OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel must stop a bad Iran deal, whatever the cost

Normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia should not come at the expense of Israel's top priority.

Uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility. Credit: Tehran Times.
Uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility. Credit: Tehran Times.
Jacob Nagel
Jacob Nagel
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and his senior deputy Gil Reich are all in Washington for meetings with senior White House and state officials, ahead of critical decisions regarding Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

Israel must not be confused about its priorities. It is very important to make sure Washington understands that preventing a bad Iran deal is a higher priority than reaching a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Otherwise, the potential for damage is very severe.

The United States and the clerical regime in Iran have recently held more talks, which included mediators from Oman, Kuwait and others. These were aimed at reaching a so-called “less for less” nuclear deal—actually a “much less for much more” agreement.

Just reading recent interviews of Robert Malley, the president’s envoy to the negotiations with Iran, and Ali Vaez, his successor as the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, reveals that the discussions are serious. 

However, there is still the risk that the Israeli focus will be on a Saudi-American-Israeli deal. This could result in the effort to prevent a faulty temporary agreement with Iran—which will certainly become permanent—dropping to second place. 

There is a close connection between some of the components of a Saudi deal and proper handling of the Iranian nuclear program, and the right approach is to try and tie them together and reach a deal that will be a win-win for both Israel and the United States (even if the latter potentially does not view it this way). 

In the meetings between U.S. and Saudi negotiators some Saudi demands were raised, most of which were not directly related to Israel, and the decisions regarding them must be made exclusively in Washington, taking into account the indirect effects on Israel and maintaining its qualitative military edge.

On the other hand, Riyadh’s demands relating to independent nuclear capabilities are directly and worryingly related to Israel, Iran and the entire region. On this sensitive issue, Israel must avoid making mistakes.

According to open-source assessments and publications coming presumably from Saudi sources, Riyadh’s main demands are as follows: security guarantees; advanced arms deals; getting the same status as a NATO ally; a free trade zone between the countries; reducing pressure on human rights issues; and more. Israel can live with all these demands if its qualitative military edge is maintained by the United States.

Regarding the nuclear issue, the Saudis requested fully independent capabilities that would enable them to commercially tap their natural resources, including mining uranium and turning it into a “yellowcake,” converting it to gas (UF6) and enriching it to the level required to produce nuclear fuel rods for power reactors (electricity generation), for domestic use and export purposes.

The Saudis apparently demanded that the capabilities exist entirely on Saudi soil, but are unlikely to object to any monitoring and inspection required by the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It will be very difficult for Israel to accept these demands as presented.

They of course are based on the precedent created by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which gave Iran expansive independent enrichment capabilities and advanced centrifuge R&D on Iranian soil. It is therefore possible to understand where Saudi Arabia is coming from in seeing these demands as legitimate, even if one does not agree with them.

In their view, the Iranians, who violated every treaty and agreement they signed and deceived the world, received the right to independent enrichment, so why shouldn’t they get the same? Understanding the Saudi argument is key to the solution that I will present to reach a win-win situation.

The rationale behind the interim nuclear deal the United States and Iran are allegedly working on is freezing Iran’s progress—i.e. granting Iran de facto approval to enrich uranium to 60%—in exchange for the release of some of Iran’s frozen funds (in Iraq and South Korea) and perhaps also the release of prisoners. Israel must clarify in advance what the dangers in this absurd deal are, and present strong opposition—even if it harms potential progress toward the very important Saudi deal. 

The absurdity of the emerging Iran deal is even magnified when you add up the time that has elapsed since the idea was first raised by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and take note of the change in the fundamentals since then.

America’s overarching goal of having a one-year breakout period is no longer relevant; an agreement will result in that window being reduced to perhaps no more than a few weeks—while giving the Iranians tens of billions of dollars that would enable the regime to recover economically and to continue financing terrorism.

Since the idea was first raised, Tehran has also been massively enriching uranium to 20% (this is the main problem, although everyone emphasizes enrichment to 90%, which is mostly semantic and declarative), to 60% and even “dabbling” at 84% (though the IAEA has closed that investigation). Iran produces uranium metal, prevents inspectors from accessing suspicious sites and maintains all paths to the bomb.

The deal would legitimize Iran’s violations and allow it to retain all the assets it has obtained through those violations. At the same time, the IAEA continues to close its investigation files on the Iranian issue. This could undo the agency’s very raison d’être.

The agreement will allow Iran to continue in its development and manufacturing of advanced centrifuges, as well as give it permission to hold on to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. It will also continue weaponization – the only thing that truly separates Tehran from having nuclear capability. Meanwhile, its true status will continue to be largely hidden.

The agreement will stop any activity against Iran’s nuclear program by the United States, certainly in an election year, under the mistaken assumption that the plan is “back in a box,” as Sullivan phrased it, and will prevent, or at least make very difficult, a solo Israeli attack.

All this while the Iranians attack American interests in the Gulf and the Middle East, violate human rights and kill women and girls in Tehran, and continue their massive support for Russia by transferring advanced weapons that help kill Ukrainian civilians.

Therefore, the correct and practically the only way to advance a Saudi deal that would help bring about normalization with Israel, overcome the issue of Riyadh’s request for an independent fuel cycle and take the bad deal with Iran off the table is to have the Israelis—during their meetings in Washington—insist on triggering the “snapback” mechanism against Iran to the fullest extent, by reinstating all U.N. Security Council sanctions that were lifted when the agreement was signed, including a total ban on uranium enrichment. 

Such an American demand, even if it never comes to fruition due to Iranian objection, will pull the rug out from under the Saudis’ enrichment demands, make it possible to move forward with a Saudi-American-Israeli deal without a potential nuclear threat from Saudi Arabia, and open the door to joint Israeli-American action against the Iranian nuclear program.

Any American approval to give Saudi Arabia the right to enrich uranium on its soil—certainly if it not strongly opposed by Israel, and regardless of the level of supervision in Saudi Arabia and who is actually responsible for the enrichment—will immediately trigger a similar demand from countries that have already received some civilian nuclear capabilities from the United States (the United Arab Emirates, for example). A nuclear arms race will then begin.

Israel must act against a bad Iran deal in a loud and unified manner, even if the potential for advancing the Saudi deal, which is very important to Israel, is undermined in the process. This critical issue should remain the number one priority and must not be included in any Israeli political controversy. Sources inside Israel, official and unofficial, who express the opinion that even a bad agreement has advantages, such as giving Israel more time to prepare for a future confrontation with Iran, are wrong and misleading, and they also harm Israeli interests.

At the same time, Iran is trying to draw Israel into a multi-front confrontation and to remain, at least for now, out of direct physical confrontation. Israel cannot allow Iran to get away with that, and at the same time, must continue to improve its capabilities—military or otherwise. The Israeli message against an agreement with Iran must be crystal clear; any other form of conduct will send the message— especially to the Gulf states—that Israel is weak and cannot be trusted.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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