’s sudden acquisition of a spine in the Iran talks.
Even more than helping Lapid prevent Netanyahu from becoming prime minister again—a prospect the Democrats dread—Biden would prefer to present Congress with a new Iran deal after the midterm elections, just one week later than Israel’s. Americans tend not to vote because of foreign-policy concerns, instead concentrating on issues closer to home. And there are plenty of them—raging inflation, a tottering economy, the collapse of border security, crime in urban areas—for Democrats to worry about. Biden would still prefer not to give Republicans one more issue with which to hammer him and his party. So if, as most observers consider likely, the administration waits until after Nov. 8 to find a way to swallow the latest insults from Tehran and sign a deal, that will be another gift to the ayatollahs.
Yet while Israelis—and their Arab allies who are just as, if not more, afraid of a nuclear Iran than the Jewish state—are glad for a temporary reprieve on that front, the administration’s strategy based on Obama’s idea of trying to “integrate” Iran back into the region is not completely on hold. The U.S. effort to push Israel into agreeing to end a maritime border dispute with Lebanon should be seen in the context of its not-yet completed quest for normalizing relations with Iran.
As JNS has reported, there is a debate among foreign-policy analysts as to whether to regard Lebanon as a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of Iran. Yet there is no argument that the most powerful force in the country is the Hezbollah terrorist movement, which is not so much an ally of Tehran as an auxiliary force that takes its orders from it. And it is largely due to Hezbollah’s desire to escalate a ginned-up dispute with Israel that the United States is now involved in an effort to broker a compromise between the two countries.
The confrontation is based on Lebanon’s decision to unilaterally declare that it had rights to parts of the Mediterranean Sea bordering the two countries that had heretofore been considered under Israeli control. The reason is obvious. The area is rich in natural-gas reserves that Israel has been developing, and the Lebanese want to take some of it for themselves. Rather than brushing off this brazen shakedown ploy, the Americans are enabling it by seeking to split the difference between the two nations and, theoretically, keep everyone happy.
If Lebanon was a normal country, that wouldn’t be any great tragedy. But it’s not. The only reason to take seriously the Lebanese demands is that they are tacitly backed up by threats that if Israel doesn’t give in, their gas installations will come under attack from Hezbollah terrorists.
That is what has created the current unhealthy diplomatic environment in which a U.S. mediator is seeking Israel to make concessions to enable the Lebanese government to declare victory and get a share of the money to be made from natural gas.
The situation in Lebanon is complex with Hezbollah and its allies the strongest factors in Beirut but with other competing interests as well. America has a longstanding policy of trying to strengthen the Lebanese government and weaken the various armed forces inside the country, like Hezbollah. But the idea that handing it a victory over natural gas and the border with Israel will not strengthen Iran’s interests is a fantasy.
Many Israelis still wistfully hold onto illusions about Lebanon, which many in the Jewish state always assumed would be the second country to offer peace since they assumed that once a breakthrough happened, their northern neighbor would rush to normalize relations. That was just a myth; the fractured multi-ethnic and multi-religious structure of Lebanon ensured that it would be held hostage by those factions—like the Shi’ite supporters of Hezbollah that look to Iran for leadership—that were as committed to the century-old war on Zionism as the Palestinians.
The spectacle of cabinet ministers in the Lebanese government trooping to the border to throw stones at the Jewish state may be dismissed as dysfunctional political posturing. Still, it speaks volumes about how Iranian influence and the firepower of Islamist extremists can create a situation in which Lebanese Christians feel obligated to make gestures about their desire to continue the war against Israel even though it makes no sense for them, their communities or their country.
That’s why the way to look at this dispute is in the context of that Obama/Biden belief in “integrating” Iran and its allies into the region, rather than isolating them as rogue elements whose only real goal is to destabilize it. As Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, recently wrote in Tablet, Israel and its Arab allies are the ones who are being asked to pay for this integration policy in terms of what would be, at best, a weakened strategic position as Iran is strengthened by American appeasement. An American mediation on gas fields must therefore be considered not, as the administration seeks to portray it, merely a sensible effort to resolve a border dispute. Rather, it is part of an administration approach that seeks to placate Iran and its allies.
Seen in that light, acquiescing to Hezbollah blackmail on gas fields is just as problematic as accepting (as the Americans clearly intend to do) that Iran must be acknowledged as a threshold nuclear power. That’s a foreign policy destined to undermine not just Israel’s security, but that of the United States and the West. Biden, and by extension, Lapid, is benefiting from the pause in nuclear negotiations with Iran. But as long as the goal of American diplomacy is to strengthen Tehran and its supporters, disaster in the form of heightened terrorism and a nuclear threat is just over the horizon.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.