After a long pause in the nuclear talks, during which Iran drew closer to nuclear capability, “leaks” emerged about an alleged American desire to offer, once again, a partial deal, and to return to the negotiation table. Although the proposed deal is not a new idea, it is very important to dismiss the rumors and to clarify in advance the danger of a “less for less” deal.
The idea of “less for less,” which is in practice “much less for much more,” is based on some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, mainly halting any further progress, in exchange for partial sanctions relief.
The absurdity of this proposal is even more pronounced today than in the past. The United States’ original goal of keeping Iran a year from breakout (stockpiling enough fissile material for the first bomb) is long “gone with the wind.” An agreement, even a broad one, will buy the world only a few weeks or maybe a few months, alongside a substantial easing of sanctions, allowing the regime to recover economically and to continue financing and backing terrorism all over the world.
There is no doubt that Iran is behind the recent attacks on Israel, in the north and the south, through Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran is pushing for confrontation in four theaters: Lebanon and Syria; Gaza; Judea and Samaria; and Jerusalem. The time has come to implement the change in Israel’s National Security Strategy from 2018 and aggressively punish the attackers, but also the country from which the attacks originated and the one that sent them.
Tehran has enriched uranium to 60% U-235 and even as high as 84% (although the real problem is the massive amounts that have been enriched to 20%). It has also produced uranium metal, prevents International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from accessing suspicious sites—and expects maximum sanctions relief in exchange for a handful of temporary restrictions on its nuclear program.
The deal under consideration is not a preparation for a broader, longer and better deal, as its supporters (both American and Israeli) claim, because this will be the last deal.
Tehran will ostensibly agree to a few concessions and will receive many benefits in return. This was true a few years ago and is even more true now. The deal would legitimize most of Iran’s violations and allow Iran to retain assets obtained through breaching the JCPOA and the NPT. Tehran will continue to undermine the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its demand to stop all present investigations and dismiss the findings of all prior ones will be accepted (otherwise there will be no agreement), jeopardizing the basic foundations of the IAEA and the NPT.
The advanced centrifuges will be produced in large quantities and kept in secret enrichment sites. Since far fewer centrifuges will be required, it will be possible for Tehran to “sneak in” to the bomb. The Iranians will continue to possess ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, while the actual status of the weapons team—which is what truly stands in the way of Iran obtaining nuclear capability—will continue to be unknown.
In order to preserve the chances of a deal, Iran forced the United States and Europe to instruct the IAEA director general not to publish too-harsh reports on Iranian violations, or demand a special board meeting, or even transfer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
Signing such a deal would stop the work on Iran’s nuclear program in the United States, under a mistaken assumption that it is “back in the box,” as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said in the past.
We should keep in mind that this plan originates with Sullivan, as he was the architect of a similar interim bad agreement in 2013 (the JPOA), and he is probably the one promoting it now if the reports are correct. Once the Iranians get significant concessions, the illusion of a bigger, broader follow-up will vanish. Iran’s leaders understand how to leverage far better than President Joe Biden and his people.
It is interesting and important to also examine the Gulf states’ angle, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran and its influence on the countries of the Abraham Accords. Just last week, senior Iranian and Saudi officials met under Chinese auspices to promote the renewal of relations.
Interesting and surprising information provided by senior Israeli officials raises the surprising possibility that while the Saudi move was indeed intended for regional stability and sending a message to the United States and Israel, it could also be for wielding Saudi economic and civilian influence within Iran and in the long run help undermine and topple the regime. The Saudis understand that the Iranian expansion continues, and alongside the American incompetence, the Saudis decided to try exerting influence from within, using money and diplomacy, and realizing Saudi interests against the regime.
On the other hand, there is a justifiable fear in the Gulf that an Israeli attack on Iran will incur an immediate price from them, given their geographic proximity and the Abraham Accords, which position them as collaborators with Israel. Contrary to the above, the Saudi moves can be interpreted in Iran as Saudi weakness, and the money that flows will not bring down the regime but will strengthen it and cause an excess of self-confidence. This analysis, along with Israel’s declarations on the military option, will create a challenge to the stability of the agreements and their ability to expand to other countries.
Saudi activity vis-à-vis Egypt and Syria can also be interpreted in two directions and requires close monitoring.
The Iranians realize that Washington does not want to respond, despite all of Iran’s ongoing violations; attacks on American interests in the Gulf and in the Middle East; human rights violations and killing of women and girls in Iran, including perhaps using chemical weapons as recently reported; massive support for Russia in the Ukraine war; transferring weapons to the Russians and helping them to kill Ukrainian women and children.
If the Americans don’t respond to all those violations and even offer the Iranians a partial deal, why would the regime agree to any further restrictions on their nuclear and missile programs? Having gotten almost everything they wanted from the “interim” deal while the American president refuses to put a credible military threat on the table? Why should the Gulf states believe the United States?
Therefore, Washington and Israel, in coordination with the Gulf states, must deal with all three components of the Iranian nuclear program: fissile material (even if it begins to be too late), the development of the weapons system (it becomes the main priority) and the means of delivery, together with economic pressure and a credible military threat. Signing a weak deal will send a false signal to Iran (and the markets) that the West will agree to whatever they will do, while Israel alone is too weak, and will not attack.
Israel is bound to pay a heavy price for an ill-advised deal, so it must act against it with a united voice. This critical issue must stay clear of any political controversy, and certainly not be connected to any domestic debates. Officials should leave their classified assessments, which they must present to Israel leaders, behind closed doors.
Israel must continue to improve its capabilities (militarily and otherwise), including in the “War Between Wars” and its branches, to deal with the Iranian threat. Having Israel explore the merits of a limited deal is extremely risky and will send a wrong message to the United States and the Gulf states. The United States will assume Israel is open to a deal and the Gulf states will assume that Israel is weak like the United States.
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel, formerly the national security adviser to the Israeli prime minister, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Aeronautics and Space at the Technion.