Will a new nuclear deal render Israel’s capabilities hollow?

Tehran wants to keep up the negotiations facade until such time as the IAEA convenes, but its leaders must be made to understand that the era of immunity is over.

Advanced IR-6 centrifuges in the underground Natanz uranium-enrichment facility in central Iran. Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
Advanced IR-6 centrifuges in the underground Natanz uranium-enrichment facility in central Iran. Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
Jacob Nagel and Mark Dubowitz

Returning to reality after the euphoria that existed during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, the belligerent announcements by senior Iranian officials and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and the convening of the Russia-Turkey-Iran conference in Tehran, require a sober assessment of the situation and the construction of a plan to preserve and increase deterrence vis-à-vis Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Continued communication with the United States is also needed, to prevent any return to the dreadful nuclear agreement from 2015.

Prior to Biden’s visit, Israel set a number of key goals, some of which were not reached and some of which were partially achieved. Despite this, Israel must continue its actions and efforts, in light of events and expected events in the region.

The most difficult undertaking during the visit was to underscore to the United States the dangers in reinstating the nuclear agreement, despite the ambitions of the administration headed by Biden and his envoy Robert Malley. As expected, Israel failed. The administration continues with determination, supported by irresponsible voices in Israel, to make every possible mistake in order to reinstate the agreement.

The visit’s secondary goals, which focused on strengthening technological cooperation between Israel and the United States and attempting to advance initial steps of normalization with Saudi Arabia, yielded partial success. Announcements that dealing with the Palestinian issue is not currently appropriate probably fell on attentive ears, despite U.S. and Saudi declarations.

The last round of talks between Iran, the United States and the Europeans in Qatar ended in failure and with no progress. The Iranians made new demands and refused to accept the agreement that had been reached in previous rounds. However, the parties did not regard this stage as a failure and are currently initiating ties to coordinate another round between the United States and Iran and between the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and their counterparts in Tehran, to once again try to square the circle.

Even though the resulting agreement, titled the “Putin Agreement,” was not signed, that the agreement was spearheaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin and drafted by his envoy Ulyanov remains significant. This happened while Russia continued its invasion of Ukraine, with Iran offering advice on how to circumvent sanctions. Despite this, the United States continues to align with the Russian leadership in its negotiations with Iran.

The summit in Tehran underscored the absurdity of American behavior, and posed complex challenges. This bizarre meeting, officially titled a discussion on Syria, probably included more disagreements than agreements, as each side sought a solution to its own interests, despite the public announcements.

Turkey sought a solution for its ambitions in northeastern Syria, the expulsion of the Kurds and the return of Syrian refugees. Iran sought support for returning to the agreement on its terms, and to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Russia sought Iranian, and possibly Turkish, support for its war against Ukraine, but mostly to poke a finger in the American eye.

How can one explain such a meeting only days after Iran sent terrorists to Turkey to attack Israelis and violated its sovereignty? How does this encounter align with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological struggle? And with the Shi’ite/Suni struggle? Apparently, personal interests triumphed.

Reinstating the nuclear agreement is a serious mistake, and the former and current officials who support it and are leaking their opinions to the media are harming Israel. Those in office have both a right and duty to present their position, but only behind closed doors. When the decision is made by those in charge, they must stop their harmful activities, as is required in a democracy.

The emerging agreement, and the danger that it will worsen if the new Iranian demands are accepted, is based on the bad agreement of 2015, with further concessions. It does not take into account the time that has elapsed and the short time remaining until the expiration of the original agreement’s restrictions. It does not take into account the findings from the nuclear archive spirited out of Iran by Israel in 2018, or the violations of the agreement revealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

At the time of signing the agreement, the Iranians will receive hundreds of billions of dollars, enabling them to restore their economy, intensify the development and equipment of nuclear and conventional arms, and increase support for Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthi movement.

Iran has no answers to the open investigations of the IAEA, and may have no intentions of reaching an agreement until they become a threshold state and can secure an agreement on the terms they dictate. Waiving the investigation of the open cases will weaken the status of the IAEA and make it irrelevant.

Americans are probably comfortable with continuing the negotiations, at least until the elections in November.

Those who claim that reinstating the agreement is the lesser evil, buying time that will allow better preparation for future action, are wrong and misleading. The price of time bought in this way will be high. With or without an agreement, Iran will advance with its nuclear program until it achieves capabilities rendering it irrelevant. The only thing an agreement will accomplish will be to grant Iran a shield of legitimacy, rendering it more difficult for Israel to act.

Without an agreement, on the other hand, Iran will be in a weaker position, lacking legitimacy. This will leave Israel and the United State with a freer hand to set back its nuclear progress.

Recent statements by Iranian officials claiming that the country is already a nuclear threshold state indicate weakness and panic. The statements are intended mainly to pressure the United States to return to the agreement. Iran is at least 18 to 24 months away from the technological ability to actually produce a nuclear warhead.

Recent threats by Nasrallah and Hamas also indicate weakness and panic. However, Israel cannot ignore Hezbollah’s provocations. To maintain a level of deterrence against Lebanon and Iran, Israel must respond—and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has given it the tools to change the rules of the game in Lebanon by developing precision munitions, violating unwritten understandings.

Facing Hamas in Gaza, Israel’s response to all provocations and launches must be disproportionate. While this could potentially lead to escalation and decline, it is a risk that must be taken because otherwise deterrence will be irrevocably marred.

In addition, Iranian leaders must be made to understand that their era of immunity is over, and that no longer will only Iran’s operational arm suffer for attacking Israel. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu introduced this important change in 2018, and its implementation must continue.

Israel must prepare for a strategic media campaign that will emphasize (not “explain,” as it is mistakenly called) Iranian behavior and the dangers anticipated from a nuclear Iran, and build legitimacy for stepping up the “campaign between wars.”

IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Professor Jacob Nagel, formerly the national security adviser to the prime minister, is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Aeronautics and Space at the Technion.

Mark Dubowitz is the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

This article first appeared in 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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