When it comes to the endgame on the Iranian nuclear issue, PM Netanyahu and US President Obama have both apparently decided on a policy of compartmentalization. Although they may differ on the option of a military strike (this is not certain because they both might be bluffing), on the issue of regional conventional power projection and its linkage to nuclear capability, both leaders have placed the two issues in distinctly separate compartments. Take Syria, for example. The US administration has declared unequivocally that a Geneva II invitation to Iran and the current state of the nuclear negotiations are mutually exclusive. In other words, the US has decided to go for the best possible nuclear deal without any connection to Iran’s Syrian policy. In fact, the US most likely supports the Assad regime over al-Qaeda’s forces.
Israel’s position is equally one-dimensional. It concentrates totally on the nuclear issue without any regional component. While Israel never fails to remind the world of the genocidal nature of Iran’s ideology, she lacks any strategy to unwind Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. This is a losing strategy for Israel, because in the current scenario the nature of the endgame depends less on Iran’s total behavior than on the whims of the P5+1. On that score, the US and Great Britain seem less inclined to push excessively hard for a maximization of the Iranian nuclear breakout time. The negotiating positions of Russia and China are even less stringent. Already the interim deal can be characterized as “enrichment soft”.
Without a regional linkage, the full breadth of negotiated possibilities remains stymied, and a single “bazaar-like” environment only works to water down the final product. Compartmentalization works in Iran’s favor, while Israel’s dire warnings are perceived as hysterical.
Both the US and Israel have their reasons for this acute separation. But is the justification for the absence of linkage more important than the impoverishment of the nuclear endgame?
The priorities for the US are the maintenance of the Central Command based in the Persian Gulf and to overcome the obligation of the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty) to negotiate down the enormous levels of the American nuclear arsenal. Any attempt by the US to challenge, through negotiation, the regional behavior of Iran will certainly impact these two priorities. For Israel the situation is even more complicated. The Jewish state is not a direct party to the nuclear negotiations. So its opaque nuclear arsenal remains outside the formal negotiations. Also Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. Although throughout its history Israel has claimed that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region, everyone knows differently. Israel’s nuclear policy (undisclosed nuclear hegemony) has become an anachronism. Iran continues to score propaganda on precisely these points. For both Israel and the US, all of these issues have vital importance. But with the Iran nuclear endgame in sight, have these priorities outlasted their usefulness?
According to Amos Yadlin, former chief of Israeli defense intelligence, the nuclear endgame can end in one of four different ways — either with an ideal agreement, a good agreement, a bad agreement, or a lingering phased agreement. I would also add that there is a fifth alternative — war.
In public, PM Netanyahu continues to call for an ideal agreement. Whether this is his bottom line or not, I’m not sure. The Obama administration, unlike the US Congress, has settled on a good agreement as the end product of a phased approach. Congress wants to put time limits on the length of the phase, while it continues to hold out for an ideal agreement. War is a distinct possibility if the endgame fails. But the definition of a good agreement differs substantially, in terms of breakout time, whether it comes from the administration or the Israelis. Yadlin is calling for a breakout time of years, while the most recent US study is calling for merely six months (Institute for Science and International Security).
The major components of any good agreement would be as such: the closure of the underground enrichment facility near Qom, the conversion of the heavy-water reactor at Arak to a light-water plant, mothballing as many as 15,000 centrifuges, limits on centrifuge machines and components, the sending of highly enriched materials (fuel rods) out of country, a strict accounting of enriched material (3.5% to 5%) for civilian purposes only, the opening of the military facility at Parchin for international inspection, and the adoption of the additional protocol (strict inspection regime). On the other hand, an ideal agreement would call for the complete elimination of all enrichment capacity and enriched materials. This would also include the complete alteration or dismantling of the Arak nuclear reactor. Obama has said that he won’t accept a bad deal. He has also said that “all options remain on the table” (he most certainly is bluffing).
