Tel Aviv — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the Geneva compromise on Iran’s nuclear program was resounding: Iran had emerged with a “dream” deal that allowed it to continue to enrich uranium — for the first time with the blessing of the international community.
But as Israel and the international community size up the upcoming negotiations on a permanent deal, many local analysts are saying that Israel will have to pare back its demand that Iran give up its entire enrichment program.
“Is Israel’s focus on zero enrichment the right focus?” asked Jonathan Rhynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Having enrichment is not necessarily bad. If it’s for peaceful purposes. … The focus on zero enrichment has been a mistake.”
Israel has contended that even if Iran is allowed to enrich uranium at low levels of 3.5 percent, it will be able to convert that into weapons-grade enriched uranium. Netanyahu notes that the interim agreement contravenes resolutions by the United Nations Security Council that say that Iran should not be allowed to enrich uranium.
However, Rhynold and others believe that Israel should look past that principle and focus on what it would take to ensure that Iran isn’t able to construct a weapon in a short amount of time. Rhynhold said Israel should focus on ensuring that Iran dismantles its underground nuclear facility at Fordow, its plutonium plant at Arak, and the weapons-development site at Parchin.
“If you leave it as a question of enrichment, yes or no, it’s a futile exercise,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union. He also suggested that that a robust monitoring group could prevent Iran from converting low-level enriched uranium into fuel for a weapon.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials say the agreement puts Israel in existential danger; the prime minister’s opponents have characterized his diplomatic efforts as too shrill. But a number of analysts say the agreement is neither a dream deal nor a disaster.
“We’re not talking about the destruction of the Third Temple,” said Amos Yadlin, a former IDF intelligence chief and the head of the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank. “Without loving this agreement, it’s better than a situation of no agreement,” he said.
In a conference call with Israeli reporters, Yadlin took issue with Netanyahu’s argument that that if only world powers had ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, the regime would have been brought to its knees and given up on its nuclear program.
“The thought that only sanctions will prompt Iran to agree to a better deal is wishful thinking,” he said, noting that if there had been no agreement, the coalition that put the sanctions in place might have disbanded.
Yadlin’s remarks seemed to echo the sentiment of a senior Israeli officer currently in the IDF intelligence branch, who just a week before the agreement said that a deal with sanctions relief would “stabilize” Iran. The intelligence officer used none of the alarmist terms or metaphors to describe the situation in Iran used by Netanyahu.
While the prime minister likened Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Israeli intelligence sees his rise as a genuine expression of public protest against the regime.
Yadlin said the final agreement needs to take Iran’s nuclear program backward. If the country today is considered a “threshold” nuclear power with the ability to make a bomb within months, the final agreement needs to push the time to “breakout” to several years. Negotiators need to focus on reducing the tens of thousands of centrifuges as well as removing the already enriched material that Yadlin says is enough to make several explosives.
He also criticized the prime minister’s handling of the public diplomacy, saying that future dialogue over Iran should be kept discrete and classified, rather than being conducted via newspaper headlines.
That type of public conflict reduces Israel’s influence on the talks, Yadlin said. Other analysts have said that its also injuring Israel’s relationship with the United States.
Bar-Ilan’s Rhynhold disagreed, arguing that the prime minister has an obligation to voice his objections, and that they help to improve the deal.
“If that’s what the prime minister believes, he’s duty bound to say it. I believe that Israel taking a hard line improved the terms of a deal,” he said. “The Iranians clearly pay attention to Israel’s red line; our job is to play the bad cop.”
The agreement is already reverberating throughout the region, and many expect that Iran talks will have fallout for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Both the Iran talks and the peace negotiations have a target date to conclude within six months.
Netanyahu hinted at the linkage over the last few weeks, saying that if Israel feels the threat of Iran’s nuclear program growing, then it will be less inclined to make security concessions to the Palestinians. At the same time, many in the region fear the deal is a sign that the U.S. is shifting its focus away from the Mideast and will be less involved in the peace process, making it more difficult to support a deal with security guarantees for Israel.
“It was assumed we would enjoy the U.S. security net, and if the U.S. is leaving, then where’s the net?” asked Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
A top Palestinian official, Hanan Ashrawi, alleged this week that the Israeli government is accelerating settlement activity in the West Bank as a “quid pro quo” against the West and to convey a message of protest.
Not everyone sees the deal as bogging down peace talks. Analyst Yossi Alpher said that President Obama might find new international leverage that could be used to prod Israel if the diplomacy with Iran is successful.
“It’s certainly possible that the administration will feel that it succeeded at Geneva despite Netanyahu’s opposition,” he said, “and this empowers it to press Netanyahu on the Palestinians as well.”