Iran Deal: Keeping Israel On Board

Can Israel make its voice heard without isolating itself?

The recent launching by the P5+1 of negotiations of a comprehensive deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program poses serious dilemmas for both the U.S. and Israel given the enormous stakes involved. For the U.S., the formal goal is to be verifiably assured that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful. In reality, America’s goal is to prevent Iran’s nuclear program from reaching a point where the U.S. would have no choice but to decide between “bombing and the bomb”—that is, between attacking Iran’s nuclear installations or “living with an Iranian bomb.” In turn, this decision point can only be avoided by restoring a significant “breakout time” for Iran’s nuclear effort.[1] Yet, restoring such “breakout time” does not exclude the possibility that Iran would be permitted to have a ‘small, discrete, limited’ uranium-enrichment program.

For Israel, the stakes in these negotiations are even higher—it sees itself as the primary target of a future Iranian nuclear force and regards such a capability as an existential threat. Israel stresses that an agreement with Tehran must therefore “dismantle the Iranian ability to either produce or launch a nuclear weapon.” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that this can only be achieved if Iran would have “zero enrichment, zero centrifuges, zero plutonium, and […] an end to ICBM development.”

These very high but different stakes and divergent goals present Washington and Jerusalem with a first-order alliance-management problem. The Obama administration is fully cognizant of Israel’s concerns and greater stakes in the nuclear talks. It is also aware that influential circles in Washington may have even greater sensitivity and sympathy for Israel’s worries. Especially important is the U.S. Congress, whose approval of any agreement reached with Iran will be crucial. This is because almost all that Iran seeks to achieve in any agreement reached—namely, significant sanctions relief—cannot be implemented without the Congress’s consent. For the Obama administration, therefore, the Israeli-alliance-management challenge has an important U.S. domestic dimension as well.

Given that for Israel the stakes involved in a comprehensive deal with Iran would be far greater than those associated with the interim agreement negotiated last fall, the Israeli government can be expected to mobilize its friends and wage a far more effective campaign against a comprehensive deal that it would judge as endangering the security and survival of the Jewish state. So what in this context is America’s Israeli dilemma? It is: how to alleviate Israel’s concerns about the recently launched talks by making it a “silent” partner to the talks without providing it a veto power over the outcome of these negotiations.

Clearly, the U.S. worries that if Israel would be fully briefed on every development in the talks, it would have multiple opportunities to derail them should it conclude that the result would allow Iran’s nuclear program to survive. Conversely, if Israel was excluded from important negotiation venues—as was apparently the case when Deputy Secretary of State William Burns conducted secret nuclear talks with Iran in Oman last fall—it would be very difficult to win acceptance of the talks’ results from Israel and its friends in the U.S.

No less challenging is the dilemma that the negotiations for a comprehensive deal with Iran pose for Israel. On the one hand, Israel sees itself as the guardian of the "ideal deal" in which Iran truly loses its capacity to break out to a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, given that an agreement that leaves Iran with “zero enrichment, zero centrifuges, zero plutonium, and […] an end to ICBM development” is viewed by Washington as unrealistic, Israel would need to convey its ideas, considerations and trade-offs to the negotiations process, where difficult decisions may have to be taken if a mutually acceptable agreement that restores a significant “breakout time” is to be achieved.

What turns this into a unique dilemma is Israel’s unusual role in these negotiations: while it is a major stakeholder in the outcome of the process, it is not a formal member of the negotiations team. Thus Israel’s influence on the actual agreement can only be indirect, requiring it to consider carefully how every move it might make will affect the negotiation table.

Under such circumstances, what are Israel’s options? The first is for Israel to hold on to its current line, insisting on the “ideal deal” as the only solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. The merits of this approach are two-fold: first, and obvious, is that it reflects accurately what Israel sees as the ‘correct’ solution to Iran’s nuclear program. Second, and more important, it would send a clear and unambiguous signal to the P5+1 leaders and negotiators that this is the yardstick against which any comprehensive agreement with Iran will be measured. In this scenario, Israel would hope that its position would serve as a ’lighthouse’ to this six-captained ship navigating in troubled waters.

Yet continuing to insist on the ‘ideal solution’ as the only acceptable approach also has some downsides: First, Israel may be seen not as a ‘lighthouse’ but rather as an ‘anchor’—a deadweight preventing the ship from making any progress. Should the talks fail, this may result in Israel being blamed for the failure. Second, adopting such a stance would limit Israel’s ability to influence the details of the negotiated agreement. Israel would still be able raise its concerns with the members of the P5+1 but it would be limited in the extent to which it would be able to bring ideas to the table without undercutting its formal position.

A second option available to Israel is to adopt a more flexible stance, for example by accepting that the talks would result in a limited Iranian enrichment program. On the positive side, this option will portray Israel in a more reasonable light, and more importantly, it will allow it to assume a more substantial—though still indirect—role in affecting the “devilish” details of the negotiated agreement.

Opponents of this option will argue that it will result in a slippery slope, with Israel’s new red line quickly becoming the new baseline for the talks. Given that all negotiations are associated with considerable pressures to reach a deal—and, therefore, with pressures to compromise so that a deal can be reached—the new baseline may well result in an outcome worse than that anticipated in the event that Israel would stubbornly insist on nothing short of the “ideal deal.”

Given these conflicting considerations, can the U.S. and Israel maintain their informal alliance while maximizing the odds that the talks recently launched would produce an optimal comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran? The key here seems to be the ability and willingness of Washington and Jerusalem to prenegotiate a “code of conduct” possibly consisting of four elements: First, a U.S.-Israel agreed timeframe for testing Iran’s willingness to reach a deal limiting its nuclear program. Second, an understanding that during the agreed timeframe for the talks, Israel, while adhering to its public stance favoring the “ideal deal” would refrain from undermining the negotiations by waging a public campaign against the talks. Third, that during the same timeframe the Israeli national-security community will be fully briefed regarding the details of the talks, and more importantly, will be provided multiple opportunities to share its possible concerns and to offer its ideas about the ways in which difficult issues in the talks can be best addressed. Fourth, and in parallel, the U.S. and Israel will create one or more Track-II channels for conversations among both sides’ non-official experts and former government officials. In these totally deniable frameworks, the two sides will be able to explore ideas and possible compromises that may be deemed too sensitive even for secret-yet-official talks.

The stakes involved for the U.S. and Israel in the recently launched efforts to reach a comprehensive deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program are enormous. Yet their stakes and priorities in these talks are not identical, presenting Washington and Jerusalem with a serious alliance management problem. The four-element “code of conduct’ proposed here would allow the U.S. and Israel to maintain their close ties while the P-5+1 led by the U.S. productively negotiate with Iran.

Shai Feldman is Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Oren Setter is a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

[1] Graham Allison defines a significant breakout time as such “that the timeline between an Iranian decision to seek a bomb and success in building it is long enough, and an Iranian move in that direction is clear enough, that the United States or Israel have sufficient time to intervene to prevent Iran's succeeding." (Reuters, February 19, 2014).