Israel Has No Iran Strategy

How Netanyahu can face the Middle East after the nuclear deal… before it's too late.

After a week of meetings in Israel, one thing is clear to me: Israel has no Iran strategy. Seemingly spent from the losing public campaign against the Iranian nuclear deal, not even the passage of “Adoption Day” on October 18 roused Israeli officials from their post-deal slumber. Israelis reluctantly see themselves as bystanders to their fate—a position reinforced by Russia’s intervention in Syria—relegated to pleading with an Obama administration that is still crowing from its resolute achievement. Focused on abating the recent wave of Palestinian terrorism, Israel seems listless in the post–Iran deal era.

For six years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran strategy was clear. He successfully enlisted the United States in a coercive effort, consisting of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and a credible military threat, to force the Iranian regime to choose between its nuclear program and its survival. Cognizant that Obama opposed such a strategy, he shielded it from all interference. He made unprecedented and politically perilous concessions, such as the ten-month settlement moratorium and the unilateral release of seventy-eight convicted Palestinian terrorists, in order to satisfy Obama and shift the focus back to Iran. Similarly, he instituted a minimalist policy in Syria, oversaw a measured response to Hamas and Hezbollah provocations, and maintained a patient-but-strong approach to the regional tumult—all to avoid any unpredictable and lengthy engagements that could have jeopardized Israel’s Iran policy. Keeping the American eye on the Iranian ball was the name of the game.

The strategy reached a high point in early 2013—Israel had avoided capricious distractions and Iran was beginning to feel real economic pain—but it began to unravel soon after Obama’s reelection. Having concealed its secret negotiations from Israel for nearly two years, the United States and Iran signed an interim accord that encapsulated several crucial American concessions, transforming American policy from one that opposed Iranian proliferation to one that managed it. In exchange for an immediate and permanent end to the U.S.-led coercive policy, Iran agreed to temporary constraints on its enrichment and reprocessing program. In a matter of months, all nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended or abrogated, all covert actions against Iran’s program will be discontinued and Iran will be treated as a regional stakeholder on issues such as Syria. The JCPOA and what it represents marked the ultimate undoing of Israeli strategy. In short, Barack outfoxed Bibi.

Israel’s current Iran policy priorities reflect its lack of real strategy. First, Israel wants the P5+1 to strictly enforce the deal. Given that the only penalty mechanism is a total sanctions snapback, it is hugely concerned that the Obama administration will sweep Iranian violations under the rug for fear of jeopardizing the overall accord. Second, Israel would like to reach detailed understandings with the administration on how it interprets the finer points of the deal. The administration’s delay, reluctance and inability to exact any penalty on Iran for its recent ballistic missile test—despite its clear violation of the JCPOA and related UN Security Council resolution—or its arrest of a fourth American citizen is supremely worrisome. The accord’s many ambiguities could mean endless intra-ally litigation over statutory interpretations. Finally, Israel would like to seal the very public wound in the alliance and restore a positive relationship for the president’s final year. What this means and how it will happen is very unclear, but Netanyahu’s upcoming summit with the president will mark the formal beginning to such a process.

This approach stands little chance of success. It is aimed not at Tehran, but at Obama, who not only has little sympathy for his junior ally, but also sees Iran as a problem solver as opposed to a troublemaker. Even if Israel’s paeans to the president were successful, the temporary nature of the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing activities, i.e. the sunset provisions, means that even the deal’s strict enforcement will not prevent Iran from becoming a legitimized threshold nuclear power. Of course, Israel’s kinetic option remains militarily viable, but is now diplomatically disastrous, a reality that weighs heavily on the Israeli psyche. Apprised of how lackluster their new approach is, Israelis shrug and count the hours to January 2017.

Israel cannot afford to wait until the next president. Ironically, the deal, if enforced, reduces the threat of an Iranian nuclear breakout in the short term, but it also greatly increases the threat of more conventional Iranian aggression. Israelis are confident that Iran’s immediate cash windfall will result in exponential increases in Hezbollah’s capabilities. Moreover, they believe that the deal will embolden Iranian belligerence, concluding that the Administration’s threshold for nefarious Iranian behavior will be even higher in order to avoid imperiling the nuclear accord. The Israeli government openly acknowledges these deep concerns, but is struggling to articulate a strategy appropriate to the JCPOA era.