The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, has a dual strategy. He wants to continue with the interim nuclear deal until he can do one of two things. He could split the P5+1 into competing factions (by accusing the US and Israel of the negotiations’ breakdown), or, through the unlimited nature of the current negotiations, use extensions as a clever cover for an incremental program designed for a quick breakout sometime in the future. By advocating for new sanctions to be enacted now, but to be applied later, Netanyahu is setting up Israel to be the fall guy. If Bibi was strategic, he would hold off on any sanctions legislation and adamantly declare that he was against any more extensions. He would also make the issue of extensions a national issue, by including all Israeli political parties in the election to join with him in Washington in support of his new position. In this way, Netanyahu could be perceived as a statesman and not a partisan politician. Worst of all, the prime minister of Israel cannot afford to lose the support of the Democratic Party’s voting base by insulting the President of the United States, Barack Obama.
Sanctions will never work against revolutionary Iran, nor did sanctions bring the ideological regime to the negotiating table. It was the Syrian War and the prospect of losing their only ally, Assad, that made Khamenei recalibrate his strategic hand. He needed the support of Russia in Syria to maintain his revolutionary empire throughout the Levant, and so-called “moderation” through the office of the presidency was the Supreme Leader’s ticket forward. Empire, regional hegemony, and a hatred of Israel and the West are still the true face of Iran. President Rouhani is a mere mask to disguise this truth. The real goals of the revolution are continued Russian support for Assad, the arming of all Israel’s terrorist enemies (especially Hezbollah), the inching closer toward nuclear weapons capability, the defeat of the Arab Sunni world, and the portrayal of Netanyahu as a war-monger dead set on disrupting the never-ending nuclear negotiations. The last thing Iran needed in the spring of 2013 was another Ahmadinejad to totally alienate the Western Europeans and the Russians.
By appealing only to the American Right, Netanyahu is allowing the mask of Iran (Rouhani) to outflank him. This is precisely the Supreme Leader’s game plan. This fragmentation of Israeli policy simply cannot continue. If Netanyahu can’t find a bi-partisan way forward, then a new Israeli leader will become a necessity. Yes, Obama must be strongly informed that the Iran negotiations cannot continue to be extended indefinitely, and yes, only a really good nuclear deal is acceptable. But Obama needs to be informed of this by his own party. Only the Senate Democrats can do the job appropriately. An Israeli leader with a true strategy forward would understand this. Only a bi-partisan Congress can override a president hell-bent on a bad nuclear deal with Iran. And the only role for renewed sanctions would be to nix just such a deal. Sanctions legislation (at this point in time) is a mistake.
So if sanctions won’t stop Iran’s relentless drive forward toward nuclear weapons capability and regional hegemony, what will? The next Israeli prime minister must keep the P5+1 united against any more extensions, and he needs the support of the full Congress and the president of the US to pull it off. So, an Israeli or US-inspired war against the Iranian nuclear facilities is definitely not the answer. Israel and the West need both Russian and Chinese cooperation once the nuclear talks break down. Without such global coordination, military action of any sort could escalate and become extremely dangerous. World Wars have started on less.
Iran’s imperial designs depend on Syria and Lebanon. The democratic future of Iraq depends on the rolling back of these imperial designs. The US and Israel must have a plan for the Middle East which can be balanced in such away that Russia and China can see themselves as partners in a region stripped of both weapons of mass destruction and the ability to act on hegemonic impulses. In other words, a failed region at war can only become rehabilitated through a global structure of peace without the zero-sum game of anarchistic international politics. A solo nuclear negotiation track, while the region has failed due to near total war, makes little sense. Iran is not interested in a nuclear deal because it is counting on a strong nuclear capability to offset its demographic weaknesses in Syria and Lebanon. Iranian foreign policy, while revolutionary, hegemonic and anti-Israeli, does have the realistic fear that Iraq can be used once again as a staging area for another Western-inspired Sunni invasion (the Iran-Iraq War). In a new Middle East, all nations must not fear either the hegemonic designs of the great powers or the imperial designs of their neighbors.
The idea that Israel can go it alone with military action against Iran is absurd. This would simply play into the Ayatollah’s game plan. Russia, China, Europe, the G-20 nations, even the majority of the Sunni Islamic states would all object. So would large sections of the American public, especially if the campaign went badly and the US was forced to become involved. Israel would become extremely isolated. As the Labor Party has reiterated in recent days, Israel already is isolated and can’t afford to further alienate its only major ally, the US. Unlike its current leadership, the Jewish state needs a bold strategy to isolate Iran diplomatically without resort to risky attacks on active nuclear sites. What if vulnerable and fragile Iranian water resources were impacted by an Israeli attack? Hundreds of thousands of civilians could be exposed to radiation poisoning. Wouldn’t that open Israel up to ICC (International Criminal Court) action and brand Israeli politicians as international war criminals?
The bold strategy to end Israel’s isolation, and keep the P5+1 united, would be to play the nuclear-weapons-free zone card. What other choice does Israel have? Bibi calls for the total end to Iranian nuclear enrichment. But with a vast nuclear program of its own, how long will it be before the world starts to ask: Why should Israel be the region’s nuclear hegemon? When the Iran nuclear negotiations break down, there will need to be an alternative plan other than war and sanctions (that won’t work). Unless, of course, Bibi wants to continue on with the fiction that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and therefore agrees to another extension. But for the Labor Party this ploy makes little sense. From the work that Amos Yadlin has published at the INSS, an extended no-deal policy is exactly the same as a bad deal. With a two-month breakout time, the current interim deal extended into the future is untenable. But without a united P5+1, and an alternative peace plan, war becomes the only answer. With the region already in complete chaos, an expanded war is crazy. Everyone will lose. It’s inevitable.
But a nuclear-weapons-free zone must have a superpower and conventional regional component. All parties must relinquish not only their weapons of mass destruction, but also the inclination to aggression, terrorism, non-state actors, and alliances against other states. In other words, the invasion of all states in the Middle East must be outlawed through international treaty. The P5+1 must back this new regional configuration, but without basing rights within the area. Only if the peace of this new zone is broken would the superpowers have the right to intervene. All states would be required to join the NPT, and mutual diplomatic recognition would also be required. The zone would have conventional militaries which could only be used for defensive purposes. The security of all states in the zone would become a regional and international cooperative project. With this structure as a backdrop, a democratic solution for Syria can also be envisioned as a UN Security Council sanctioned intervention.
The Middle East is not just a “tough neighborhood”; it has become a failed region. Injecting nuclear weapons into this region will probably mean nuclear war. Simplistic solutions — sanctions alone, extended irresolution, bad nuclear deals, nuclear deals without peace plans for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, or military action without UN approval — will not suffice. Like with any cancer, only radical surgery can potentially save the patient. But big ideas require great leaders. And there is no one on the political scene today that fits that bill. Israel needs a great leader, a politician with vision and courage. Israel needs a nuclear “spears into plowshares” narrative that can capture the imagination of the world. In the final analysis, the best strategy for Israel is the one laid out by its Prophets over three thousand years ago. It’s time for the ideals of a people to become their reality.