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Will a new Iran deal redefine the US-Israel relationship?

Another weak nuclear accord will create a confrontation that could help erase Trump’s Middle East triumphs that were based on both partners pursuing their own interests.

Workers at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem prepare for the upcoming visit of U.S. President Joe Biden, July 12, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Workers at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem prepare for the upcoming visit of U.S. President Joe Biden, July 12, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

At this stage, it’s likely that not even those American diplomats most immersed in the ongoing nuclear talks between the United States and Iran know what the outcome of their efforts will be. For the last 20 months, since President Joe Biden was sworn into office, the expectation has been that Tehran will sooner or later agree to re-enter the weak nuclear accord it concluded with the administration of former President Barack Obama in 2015. But, as they did during the two-year lead-up to that agreement, the Iranians are clearly having too much fun making their American counterparts sweat to agree to the advantageous terms that everyone knows that Biden’s foreign-policy team has been offering to them.

Yet if, as most observers still believe, a nuclear deal is reached, it will set up a new and potentially divisive chapter in U.S.-Israel relations and a dilemma for the government of the Jewish state. That will be true whether it is led after the Knesset election in November by current Prime Minister Yair Lapid or his rival for power, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party remains the largest in Israel but is not assured of being able to assemble a majority coalition. Unless the diplomatic effort being pursued by Biden and the Democrats is thwarted by Iranian intransigence, it will set in motion a series of events that could (assurances to the contrary being made by both countries) lead to a situation in which past assumptions about the alliance will be thrown to the winds.

Such a scenario will be bad for both Israel and the United States—not least because a nuclear Iran, which is more or less guaranteed to eventually be the result of a new deal, will undermine both nations’ security and undermine alliances in the Arab world. The most frustrating aspect of all this is that it could potentially undo so much of the good that was done to the region by the Abraham Accords that brought normalization of relations between Israel and important elements in the Arab world. And if that happens, it will be because the Biden administration has decided to ignore some basic conclusions about the Middle East and foreign policy that its predecessor had learned. That involves choosing ideology and false assumptions about Israel and the Islamic world over realism and, most of all, returning to a policy that isn’t based on the understanding that alliances work best when all sides to it are pursuing their own best interests.

In recent weeks, there had been a surge of optimism in Washington, which generated a corresponding sense of panic in Jerusalem and Arab capitals, about the Iranians finally dropping some of their most outrageous and clearly unserious demands, and finally taking “yes” for an answer and thereby beginning to profit from the dropping of Western sanctions. But as with every previous such glimmer of hope among Biden officials that their efforts will be rewarded with success, there has come a new set of unreasonable answers from Tehran.

Iran’s most recent response to a draft conveyed to them by the European Union—after all this time, the talks are still being conducted with intermediaries rather than directly by the two countries—was termed “not constructive” by the U.S. State Department. However, no one should be under the impression that this will deter Biden’s team from continuing to push for a new pact at any price. The Iranians believe with good reason that time is on their side. Given the pressure from the Europeans to get Iranian oil flowing at a time of shortages caused by the sanctions on Russia, few people involved doubt that sooner or later, the Americans will agree to some sort of “compromise” that will finally end this dispiriting example of weakness.

When that happens, it will force Arab states to make a choice. Their only options will be to surrender to Iran as the nation anointed as the “strong horse” in the region by the retreating American superpower or to throw in their lot with an Israeli effort to stop Tehran’s inevitable push for a weapon in spite of certain American opposition.

Though the administration continues to say that it won’t tie Israel’s hands in efforts to deal with the Iranian threat, this is utterly disingenuous. Any Israeli effort to attack Iran after an agreement will place it in a direct confrontation with Washington. This will lead to incalculable complications for relations between the two allies. Indeed, given the hostility to Israel on the part of the base of the Democratic Party to which Biden is beholden, there’s no telling what will result if either Lapid or Netanyahu takes such a course. And even if they don’t, the undermining of Israeli security by such a deal will inevitably lead to scenarios in which terrorist groups—funded and directed by Iran—will seek to take advantage with new confrontations and an upsurge in Palestinian terrorism.

All of this has the potential to overturn the progress made towards peace under the Trump administration and the Abraham Accords it jump-started two years ago.

Just as Iranian appeasement is the inevitable result of a return to power on the part of the foreign-policy establishment that Biden has reinstated, former President Donald Trump’s success was the product of his handing over the problem to amateurs. That team of diplomatic novices, including presidential senior advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and Friedman’s aide, Aryeh Lightstone, was not hindered by the establishment’s almost religious belief in a peace process for its own sake and the myths that pressuring Israel was the key to peace. They agreed with a policy that put America’s interests first and comprehended that allowing other countries to do the same would provide a more stable and surer path to a better outcome.

Biden, like Obama and all of their predecessors of both parties in the White House, treats Israel like a client state that should be compelled to agree to concessions to the Palestinians and acquiesce to appeasement of Iran because that fits in with some grand ideological construct about the Middle East that has little connection to reality. They are equally unrealistic about Arab nations pursuing their self-interests by allying themselves to an Israel that is an economic window to the West as well as a bulwark for their security.

Many in both the United States and Israel are anxious to downplay the impact on the alliance of a new deal that will lead to a nuclear Iran by the end of the decade. The implications of Obama’s appeasement were, though profoundly serious, still something that would occur in what then seemed like the distant future. But that is not true of a new agreement that will also expire while ignoring the danger from Iranian missile-building and funding of terrorism. The next such boost given the Iranian regime will place in jeopardy not just existing alliances but remove some of the guardrails that could operate to deter escalations in violence.

Though Biden apologists wrongly blame the current peril on Trump’s decision to withdraw from the original deal, he was right to junk it sooner rather than later and push for a necessary renegotiation that would end rather than perpetuate the nuclear threat. That kind of realism is out of fashion in Washington these days as the old establishment of career diplomats, think-tank operatives, academics and journalists who cling to the failed assumptions that were the foundation of American Middle East policy are back in the driver’s seat. If the alliance between Israel and the United States is to be saved from Biden’s Iran folly, then it will require returning to the Trump-era understanding of national self-interest and discarding magical thinking about both Iran and the Palestinians. Whether such a turnabout can happen in time to prevent the chaos and possible horror implicit in the appeasement of Iran remains to be seen.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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