Benjamin Netanyahu and his most hawkish supporters and Iranian hard-liners are saying the same thing about a prospective nuclear deal: “We’re Worried.” On May 3, Iranian conservatives held a conference voicing their misgivings over President Hassan Rouhani’s attempt to engage the P5+1 over the nuclear issue. After having met with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement expressing concern that a “bad deal” was in the making.
Israel fears being abandoned by the U.S. to face an increasingly assertive Iran on it’s own. The Obama Administration’s dedication to “pivoting” to Asia while Iran appears to be winning the fight in Syria have exacerbated Israeli decision-makers’ anxiety. In the minds of many Likudniks, Rouhani is a hawk in moderate dove’s clothing: cynically playing for time and an economic recovery in order to make a final push across the nuclear Rubicon. Once it joins the nuclear club, Tehran will attempt to dominate the region.
So what are Israel’s options when it comes to a final nuclear deal? Bibi has several that range from spoiling the talks by attacking Iran, pursuing a new periphery doctrine, or pulling a “Nixon Goes to China” and engaging Iran directly. However, Netanyahu’s best bet is to use the leverage Israel has with the West to demand that the P5+1 not allow Iran to participate in the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation (TC) program and that the parties to the agreement not enter into bilateral agreements that share sensitive nuclear materials with the Islamic Republic.
The former head of the Mossad Meir Dagan and the former head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission Uzi Eilam have stated that Iran is much further away from getting it’s hands on the bomb than we think. While many scholars have speculated over why states pursue nuclear weapons, it has been found that the provision of technical assistance (such as the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation, or TC program) as well as sensitive nuclear materials (from nuclear weapon designs to facilities to enrich uranium) raises the likelihood a previously undecided state will decide to pursue the bomb. If Iran is determined to get the bomb (as Netanyahu and other hawks in Israel suggest), providing it with technical assistance will only make breakout easier; if Iran is not determined and is simply hedging it’s bets, providing it with access to materials and expertise will move it away from amimut and toward nuclear armament.
The perception that Netanyahu is willing to keep the red lines he draws gives him more leverage with the P5+1 than it does with Iran. The Obama Administration fears Israel will preventively attack Iran’s known nuclear sites. Such strikes are unlikely to be effective- the Iranians have learned the lessons of Osiraq and Operation Orchard, and have dispersed their program throughout the country in places that can’t be reached. Even multiple rounds of attacks wouldn’t cripple their nuclear capacity. What an attack would do is spoil any chance that exists of reopening Tehran, render Rouhani (who some see as a latter-day Gorbachev or Sadat) a lame duck, and empower the “We’re Worried” lobby. It could also ignite a regional war that would deepen American involvement in the region- something Obama pledged to end during his first run for the Presidency in 2008.
During his previous government, Netanyahu and the then-Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, believed that scientific knowledge could not be destroyed and the use of force was a more effective means of denying Iran the bomb. They had it backwards: Tehran’s ambitions can be thwarted if Netanyahu plays upon his reputation and demands the P5+1 deny Iran the technical assistance it still needs to become a nuclear power.