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How to fix the Iran deal

A plan to hone the nuclear agreement in the coming weeks, and transform the strategic environment in the long-run

With four weeks left before the Iran talks’ deadline, the leaders of Israel and America are at loggerheads, one talking past the other.

While President Obama is heavily invested in reaching a comprehensive agreement, Prime Minister Netanyahu seems resolved to do anything in his power to scuttle the current framework. Recent congressional action suggests, however, that Netanyahu’s efforts are falling short of that goal and that — soon enough — the President’s agenda will have prevailed.

Anything can still happen, of course. From regional escalations to a dramatic change of mind in Washington or Teheran, but the far more likely scenario is that by Fall of 2015, a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the world’s main powers will have already been signed.

With that as starting point – and looking ahead – what can Israel and the White House still constructively do in order to improve the shaping agreement? What are the strategic concerns for Israel and America that an agreement with Iran will raise, and what bilateral agreements can Israel and America still reach that will mitigate those concerns?

Five Gaps That Need Filling in the Coming Agreement

The current framework for the deal can be described neither as a new holocaust, nor as a historic achievement, because it is still a half-baked product that leaves five key questions unanswered. Only if satisfactory solutions are found for these five loopholes will the deal become acceptable. But if left unplugged, we will end up with a bad deal, one that we would be better off without.

The issue of inspections is the first critical piece, and in the framework statement it was addressed only with broad brush strokes. The details here are crucial, especially as Iran has a very bad record of hiding and cheating when it comes to its nuclear dealings with the West. Moreover, the provisions of the comprehensive agreement will likely leave in Iran’s hands a massive nuclear infrastructure, ranging from centrifuges, enriched uranium, research facilities and nuclear reactors. To make this an acceptable agreement, – consent on a robust, “anywhere, anytime” type inspection regime will be required in order to guarantee that Iran stays at a safety distance of no less than one year from breakout to a bomb. be needed.

A second troubling point has to do with the remaining nuclear stockpiles that will have to be shipped out of Iran. The White House’s language on what will be done with these materials was troublingly vague, given our knowledge that Iran currently has enough Low Enriched Uranium for the production of six to eight warheads. There can be no confidence in Iran’s rollback to a year’s distance before this point is properly addressed.

No less important is the R&D issue. wherein if Iran continues to develop its enrichment technologies, it will gain the ability to rapidly deploy cascades of modern centrifuges in very short timelines, thus reducing its breakout time to unacceptable levels. This is a worrying, highly realistic prospect that must be addressed at this early stage.

Weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program, or what is often referred to as its PMD’s (Possible Military Dimensions), is another matter whose coverage in the framework principles was far too scant. It is essential to create a clear baseline of Iran’s illicit activities thus far, as well as to allow access to locations, organizations, individuals and documents in order to effectively block Iran’s ability to manufacture the weapon components required for the detonation and delivery of a nuclear warhead.

Lastly, sanctions relief needs to be more accurately described. The pace, scope and sequencing of the lifting of the sanctions regime has not yet been announced. This is a major sticking point for Iranians, and it is upon the P5+1 to ensure an effective, performance-based sequence for the months after the deal is signed. No less important is the establishment of coordinated “snapback” measures by the P5+1 that will ensure significant costs are incurred from Iran if a violation is detected in the years ahead.

Five Long-Range Strategic Concerns

An agreement that addresses those points would be acceptable, but it still raises some long-range strategic concerns. In a post-agreement era, there will be great weight to Israeli-American action aimed at minimizing the risk of an Iranian breakout, and the prevention of regional proliferation. That cooperation should focus on the following five strategic concerns:

First, we must study what led to the North Korean breakout, and prevent Iran from doing the same. There are still debates among historians and policy makers regarding the moment in time where North Korea’s breakout should have been derailed, and when it became too late? This is a dialogue worth having. The Iranians have certainly learned their lessons, and we must do the same.

Second, how should the world prepare to deal with Iran 10-15 years in the future? As President Obama said on his interview to NPR, by that point Iran’s breakout time is expected to have “shrunk almost down to zero.” Will the United States and Israel be willing to live under such a threat? How do you prepare for it? Prevent it?

Third, the United States and its allies must also prepare, in the aftermath of a deal, for an increase in Iranian wealth and power, and, by proxy, more subversive activities and a rise in conventional terrorism. Would the US be ready to act decisively against Iran’s subterfuge at the risk of harming the deal? What mechanisms can we set in place now to ensure the Iranian conventional threat doesn’t run rampant, and the nuclear agreement doesn’t become a diplomatic shield for Iran’s terrorism?

Fourth is the question of further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, which has long been a high order problem for global security. The signing of the Iran agreement is about to usher in a new and precarious chapter in the field of arms control in this volatile region. A major shortcoming of the agreement is that it grants legitimacy to Iran’s prior nuclear activity. If that concession is in fact soon made, how will the international community ensure similar activity doesn’t take place in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey?

Fifth is the erosion of Israel’s qualitative military edge, both vis-à-vis a faster growing Iranian economy, and the revamped militaries of the Gulf. How will we ensure that America keeps its commitment, and that Israel maintains its qualitative edge?

Five Constructive Solutions

There are ways of tackling these long-range strategic challenges. Reducing the threats in a post-agreement era will mainly require the setting of strong principles now, and close cooperation in coming years to ensure they are upheld.

First, a clear set of definitions must be set on what constitutes a “significant violation” of the agreement, and what is the enforcement mechanism that snaps back sanctions, or military action, into place.

Second, America should have an avowedly dual-track approach to Iran. On the nuclear front, both sides commit to upholding the agreement. But on the conventional front, Iran will not get a break unless it desists from its subversive activities. In other words, no “Grand Bargain” has been struck, and none will be made, until Iran changes its ways in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, in its support for terrorism, infringement of human rights, proliferation of weapons, etc.

Thirdly, to prevent an Iranian “sneakout” to the bomb, close intelligence cooperation and sharing mechanisms should be set in place now between the P5+1 nations, as well as between the United States Israel and other regional allies. Doing so will increase Iran’s transparency and decrease its incentive to sneak out to a bomb.

In past incidents where Israel’s qualitative military edge was jeopardized by American initiatives in the Middle East, Israel was offered a side agreement that included aid provisions to ensure it maintains an edge over its adversaries. If the deal with Iran is signed, hundreds of billions of dollar worth of assets will flow into Iran, with much of those funds likely to be invested in military buildup. It would be in both America and Israel’s best interest to ensure Israel maintains its military edge in the region as a bulwark against these trends.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a credible military option must be maintained in order to deter and disincentivize Iran from future straying. With the lifting of economic sanctions, this potential use of military force will remain the primary leverage over the Ayatollah regime. America and its allies must draw clear and credible red lines and work assiduously to enforce them. Various levels of military action should be defined, and surgical strike capabilities developed against Iranian sites if illicit activity is detected.

An effective military operation against Iran’s nuclear program does not mean war, and will be far less costly than what that word implies. Until American planners internalize that point, the military option will remain far less credible in the eyes of Iranians, and America’s bargaining power will therefore be reduced.


Time until June thirtieth is short, but now with the assembly of a new government in Israel, there are no more impediments to get to this important work. Israel and the United States must quickly work to end the damaging rift between them and find ways to deal with the immediate-term task — plugging the five holes in the (agreement’s) cheese that were described above.

In the longer range, Israel and America must find ways to answer the five strategic long range concerns the agreement will create. Five solutions were offered above, and it would be prudent for both governments to take those ideas, and further develop them into a long-term plan of action.

About the Author
Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, is the president of MIND Israel.
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