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The fallacy of Netanyahu’s Iran policy

Instead of abandoning the deal, the PM could have leveraged it for gains on Tehran's ballistic missile program and disruptive regional policies
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel's Mossad that he says prove Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel's Mossad that he says prove Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Iran’s recent decision to begin enriching uranium to 20% purity is alarming but it should come as no surprise to anyone following Teheran’s nuclear policy since Donald Trump took office in January 2017, and especially after he withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) in May 2018. During a special press conference in the White House announcing his decision, Trump said the Iran nuclear deal “was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made… It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” 

As a result, the United States had reinstated all the sanctions it had waived as part of the nuclear accord, and it imposed additional crippling financial and diplomatic sanctions designed to exert “maximum pressure” on Tehran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was very content with this policy shift. He was a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal throughout the negotiations and even publicly confronted then-President Barack Obama when he delivered a controversial speech to a joint session of Congress in March 2015 where he attacked the deal and declared it “will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.” 

The “maximum pressure” campaign was an epic failure. Trump’s policies did not force Iran back to the negotiating table and sign a more restrictive and comprehensive agreement, nor did the sanctions curb Iran’s regional influence and involvement. Israel’s efforts to supplement American sanctions and derail Iran’s nuclear program through the assassination of leading Iranian scientists, most recently the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020 attributed to Israel, also proved quite futile.

The Iran nuclear deal was effective

After the news of Iran’s decision to resume the enrichment of Uranium broke, Prime Minister Netanyahu noted this move “cannot be explained in any way other than the continuation of realizing its goal to develop a military nuclear program,” and added, “Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon.” Moreover, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet called for Israeli action citing previous preventive military attacks again nuclear facilities in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007).  

It seems Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to have his cake and eat it too but one cannot relentlessly work to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal and then protest Tehran is not complying with its terms. The Iran nuclear deal was effective in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program through a robust system of inspections and verification activities, as evident from the numerous reports compiled and released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The deal was never designed to address Iran’s ballistic missile program or Tehran’s regional policies that many find destabilizing; it was exclusively focused on the most existential threat-preventing Iran from developing and obtaining nuclear weapons. In fact, it was always considered to be a springboard that, in time, will enable solving the non-nuclear sticking points.

The prudent approach Netanyahu should have pursued would have been to leverage the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and expand the conversation between the signatories and Tehran to include other important issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and disruptive regional policies. Abandoning the Iran nuclear deal not only intensified the mistrust between Iran and the United States leading to several clashes between the two countries directly or by proxy, but it also enabled Tehran to drive a wedge between the United States and the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians who remained largely committed to reviving the agreement. 

President-elect Joseph Biden already noted throughout his campaign he would like to renew the negotiations between the United States and Iran and possibly rejoin the Iran nuclear deal should Tehran resume its compliance with the terms of the agreement. Iran’s recent decision to enrich uranium to 20% purity does not make Biden’s plans easier to implement but it is all part of a new conversation Iran is trying to initiate with the incoming president. Netanyahu must be cognizant of Biden’s different approach to the Iran nuclear deal and make every possible effort to be part of the negotiations rather than stay estranged and isolated. There are more benefits to Israeli security in a deal with Iran than without one, and working with rather than against the new American administration is of vital importance too. 

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.
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