By Yaakov Lappin
A year and a half after it was signed, the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers has held up, but the agreement’s future is now in doubt.
Before being elected last November, President Donald Trump described the agreement with Iran as “the worst deal ever negotiated” and said he would act to dismantle it. This position echoes the frequent comments on the deal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Following Trump’s election, Netanyahu expressed hope that he could work with Trump to undo the arrangement.
Yet it remains far from clear whether the defense establishments of Israel and the U.S. would like to see the nuclear deal canceled, despite the deep misgivings and concerns they both hold about the accord.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the founding director of the School of Communication at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told JNS.org that that there is wide agreement across the Trump administration that the nuclear deal is insufficient, yet it also “remains unclear how Trump and the Pentagon wish to fix its shortcomings.”
“In Israel too, there is an agreement that the deal is not good, but there are disagreements over how bad it is, and what can be done to address its faults,” Gilboa said.
Why Israel believes the deal is flawed
The Israeli defense establishment does not have much faith that the deal will prevent a nuclear Iran in the long-term, though it does assess that the pact will temporarily delay Tehran’s progress. Sections of the American defense establishment have pointed out that the deal has done nothing to stop Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, undercutting former President Barack Obama’s hope that the agreement would empower Iranian moderates.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known, was signed in July 2015 between the P5+1 countries and Iran. The deal froze Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, limiting the Islamic Republic to possessing 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of low-enriched uranium for 15 years and striving to extend Iran’s nuclear breakout time from a few months to one year.
But the deal merely places a freeze—rather than destroying—Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities at the nuclear sites located in Natanz and Fordow, and it allows the Iranians to continue to improve and develop uranium enrichment techniques.
When the deal’s sunset clauses kick in, Tehran can once again go back to enriching uranium at industrial levels, this time with enhanced technology. Should it choose to violate the agreement before the onset of the sunset clause, a year is not much time to stop it, critics of the deal fear, due to the unclear procedures on how to respond if Iran is caught cheating.
All that being said, nixing the nuclear deal entirely “at this point is lose-lose,” said Emily Landau, head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, and one of the nuclear deal’s sharpest critics.
“Iran already pocketed millions of dollars, so there is no leverage on it to get a better deal,” Landau told JNS.org, referring to the sanctions relief Iran obtained in the agreement. “As bad as the deal is, what is gained by giving up the new concessions Iran made?”
While the aftermath of the nuclear deal continues to play out, Iran can keep building its missile program—the delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons—and expand its influence the region. Iran is arming and funding its many radical agents, which include Hezbollah and thousands of Shi’a militia members deployed across the Middle East. Additionally, Iran controls operations on the ground in Syria and Iraq, overseeing massacres of Sunnis, and increasingly dominates President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and the Shi’a government of Iraq.
With the lifting of international economic sanctions, the Islamic Republic is amassing treasure that can be expected to go toward enhancing Iran’s regional ambitions and buildup of force. Iran also continues to openly call for the destruction of Israel.
Current assessments in the U.S. and Israel
At first, Iran dismissed Trump’s threat to cancel the deal, calling it “empty talk.” Since then, the Trump administration has put Iran “on notice” in response to a recent ballistic missile test that American and Israeli officials said defied a United Nations resolution. Given Trump’s sharp break from Obama’s support for the nuclear deal, the Iranians—who denied that their missile test violated the U.N. measure—might now be taking the possibility of an end to the agreement much more seriously.
The Israeli defense establishment has, until now, viewed the deal as a fait accompli. As such, its assessment was that the agreement would hold in the short- to medium-term future, since Iran has a clear economic interest in keeping to it. Iran does not want to return to a reality of crippling sanctions.
In the longer-term future, the Israeli defense establishment believes that chances of a direct clash with Iran will grow, and a decade from now, Israel’s strategic environment will be considerably more dangerous. A large chunk of that danger will come from a wealthier, more militarily powerful Iran equipped with international legitimacy to enrich uranium, which will return the Islamic Republic to being a nuclear threshold state. In line with such assessments, the defense establishment in Israel concluded that the risk of an imminent clash with Iran, or an immediate need to strike its nuclear program, could be removed from the table.
There is no “big difference” between positions on the deal held by Netanyahu and the Israeli defense establishment, Landau said, arguing that both took a very dim view of it. “Statements by past and present by [Israeli] officials were taken out of context and inserted into the U.S. debate by President Obama, on purpose, to drive a wedge between Netanyahu and the defense establishment,” she said.
Israel’s enemies that are closer to home, particularly the Iranian-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, are deterred for the time being, and Hezbollah is busy with backing the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has identified a window of opportunity to use the current period of calm to prepare itself for the bigger challenges that might be on the horizon.
Although the Israeli defense establishment has not said so publicly, it may not be inclined to the idea of scrapping the deal altogether, as that would create an immediate need for war readiness. That, in turn, would cut into the IDF’s plans to focus time and resources toward preparing itself for the years ahead.
The road ahead
Moving forward, Landau said that “it is better to strictly enforce and strengthen the deal” than to dismantle it. This approach, she said, should be accompanied by a return of American deterrence against Iran, and an end to the Obama administration’s policy of “ignoring and playing down all Iranian provocations. That, in itself, will begin turning things around.”
There is a need for the P5+1 countries to clarify how Iran is allowed to interpret the deal, when it comes to inspections at suspicious military facilities, to prevent the Iranians from playing for time, Landau argued. Preparing fixed responses for potential Iranian violations would strengthen the deal, she said.
“This cannot be left unattended to last minute. There won’t be enough to to take effective action,” said Landau.
The outcome of the Feb. 15 meeting between Trump and Netanyahu at the White House could also be critical for charting the course ahead. Bar-Ilan’s Gilboa said that Trump “expects Netanyahu to bring practical suggestions on how to deal with this issue. Only after the meeting will it be possible to know where things are headed.”