So where are we most likely headed? An ideal agreement or even a Yadlin-like good one appears out of reach. Iran could become a nuclear threshold state with maybe a six-month window. There’s a good possibility that the window might even be shorter. Congress could derail the process with new legislation or, in the event of no agreement at all, it could declare war. But 2014 is an election year, and another American war in the Middle East appears far-fetched. If Netanyahu is bluffing on military action, Iran’s regional position could be enhanced by a nuclear agreement it can live with, without any restrictions on its conventional military behavior. But if Netanyahu is not bluffing on the idea of a war, Iran can walk away from any nuclear agreement, including the NPT itself.
In this scenario, the sanctions regime will most definitely be broken, and Iran will be conceived as the victim. The outcome would be that their nuclear program would suffer a setback but still be somewhat operational. But Israel would be condemned and isolated. None of these prospects would be very bright.
But why would Iran even sign a really good deal in the first place? A good agreement would mean at least a significant reduction in Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Sanctions relief could be one answer. But is that enough?
After twenty billion dollars in direct investment, and probably hundreds of billions in lost investments (sanctions), Iran seems less likely to compromise with a US president whom they don’t fear. Most likely they would hold out for something in the grey area with less than six months breakout time (between a good agreement and a bad agreement).
Obama would attempt to sell the deal as a good agreement. That would leave the ball in either Congress’s court and/or Netanyahu’s. On the issue of war, I predict Congress will surely punt (the American people don’t want war, they want jobs). With US elections scheduled for November, Iran would be smart to cut the deal sometime before. The P5+1 would be enamored of the deal. That’s a certainty (with the possible exception France, but Iran will assure them of potential business contracts). So where does that leave Bibi?
Let’s go back to our first question: Has Israeli compartmentalization lost its usefulness? It hasn’t if Israel is willing to live with an encroaching hegemonic conventional Iran without either nuclear weapons or capability. But what if the situation changes? And it will. Can Israel then live with an encroaching hegemonic Iran with a nuclear breakout capacity? This could be very risky and uncertain. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East is a scenario that nobody wants. But what if Israel opened its nuclear arsenal for negotiation? How might that play out?
In order to achieve the ideal agreement that Netanyahu desires, he must initiate the Helsinki process. A nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East without either enrichment capability or heavy-water reactors would be the goal. The Helsinki process and an Israeli signature to the NPT would place the P5+1 into a secondary position. Immediately, Israel and the Sunni Arab states could initiate a program of regional priorities to address the interference that Iran now imposes on both Arab and Israeli affairs. Iran (if it chose to participate) could place its regional grievances before the process as well. Indeed, this strategy would be the very opposite of the current policy of separation into regional and nuclear compartments. Any and all issues could be addressed. Syria and its political future could have the leverage of a truly historic regional peace accord negotiation. But bottom line, a pledge of non-interference, non-hegemony, non-proxy war, the future of non-state militias and foreign military forces could all be put forward for negotiation. The UN Security Council could finally come to an agreement on the Middle East by providing security guarantees without resort to one-power domination.
The Middle East would no longer be the sole imperial province of either the US or the Western European powers.
Of course, the nuclear-weapons-free zone and its anti-hegemonic regional corollary would be conditional on an Arab-Israeli rapprochement and a commitment to eventual mutual recognition. Unlike Madrid in 1991, Russia and China would play a much more significant role at Helsinki. G-5 cooperation would also be essential. But what if Iran rejects the idea? Global isolation, renewed sanctions, and even a policy of tough naval interdiction could pose severe problems for any state without the backing of the UN Security Council. Such would be the risk that Iran would run.
Israel’s current policy assumes a permanent state of war and relies on an undeclared nuclear hegemony. But the times are changing, and Israel cannot be assured of this policy’s usefulness. In fact, the policy might lead to a diplomatic disaster if conventional war with Iran is the outcome. Recently, PM Netanyahu stated that he would be willing to talk to President Rouhani of Iran, in exchange for Iranian recognition of Israel. Why not “up the ante” by declaring that the PM would be willing to talk about the future of all nuclear programs in the region? These talks could include Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Israel needs a winning strategy.