The Iranian nuclear program has been a source of concern for Israel for over a decade. Today, there is a real possibility for Iran and the world powers to reach a comprehensive deal, scaling back the country’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and political normalization. While some view this as an opportunity, others believe it to be a threat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, others in the Israeli government, and certainly many other Israelis belong to this second camp.
Those opposing a deal with Iran often focus on the breakout time, or time required for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon. Different observers have different views on what this timeframe should be. In the past, Jerusalem has attacked other Middle Eastern states’ nuclear facilities, namely Iraq and Syria, to expand this timeframe or eliminate it altogether if possible. Today, the negotiations can do the same job without a costly military intervention. Such an intervention would come at a much higher price than those undertaken against Iraq and Syria.
Even a so called “surgical” targeting of Iran’s nuclear facilities would have grave strategic consequences. Not only would it further destabilize a region that is already on the verge of disintegration, it would also do exactly what the Israeli leadership aims to avoid: strengthen the Islamic Republic and push it toward the bomb.
In the past few years, the threat of an Israeli attack became a major concern for many Iranians. For them, that’s a terrifying prospect. The last time Iran was involved in a war, it was a devastating one, lasting eight years, involving the use of chemical weapons against it, targeting of Iranian cities with missiles, and leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. But aside from the humanitarian and economic costs, the war also had a key political implication, one lasting to this day. The regime of the newly founded Islamic Republic was consolidated by the war. At the end of the war, thousands of people were executed, while many more fled the country.
Like Israelis, Iranians too fear the current highly unstable and insecure conditions in their region. They are surrounded by fragile and failed states, a nuclear-armed neighbor, and are one of few non-Arab, non-Sunni states in the region, under attack by many in their neighborhood over the centuries. Decades of sanctions and political isolation are frustrating for a population eager for political and economic normalization and engagement with the world. The last thing they want is a war with Israel. This would neither promote national nor regime interests, but rather undermine both. But all of this would change in light of an attack on the country’s nuclear facilities.
Iranians showed they favored positive engagement with the world over belligerent rhetoric and escalation in 2013, when they cast their ballots for Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani ran his campaign on a platform of “moderation” and constructive engagement with the world. His team reflects this view. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s team is composed of officials once sidelined by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One of the main issues at stake was that these individuals opposed Ahmadinejad’s “anti-Zionist” statements and annual conference. The conference, which gathered anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, and other bigots from all over the world, was canceled by Rouhani as soon as he took office.
This team has a relatively moderate position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: once Israel and the Palestinians solve the conflict amongst themselves, Iran won’t consider the issue to be any of its business anymore. This means that, unlike other factions in Iran and across the Arab world, this team isn’t fundamentally opposed to Israel’s very existence, but rather has objections to particular policies. In practice, this has manifested itself in several ways. Over the summer, Tehran wasn’t very vocal about the developments in Gaza.
A nuclear deal is a viable policy option for Israel, as it is for Iran. It would empower the moderates who support the two-state solution and are likely to engage with Israel. This in turn would allow more open discussions about the status and future of the Iran-Israeli nexus and Iran’s nuclear program. After all, the two countries face common fundamental threats. They may not see eye to eye tactically, but strategically, they share many interests.
This was well understood by the Israeli leadership when it chose to help Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution and again in the 1980s when the majority of Middle Eastern states and the United States supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Ultimately, a strong moderate government in Iran, even within the confines of the limitations placed by the current regime, can only be beneficial to Israel. But the moderates will only be empowered with a nuclear deal because they have put all their political capital into the negotiations. Far from threatening Israel, a nuclear deal with Iran would benefit it. It would limit Iran’s nuclear program and buy some time without the potential of a long and devastating war between two major regional powers.
The above op-ed was also published on the Hebrew website Walla.