Having emerged from our shelters following 11 days of fighting with Hamas in Gaza (facilitated in large part by Iranian-supplied missiles and knowhow), Israelis are confronted with the inevitability of an imminent US return to the 2015 Iran Deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). According to a May 23, 2021 Wall Street Journal editorial, the Biden administration is barreling toward a repeat of the Obama deal (https://www.wsj.com/articles/back-to-irans-nuclear-future-11621806279).
The overwhelming majority of Israelis, including those currently-serving and veterans of its security establishment, oppose a US return to the JCPOA and believe it poses an existential threat to our lives. Granted, a good faith argument can be made that the Iran Deal represents the best possible terms for putting the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon in a box during which time it is hoped that a “longer and stronger deal” can be negotiated. However, most Israelis don’t buy it and the fact that so many Israelis oppose the JCPOA with such vehemence, leads to some uncomfortable situations with our friends around the world, who support the JCPOA. We usually tiptoe around the ramifications of this disagreement. However, as most Israelis believe the stakes of returning to the Iran deal could not be higher, let us tear the band aid off this issue and address the painful realities underneath it.
Everyone knows that Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly opposes a return to the Iran Deal. Abroad, there is an inclination among Israel-supportive Netanyahu-loathers to imagine that, pace Bibi, there are many Israelis, and particularly those in the security establishment, who support the JCPOA. This supposition is unsupported.
In 2013, as the Iran Deal was being negotiated, 80% of the Israelis who had an opinion, opposed it (New Wave http://www.imra.org.il/story.php?id=62364). Similar numbers viewed a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat (Dahaf/Knesset Channel https://www.jpost.com/Israel/65-percent-of-Israelis-say-no-danger-of-new-Holocaust-308529). Multiple polls of Israelis taken after the JCPOA was completed showed 70% or higher opposed the plan and felt it posed a threat to the country (https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-polls-israelis-strongly-oppose-iran-deal-1.5386132). In May 2021, Ploughshares Fund researcher Doreen Horschig found that Israelis’ opposition to the JCPOA, and their existential fear of its consequences, was so strong that it impelled them to even support an Israeli nuclear strike to pre-empt a nuclear-armed Iran.
Opposition to the Iran Deal is the position of Israel’s current military leaders as well. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi proclaimed in January 2021 that the US returning to the Iran Deal would be “wrong” and this possibility required the IDF to refresh its plans for preventing the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb through military means.
Most former security officials hold similar views. Yossi Kuperwasser, the former Director General of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry and former head of the research section of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Division said in May 2021 that, “The return of the 2015 agreement means paving a safe path for Iran to achieve the ability to produce nuclear weapons in large quantities – a large arsenal of nuclear weapons – within 10 years.” Dalia Dassa Kaye of RAND and Shira Efron, of the Israel Policy Forum argued that since 2018, there was an Israeli consensus that in contrast to the flawed Iran Deal, the “Maximum Pressure” strategy was an effective approach to Iran’s nuclear weapons development (https://doi.org/10.1080/00396338.2020.1792095) (though the authors personally supported the JCPOA). In April 2021, “a group of more than 2,000 former high-ranking Israeli military, law enforcement, and intelligence community officials” warned the Biden administration about returning to the Iran Deal, saying “the rush to negotiate with Iran directly endangers Israel and its newfound Arab allies” (https://freebeacon.com/national-security/israeli-military-officials-unite-in-opposition-to-biden-admins-iran-deal/).
About 300 Israeli veterans of the security establishment are on record supporting the US return to the Iran deal, including former deputy chief of staff Matan Vilnai, former Mossad head Tamir Pardo and former head of the National Security Council Uzi Arad (https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/ex-idf-generals-top-mossad-officials-on-biden-to-return-to-iran-deal-659805). However, this group conditions their support for a return to the deal on Iran accepting restrictions on its missile program that it currently rejects as outside of the JCPOA. As the late Emily Landau noted in her October 2016 article, “[A]ttempts to present Israel’s defense establishment as staunch supporters of the Iran deal are at best highly misleading, and at worst part of a politically-motivated campaign of deception pursued by an administration that is desperate to prove the worthiness of the JCPOA” (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/that-so-called-israeli-support-for-the-iran-deal/).
Obviously, despite Israeli opposition, US President Biden’s decision to return to the Iran Deal should be based primarily on his evaluation of what is best for his country. However, what about Israel’s many friends abroad who support the US return to the deal because they believe it is in the best interests of Israel? In light of the data presented here, Israel’s friends must recognize that to Israelis, their preference for a US return to the Iran Deal sounds like, “We know that you overwhelmingly oppose this. We sometimes pretend that you don’t. We recognize that you think it represents the single greatest security threat to your lives. In spite of your feelings, we still support the JCPOA. Some of us think that you do not know what is in your best interests regarding the Iran Deal while we do. Others understand that the deal indeed threatens your lives, but for whatever reason, we think that other considerations are more important.” If this is not what Israel’s friends are saying, we would be grateful if they could clarify. If it is what they are saying, then let us not pretend any more and draw the necessary conclusions.