It’s been a turbulent six weeks for Benjamin Netanyahu. First came the nuclear deal between the P5+1 (the five permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) and Iran—a “historic mistake,” Netanyahu declared. But last week Iran pulled out of a new round of nuclear talks after Washington expanded its sanctions blacklist to target a dozen more Iranian companies. The Iranians claim the move is against the spirit of the deal and Iran’s chief negotiator Abbas Araqchi said his country was now considering an “appropriate response.” The Israelis are pleased.
Israel argues that the Iranians have come to the table because sanctions are hurting so now is the time to increase the pressure on them—not to ease up. The imposition of more sanctions is therefore a good thing.
But this is shortsighted. That Iran is negotiating because of the sanctions is true, and the argument that more pressure should be applied has merit; but in the end it would be unlikely to succeed. The recent deal shows Iran compromises when it is weak, but history shows this has its limits. The Iranians are masters of suffering obstinately. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran experienced almost total isolation (and all the problems this brought) due to the international disgrace that rightly followed the 1979 hostage crisis. But far from convincing Iran to come to terms with Saddam Hussein, Iran continued fighting far beyond what was needed to repel the Iraqis, and indeed what was logical. When the Islamic Republic finally agreed to peace, its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, likened it to drinking a cup of poison.
The mullahs have invested too much political capital in their enrichment program to give it up unless their own survival is threatened. Realistically, it would take years of far more robust sanctions to achieve this (assuming Russia and China don’t assist Iran even more than they already do) and in the interim Iran would do what it has done for the last decade: push on remorselessly with its nuclear activities.
Military strikes are almost certainly off the table and are unlikely to work anyway. A strong current of realistic thinking, far removed from political demagoguery, exists in Israel’s security establishment. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, described attacking Iran as a stupid idea and he is right.
A nuclear-armed Iran would be a disaster for international stability and the non-proliferation regime. No one wants it. The question is what will most likely prevent it from happening? Since the nuclear crisis began in 2002, only diplomacy has slowed Iran’s program down.
Netanyahu has successfully pushed the Iranian nuclear crisis into the forefront of international concerns. But beyond that, Israeli actions have achieved little. Israel has pressured the U.S. to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities for years: Washington wouldn’t. Israel opposed the deal with Iran: Washington didn’t care. For 10 years Israel has pressured while Iran’s nuclear program has progressed.
In fact the most significant result of Israel’s Iran policy has been to damage Netanyahu’s credibility and damage relations with the U.S., which, in the long term, will hurt Jerusalem more than Washington. Netanyahu’s decision to link U.S. action on Iran to Israel’s flexibility on the Palestinian issue has only made things worse and the relationship between the two is now at a 40-year low. Israel’s stance on Iran has gained it little and cost it dearly.
Israel must stop couching the nuclear issue in apocalyptic terms and adopt a more pragmatic approach. U.S. President Barack Obama is almost certainly determined to make some form of rapprochement with Iran his foreign policy legacy. This has caused consternation in Jerusalem. But it offers an opportunity to repair relations with Washington; Israel must learn from its mistakes and change its approach, remaining relentlessly opposed to an Iranian bomb, but understanding that diplomacy has created the biggest breakthrough on the nuclear crisis in 10 years. Israel should support the president’s efforts while making sure he remains vigilant to the possibility of Iranian deception.
The rise of Iran is not good for Israel; Iran is a powerful state that threatens Israel’s military domination of the Middle East. But keeping it artificially weak will not last forever. Israel has to deal with Iran and to think about its security in 50 years, not just the latest headlines.
Apocrypha has it that when Yehudi Menuhin was asked why he was such a good violinist he replied that because he was Jewish he had to play the violin twice as well as anyone else. Israel lives in a dangerous part of the world and while its neighbors pose little military threat they undoubtedly wish for its end; and anti-Semitism is resurgent. There has never been more need for a Jewish state and Israel needs to be twice as smart as those around it. Right now, it is failing—and failing those of us that love it dearly.