In the US there are three schools of thought on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. The first school would limit the talks to a six-month time frame by legislating new sanctions at the front end, then having them kick-in by early summer if no agreement is reached. This particular strategy has near-total support in the US House of Representatives but does not have leadership support in the Senate. The Obama administration is completely against new sanctions on Iran now, for fear that they would discredit the so-called “moderates” and topple any chance of a successful negotiation. The Iranian foreign minister has said that the talks would be finished if these sanctions were to become law. It is unclear whether everyone in this first school would oppose Iranian enrichment capability, but certainly the vast majority would.
The second school of thought is centered in the White House, the US State Department, and the majority of the think tanks (the punditocracy). This school foresees a longer negotiation, culminating in a comprehensive solution in which Iran will be allowed a certain level of nuclear enrichment capability, but not an actual bomb. Adherents to this approach will be at a particular disadvantage if and when the talks move into a second six-month time frame. With Congressional elections scheduled for November 2014, new sanctions are a certainty six months out. President Obama’s veto would most likely be overridden, and he’d have to think long and hard about not signing the bill in the first place.
The third school of thought is represented by the neo-con hard core. I call this school the “I told you so” school. Its major premise is that Iran plans to build a bomb and is merely dragging out negotiations to complete important work on missile technology and weaponization. This school believes that the other two schools offer a false choice — that of negotiation versus conventional war. Accordingly, members of this school don’t believe there are any “moderates” in Iran and suggest that the real choice with Iran is either conventional war now, or a razor’s-edge nuclear first-strike later. For them, nuclear capability will eventually lead to a breakout. But unlike the US-Soviet Cold War, this breakout will not lead to containment. Therefore it is better to have a conventional war now than a nuclear war later.
I disagree with all three of these schools of thought. With the first school, I don’t believe it is possible to achieve a zero-enrichment regime as long as another country within the region possesses nuclear weapons. Also, the mere presence of an out-of-region nuclear power situated on Iran’s doorstep (in the form of air and naval assets) also drives Iran toward nuclear capability. Secondly, even if there could be a totally successful negotiation with a zero-enrichment outcome, the issue of Iran’s role in the region would not be addressed. The balance of power in the Middle East is now being seriously contested. In a successful negotiation, with all sanctions lifted, Iran would be in a much more powerful position than it is today. Solving the nuclear issue (if that’s possible) does not solve the regional issue. On the contrary, it will exacerbate the problem. As Iran becomes wealthier, the global Sunni World would intensify its distinct demographic advantage. The entire northern Levant would become radicalized in a vastly expanded sectarian war. This scenario holds true with the second school of thought as well.
Another major problem with a negotiated settlement which allows for enrichment (the second school of thought) is breakout time. President Obama has said that a bad deal is worse than no deal at all. I couldn’t agree more. But a bad deal is precisely where Iran desires these negotiations to go. Even now, the hardliners in Iran have complained about the “harsh terms” of the interim agreement. What would the mullahs say to a negotiation that the US president could live with? Obama would need at least a six-month breakout time (probably more) in order to sell the deal politically in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. And remember, with the second school a comprehensive deal must be reached within six months or the first school will tighten sanctions, closing off negotiations. Six months from now we could very easily be back at square one. What would Obama do then?
As far as the third school of thought is concerned, I both agree and disagree. Yes, a conventional war is far better than a nuclear war. A nuclear war won’t just affect Iran and Israel. It would most certainly be regional and could go beyond. Israel cannot live with an annihilationist regime in possession of nuclear weapons capability. Genocidal declarations do not lead to an environment conducive for nuclear containment to work. There won’t be a hotline between Jerusalem and Tehran. The Iranian national soccer team won’t be playing at the Ramat Gan Stadium any time soon. All there will be is a void with no communication from either side. A hair-trigger nuclear showdown, where first-strike and not mutually assured destruction becomes the strategy of both powers. Yes, I believe everyone would prefer conventional war to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
But I don’t believe in a conventional war before all diplomatic avenues are exhausted. And even though I feel that the current negotiations are a blind alley, there is a more radical diplomatic way forward. What good are nuclear weapons if they only lead to an arms race? That’s the question the Israeli people must ask themselves. I am not an Israeli. However as a Jew, I know that the future of the Jewish people is completely tied to the future of Israel. This is a certainty. But can Israel survive a Middle East nuclear arms race?
From my point of view, it’s time to take the Israeli nuclear arsenal out of the closet and place it directly on the negotiating table. If Israel doesn’t take the diplomatic initiative, the present dreary negotiations will run their feeble course. In the end, Israel will be stuck with a war, and its global isolation will only deepen. To be quite honest, very few people in the world are listening to PM Netanyahu anymore. The PM needs the equivalent of a Nixon-to-China diplomatic shocker. He should be advocating zero enrichment for zero enrichment. In other words, a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. He could demand mutual recognition of all states in the Middle East, as well as a pledge of anti-hegemony. He could get the backing of the full UN Security Council. He could even suggest that Iran end its arms flow into Syria as the price of admittance to the Helsinki Conference.
PM Netanyahu (with Russian, American and Chinese support) could turn the table on the Iranian leadership, isolate them, and force a showdown over their nuclear plans. He could also stop the Syrian war by drying up its weapons supply from the Gulf states. These countries have long advocated a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. They would have little choice but to go along. In all likelihood Saudi Arabia would welcome the initiative, because it would address the regional balance as well as the nuclear issue. The future of foreign naval and air assets would be left for Iran to propose, if and when it decided to come to the conference. Netanyahu could demand that only currently existing states (under UN Resolution 242) would be allowed to attend the conference.
Israel doesn’t need weapons of mass destruction for protection. What it needs is a completely redefined regional security architecture and a measure of strategic depth. Most importantly, it needs to break out of its isolation and reverse the course of the Middle East black hole into which the world appears to be heading. It is time to isolate Iran and force THEM to choose war or peace.