This article will examine Israel’s position before and after the signature of the Iranian nuclear agreement. Before the agreement, the political leadership and the Israeli military were united against its signature, since it doesn’t foresee the destruction but rather the freezing of the nuclear facilities. The Israeli government opposed the suspension of sanctions before the elimination of the Iranian capacity to build a nuclear weapon. The agreement has progressively created a gap in the decision making process in Israel. In fact, while the government of Netanyahu has supported the hard line by maintaining that the agreement’s signature is a historical mistake, the military establishment has noted that the agreement offers at least ten years of ceasefire and new opportunities for Israel, such as the possibility to build new defensive weapons.
The Iranian nuclear agreement signed on July 14th 2015 represents undoubtedly a turning point for the Middle East and the West. On the one hand, in January 2016 it has brought to the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran and to a first Iranian opening in international cooperation with the West; on the other hand, it has caused troubles to the Israeli government, which has remained isolated in the attempt to show that Iran is the main threat for peace in the word (Ellyatt, 2015; Eldar, 2016). The West has cheered the agreement by maintaining that economic interests emerging from the suspension of the sanctions will overcome the threat of de-freezing nuclear power (Anon., 2016). However, what is Israel’s perception of the Iranian nuclear program and reaction to the nuclear agreement?
Israel before the Iran Nuclear Deal
Israel has perceived the Iranian nuclear issue as an existential threat to its survival. Part of Israeli academia, military and public opinion have in fact stated that the Iranian nuclear program has intimately aggressive goals aiming at the destruction of the Jewish state. Steven R. David from the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies wrote:
“Stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be good but it doesn’t seem feasible. After all, the regional disarm is a fantastic utopia, the diplomacy has shown few results and after ten years economic sanction haven’t yet defeated Iran […]. However, dealing with a nuclear Iran is not any better. Nowadays Israel is not capable of provoking a regime change; on the one hand, simple defense offers only a limited protection against a nuclear attack, on the other hand, the prevention of an action for disarm does not offer full guaranty of success while it exposes Israel to horrible Iranian backlashes. What should Israel do in such a situation?” (David, 2013).
Before the agreement, the dilemma pressing the Jewish State concerned the reliability of the deterrence theory: will Iran use its nuclear capability only as an instrument of political dissuasion? Many Israeli security experts, such as former Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, do not trust the Iranian government and maintain that negotiations gave too many concessions to Iran. Steinitz accused the P5+1 (Western countries negotiating with Iran) of trying to reach an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program in order to concentrate on other more important issues, such as ISIS, and ignoring the fact that the nuclear negotiations led to a bad agreement (Keinon, 2014a). Many academic and military representatives have stated that Israel shall be ready to launch a preventive military attack to stop Iran from becoming nuclear. Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin Sadat Centre in Tel-Aviv, has argued that the Israeli army shall be ready for a military invasion with conventional weapons in Iran to destroy nuclear facilities and stop the nuclear program. The intervention shall be repeated, should Iran rebuild its nuclear facilities, not only for Israel but for the security of the entire world. The reasons for this stance can be traced back to Israeli limited territorial dimensions, which marks it as “one bomb state”. In fact, in case of a nuclear attack on Israel, the Jewish state could be entirely annihilated with no option of defending itself with a second strike. Israeli fears are also aggravated by Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s statements that “Israel must be wiped off the map” (Teitelbaum, J. & Segall M., 2012).
Therefore, as “one bomb state” Israel cannot accept that the agreement has frozen, rather than destroyed, the centrifuges, maintaining the capability to reinstall them after the deadline in 10 to 15 years. In fact, the agreement freezes, but does not destroy the heavy water reactor in the facility of Arak, the city holding one of the three largest nuclear facilities in Iran, together with Fordow and Natanz, while allowing continuous research in the most advanced centrifuges. Some Israeli sources have estimated that the research could be completed within two years from its signature (one year from now). Afterwards, within six months, the Iranians could be able to install a large number of new centrifuges for enrichment which would enable the potential acquisition of the nuclear weapon. In March 2015 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu already reminded not to lift sanctions before eliminating the Iranian capability to build the nuclear bomb (Netanyahu, 2015). But this is exactly what has not happened. Israel has taken several measures in order to prevent the signature of the agreement in July 2015. After the extension of negotiations for 6 months in November 2014 the Israeli Cabinet made a great effort in all fields and levels to avoid the signature of the “bad deal”, which would mean a regret for the future generations and a serious historical mistake (Kershner, 2015). The supporting documents were provided by Mossad.
Moreover, Israel has seriously questioned the relation between Iran and the Atomic Agency (IAEA). In fact, Israel thought that Iran might not have declared with sufficient transparency the development of its nuclear program. In August 2014 the Atomic Agency reported that its inspectors had evidenced some undeclared activities inside the nuclear facilities (IAEA, 2014). Moreover, Israel was convinced that Iran would have tried to avoid additional inspections by the IAEA. Steinitz has even considered the possibility of cooperation between Iran and North Korea to divert restrictions imposed by the agreement (Keinon, 2014b). However, nowadays the IAEA confirms that Iran has given full access to inspectors to verify the nuclear facilities (IAEA, 2016). By contrast, the agreement allows Iran to keep developing its ballistic missile program.
