Since the announcement on July 14th of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) between Iran and the P5+1, relating to Iran’s nuclear activities, I have heard from thoughtful Israelis on both sides of that country’s political spectrum and from other friends in the region condemning the deal and expressing disappointment with if not anger at President Obama and his negotiating team. I must confess that it has taken me a while to fully understand what is the real driver of their reactions.
I was not surprised to read Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement calling the agreement an “historic mistake” that poses a threat to both Israel and the United States. This is consistent with his speech attacking the anticipated agreement before the US Congress on March 3, 2015. On the other side of Israel’s political divide, however, a long time friend whom I respect – Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, told Jeffrey Goldberg that the agreement “will unleash a lion from the cage, it will have a direct influence over the balance of power in our region.” (Jeffrey Goldberg “ Israeli Opposition Leader: Iran Deal Will Bring Chaos to the Middle East.) This fear is echoed by Prince Bandar bin Sultan (once my co-chair of the Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations) former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia, in a column published by the London based Arabic news website Elaph who charged that the nuclear deal “will wreak havoc in the Middle East.”
To be sure, the JCPA nuclear deal isn’t close to perfect in closing every opportunity for Iran to develop nuclear capability. (For example, I am still trying to think through the implications of the grandfather provisions in case of a “snapback.”) But as I analyze the complaints about the impact of the deal, it appears that the major complaint is the fact that there is a deal at all, and that apart from its nuclear component, it terminates international sanctions relating to ballistic missiles (after eight years) and the embargo on conventional arms (after five years) and allows Iran to receive blocked funds of over $140 billion. This would enable Iran to support and even expand its hegemonic ambitions and its nefarious activities in the region directly and through its minions like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen. Such a deal also allows Iran to gain “face” in the Arab world, as having stood up to the United States and the other powers. It appears that Israel, the Saudis and Gulf States expected that somehow the United States would be able permanently to shut down not only Iran’s nuclear efforts but their conventional arms as well and render it impotent to carry on its terrorist activities. Listening to these complaints, it appears that even if the deal required that the Iranians destroy all of their centrifuges and other nuclear development infrastructure, which is what Netanyahu originally called for, the ending of sanctions and the release of Iranian funds would still make it unacceptable.
The truth is that the United States did not set out to and never could produce the kind of deal that would satisfy the Israelis and others of our friends in the region. As President Obama has repeatedly pointed out, the sanctions regime that the other nations, including Russia and China joined in, were intended to focus only on nuclear development and were only as strong as and could only last as long as those countries would agree. The reality is that those countries – Russia, China and the European nations had the leverage in this negotiation – not the United States and not Iran. And their agendas are not the same as that of the United States or Israel. Russia wants to sell military arms to Iran; China wants Iranian oil on the world markets; and the Europeans want to sell their products to Iran’s consumers. Indeed, it was a surprise that they were willing to continue the sanctions as long as they did, a surprise that Mr. Obama has noted, particularly with respect to Russian President Putin’s willingness to have Russia go along despite other sharp differences with Washington. The other nations could not be counted on to continue sanctions beyond the point of getting a nuclear deal along the lines that were reached in the JCPA after almost two years of intense negotiations. And particularly China and Russia for their own reasons supported Iran’s insistence of an end to sanctions on missiles and conventional arms.
The further reality is that if the US Congress turns the deal down, and overrides the President’s veto, we cannot expect those other nations to join in continuing to impose sanctions. As the President has pointed out, the only remaining option in that event is a military one where the United States has to take the lead role. So, those in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States opposed to the deal must ask themselves whether having this deal to delay for many years if not ultimately stop Iranian development of nuclear weaponry is better or worse than the military option. And the truth that has to be faced is that there may be different conclusions from the Israelis and the Saudis than from American citizens. Our allies in the region may well conclude that while a military approach will not set back nuclear efforts by the Iranians for long, it might be worth doing to divert them for a significant period of time from their other bad activities in the region that our allies decry. By contrast, the American electorate may conclude that the JCPA nuclear deal is a better option for America’s own interests than going to war. It is particularly important that the challenge to the JCPA not be seen by the American public as an effort by the Israelis, our Gulf state allies and those organizations in this country supporting their position to drag America into an unwanted regional war. Whatever decision is ultimately reached must not result in losing the long-term support of America’s citizens for Israel and our other friends in the region.
Robert K. Lifton, a businessman and political activist is a Founder, former Chair and current Board member of the Israel Policy Forum. His memoir “An Entrepreneur’s Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy” was published by Author House in 2012.