Iran Deal: Will Israel Play Spoiler?

March 12, 2014 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationSecurity Region: IsraelIran

Iran Deal: Will Israel Play Spoiler?

How will Jerusalem react if a final deal is reached, one that it doesn't like?

The ink had hardly dried on the interim nuclear deal with Iran before Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as an “historic mistake.” In recent weeks he has once again been delivering fiery speeches calling Iran’s moderation a “myth” and repeating Israel’s position of “zero enrichment, zero centrifuges”—a position at odds with the American view and with what most analysts believe would be a feasible final deal.

While the Iran issue did not generate headlines during Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama in Washington last week, we can expect tensions to surface again as the nuclear negotiations move forward in the months ahead. 

But despite Netanyahu’s continued tough stance, will Israeli leaders actively attempt to scuttle a final nuclear deal if one is achievable?

In fact, behind the hard-core positions, Israel’s approach is evolving. Israel will not embrace an agreement that is likely to leave in place some limited Iranian nuclear enrichment and infrastructure, but it nonetheless will not likely derail a deal with actions like a military strike. If the United States and the P5+1 reach a final deal with Iran they find acceptable—still an uncertain prospect—Israel would more likely adjust to such an agreement than attempt to spoil it.

Israel’s reactions to November’s interim agreement reveal a far more mixed picture than might be apparent from Netanyahu’s public rejection of it. To be sure, Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials are concerned that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s conciliatory rhetoric and charm offensive in the West will erode international pressure and sanctions while Iran gains time and continues its drive for nuclear-weapons capabilities.

But Israel’s open defiance and harsh treatment of the United States received significant critique back home. Some gave Netanyahu credit for playing the “bad cop” whose tough stance helped strengthen the terms of the agreement. But many Israeli experts and commentators argued that Israel’s strident opposition to the interim deal needlessly marginalized Israel, rather than isolating Iran, and risked a pointless and dangerous rupture in Israeli relations with the United States.

Moreover, other Israeli experts have argued that the deal, though imperfect, provides some important benefits, particularly as it freezes key parts of the Iranian program. An array of former top Israeli security officials—former Mossad head Meir Dagan, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, to name a few—have similarly argued that the interim deal’s benefits outweigh its risks, that it is a way to buy time and test Iran’s intentions without undermining Israeli security.

Israel’s official security establishment, particularly its military-intelligence staff, also holds assessments of Iran and the interim deal that are less alarmist than the Netanyahu government’s official stance. And there are important voices in Israel offering a different bottom line, suggesting that Israel could live with some limited enrichment capabilities in place in Iran.

It’s true that a final deal the United States and its partners may be able to live with may still not match the prevailing assessments in Israel about what might be acceptable, even among security analysts willing to give the interim deal a chance. Exact levels of enrichment that can remain in Iran, the number and types of centrifuges, the final status of the Arak heavy-water reactor, verification measures—how these are resolved will all affect Israeli views of a final agreement. Ongoing strategic discussions between American and Israeli leaders may narrow the gap on potential differences on the terms of a final deal, but they may not remove them entirely.

However, even if Israeli leaders were to oppose a final agreement that is broadly accepted by the United States and the other key negotiating states, it is highly unlikely Israel would take actions sure to undermine the deal, like launching a unilateral military strike. Israel’s security establishment is already divided on the question of military action against Iran because of concerns about its ability to definitely set back the program militarily and the damage such an action would inflict on U.S.-Israeli relations.

Israel may not scuttle a final deal, but if a deal or the negotiations fall apart, the dynamic changes. At that point, officials and experts in Israel who believe the benefits of a military action outweigh the risks may rise in influence. So while Israel is not likely to attack Iran alone in the immediate aftermath of a deal, circumstances may emerge that increase the possibility of this option. For example, if Israel can expose Iranian cheating on the terms of the final deal in the months following its signing, or if the narrative following the collapse of a final deal is widely accepted to be the Iranians’ fault, Israel may believe an attack would be supported by the United States.

Yet given the ongoing debate within Israel about the effectiveness of a military option and the inherent risks associated with such action, Israel may be more likely to pursue alternative measures to disrupt a deal it doesn’t like or a deal that falls apart. Such responses could include renewed attempts to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities, assassinations of Iranian scientists, encouraging the U.S. Congress to delay or prevent a lifting of sanctions against Iran to slow or undermine the implementation of a final agreement or pressing for new sanctions should an agreement fail.

But in an environment where the United States has negotiated and concluded a final deal it believes is in its interests and does not threaten Israeli security (and is bolstered by bilateral military support and security cooperation), Israeli leaders will be cautious in pursuing confrontational measures that could jeopardize U.S.-Israeli relations. Because while Israelis may share Netanyahu’s skepticism of Iranian intentions, recent polling shows that Israelis still view the United States as its most critical ally. No Israeli leader will want to be responsible for putting this relationship at risk.

If the United States and its negotiating partners manage to reach a final nuclear agreement with Iran, Israelis will no doubt remain at the forefront of efforts to expose Iranian foot dragging or violations. And Israelis harbor no illusions that such a deal would remove the nonnuclear concerns they have about Iran, particularly Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and terrorism more generally.

Still, while Israelis are unlikely to warmly embrace a final agreement, their reaction to a deal may not be as dire as one would expect based on Israeli leaders’ strident public statements. And a large number of Israelis may even come to see the benefits of such an agreement should it be reached.

Dalia Dassa Kaye is a Senior Political Scientist and the Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.