Israel after the Iran Nuclear Agreement
Now that the agreement has been signed Israel has to face a potentially nuclear Iran. After the signature of the agreement, the unified Israeli position has progressively fallen apart. On the one hand, the Netanyahu government keeps stating that Iran is the main threat for Israel and the signature of the agreement is a great historical mistake which doesn’t force Iran to quit its aggressive behavior in the Middle East and could trigger the danger of a second Holocaust (Allison, 2016). Netanyahu is particularly sensitive to Iranian support of Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah, as well as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s statements on the elimination of Israel from the world in the next 25 years. However, in the next 25 years Ali Khamenei will most probably leave the scenario before Israel could potentially be eliminated from world’s maps. The military option to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities remains open although it would mean a great violation of the agreement itself and a diplomatic disaster for the USA. Netanyahu has often repeated that Israel reserves the right to defend itself in any moment. However, despite Israeli superiority of nuclear and conventional weapons, Israel’s capacity of attacking Iran without American support remains questionable.
On the other hand, Israeli journalists and the military establishment have begun to view also the other side of the coin. If Iran observes the nuclear agreement it will see economic sanctions progressively lifted, as it was the case in January 16th, 2016 with the Implementation Day. They have recognized that the Iranian regime has renounced to its nuclear ambitions for a period of 10 to 15 years which, if correctly implemented, assures a period of ceasefire. After the Implementation Day, during the annual conference in the Institute for National Security Studies, Gadi Eizenkot, general of the Israeli army, stated that the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West is undoubtedly a historical turning point. It represents many risks but also many opportunities. “We try to renew our strategy and keep Iran high in the priority list” (Allison, 2016). With this statement – in opposition to the “historical mistake” line maintained by Netanyahu – Eizenkot had opened the debate in Israel over the position of the Israeli army on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. This debate started in the summer of 2015 when Eizenkot published for the first time in the history of Israel a public defense strategy with no reference to the Iranian nuclear threat, which has been postponed to a near future (Allison, 2016). The current main challenge for Israel, according to Eizenkot, are Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the Middle-eastern region, support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, to Hamas in Gaza and to the Houthis in Yemen, and its dominant position in Baghdad. Since 2006, Hezbollah is financially supported and trained by the Iranians, who are fighting a proxy war against Israel. The growing Hezbollah’s military capacities are challenging the intelligence as well as land ground and air superiority of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) (Allison, 2016). Moreover, the agreement gives time for acquiring the necessary defensive and offensive capacities to be used as deterrents. Many in the security establishment believe that the nuclear agreement offers Israel some opportunities as well as risks. However, others working in military and defense, such as former Minister for Defense Moshe Ya’alon, have restated that Iran remains Israel’s main enemy (Allison, 2016). Only one year ago, politicians as well as American and Israeli security experts agreed that the Iranian nuclear ambitions were the highest priority security threat for both nations. Apparently today, the geostrategic balance has changed.
At this point, the question occurring during all negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program can be asked again: does the Iranian nuclear program really present such a major threat for Israel and for the entire international community? There is evidence to believe that it doesn’t only have civilian purposes, otherwise it wouldn’t be building underground facilities, enriching uranium above the permitted threshold, nor it would have denied in the past IAEA inspectors verify the development of its nuclear program. Moreover, Iran is surrounded by countries with nuclear capability, and a military program would meet Iranian regional hegemonic ambitions as well as grant a prominent status in the international community. Should the international community really fear the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, if Iran acquire them one day? It should be considered that in the most critical moments states with nuclear capability, such as the US and the USSR during the Cold War, or Pakistan and India for the control over Kashmir, have rationally decided to abstain from its use. Deterrence is usually the main aim of nuclear ambitions, rather than an effective will to use it. In the case of Iran, a potential nuclear attack on Israel would most likely trigger a potentially devastating response by the USA, Israeli ally and the owner of the largest nuclear stockpile in the world.
The rationality of the Iranian government, which was particularly relevant during the period of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and the possibility that nuclear weapons are transferred to terrorists, are problems which must be addressed. The agreement imposes to Iran to interrupt its program for 10 to 15 years, to transfer more than 90% of its enriched uranium abroad, and to allow IAEA inspectors to verify that its nuclear facilities have only civilian purposes. This proves that Iran was ready to partially give up on his nuclear ambitions in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and the end of economic isolation. Iran can benefit from its assets abroad which were frozen as a result of the sanctions. Iranian youths can now expect a brighter future in being highly educated but earning a salary which reaches, according to EOCD, one third of the western standards, while around 150.000 youngsters leave the country every year to look for better opportunities. Economic growth will most probably result in wealth, moderation and political stability. Some Israeli journalists have questioned whether the Iranian government will still want to bomb all those countries which had provided Iran with knowledge, experience and tourists while Iranian entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and other experts in the next 10 – 15 years are cooperating with international partners.
It is however difficult to state that Israeli-Iranian relations will stabilize in the near future. On the one hand, Netanyahu’s isolation is growing in the international community. It is challenged by the Israeli military establishment and Western countries which have supported the nuclear agreement for the stability in the Middle-Eastern region. Netanyahu relies on the support of the right wing parties, such as Israel Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has recently become Minister for Defence; HaBayit HaYehudi, guided by Naftali Benet; and the ultra-orthodox party Shas; while his coalition in the Knesset has a majority of only one seat (61 seats out of 120). On the other hand, after a year from the signature of the agreement, opinions of those experts who defend Israel, such as Yossi Kuperwasser, should not be ignored in future debates (Kaperwasser, 2016). Moreover, the violation of human rights remains a relevant issue to normalize the relations between the two countries.
Master’s degree in Security and Diplomacy Studies (Tel Aviv University)
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 Efraim Inbar delivering a speech during an event in Tel Aviv in Spring 2012. The author of this article attended the event.