Originally published July 15, 2015
On my last day visiting Israel three years ago, our tour group met with a national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Sheldon Schulman. And his talk was more than sobering. It was downright frightening – and depressing about the future existence of the Jewish state. He joked about how all national security briefings those days had become meetings about Iran (which was “topic one” in all political conversation in Israel).
Netanyahu’s advisor then grimly recounted a nightmare scenario that would result if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb.
“Mr. Schulman related to us that starting this September, all Israeli schoolchildren in Grade 5 and above will receive training on how to survive a nuclear attack – including on how to care for younger siblings should their parents be separate or killed. Mr. Shulman told us that Iran has constructed models of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to test the correct height at which to explode a bomb over those cites for maximum impact. In Mr. Shulman’s view, once Tehran gets the bomb, it will make good on its threats to use it against Israel.”
He went on to explain that Israel could not wait to see if it would survive a first strike from Iran because its command and control facilities in such a small country might be tested beyond capacity. In other words, traditional deterrence (“mutual assured destruction”) that kept the peace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War would not work between Israel and Iran. So once Netanyahu’s red-line on Iran’s nuclear program had been crossed, which was coming soon, Israel would be forced to take preemptive military action – especially because he believed that Obama’s red-line was Iran actually launching nuclear missiles against Israel (which in retrospect seems ridiculous).
Now that the Obama Administration and the other P5 +1 countries have negotiated an agreement that will freeze and roll-back Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu is now playing a bait and switch. He and his aides are no longer emphasizing a potential Iranian bomb as an existential threat to Israel, which had been the sole focus of their previous concerns. Instead, the threat has now shifted to a non-nuclear Iran unbridled by international sanctions throwing its weight around the Middle East with better-financed conventional armaments. And how could Obama have signed off on the nuclear deal without linkage to the Iranian conventional threat?
But this is where a conversation that our tour group had with an Israeli kibbutz leader comes back into memory. Unlike the Netanyahu aide, the kibbutz leader was more concerned about Israel’s inability to fight back against Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah guerillas located across the border in Lebanon, if their principals in Tehran are armed with nuclear weapons.
I’m guessing that even the more practical kibbutz leader is unhappy with the pending Iran nuclear deal because he’d be unhappy about sanctions relief.
But Israel has been fighting a conventional war against Iran and its Arab neighbors since its founding – and doing pretty well at it. Yes, the lifting of sanctions against Iran does pose a problem and may have an effect on the regional balance of power. It increases the conventional threat to Israel and may cause a non-nuclear arms build-up among the Gulf Arabs to counter Iran. But it won’t cause a nuclear arms race among the Gulf Arabs. And most importantly, it will eliminate the threat to Israel’s very existence that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would have constituted.
President Obama addressed the sanctions issue at his press conference Wednesday, saying:
“Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they’ve got some additional resources.
“Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.
“They are currently supporting Hezbollah, and there is a ceiling, a pace at which they could support Hezbollah even more, particularly in the chaos that’s taking place in Syria.
“So can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes.
“Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes.
“Is the incremental additional money that they’ve got to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies — is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No.”
The bottom line is that Iran is not going to stop being Iran because of this accord, and regime transformation was always going to be beyond the scope the negotiations. Remember, China and especially Russia have no interest in including non-nuclear issues in the negotiations, and their participation in the sanctions regime was critical to its effectiveness – which sanctions regime unravels internationally once Iran agrees to resolve the nuclear issue irrespective of whether the U.S. signs off on the agreement.
There certainly is hope that the present agreement with Iran will be an inflection point, leading to at least a détente with the Islamic Republic – maybe even an entente if engagement, commerce and diplomatic relations follow. “Iranians are generally believed to be one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East,” according to the RAND Institute as corroborated by Pew Research Center surveys of global attitudes toward the United States. (52% of Iranians view America favorably, whereas the Egyptians with a positive view barely break double digits.) Ironically, it may be this potential for a geopolitical realignment that has the Israelis and Gulf states most worried. But any such realignment would have to include a rapprochement, with them, too, for the Persians to rejoin the community of nations that respects the rule of law and other countries’ sovereignty.
The bottom line is that we do not need to go to war with another Muslim country to disarm it, and that was the alternative to the present agreement with Iran. We avoid war, and Israel avoids being subject to an existential threat of nuclear annihilation from an Iranian bomb, which is now under wraps. That’s a good tradeoff, historic even.