Netanyahu's Finest Hour—Or Not

November 27, 2013 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationSecurity Region: IsraelIran

Netanyahu's Finest Hour—Or Not

The prime minister has many legitimate concerns. But his maximalism on Iran has outlived its usefulness.

The interim nuclear deal with Iran is an historic breakthrough that temporarily freezes the Iranian nuclear program, thereby buying time to achieve a possible final agreement and creating an opening for a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement after three decades of unremitting enmity. No negotiated agreement is perfect—nor is this one—but the potential benefits outweigh the risks, not just for the United States, but for Israel as well.

No country seeks a diplomatic resolution of the issue more than Israel, for whom the stakes are greater than for any other. For the United States and other international powers, a nuclear Iran presents a threat to their interests; Israel alone is threatened by annihilation if Iran goes nuclear. Starting in the early nineties, Israel was the first to draw international attention to the Iranian nuclear program, and Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves particular credit for his unique role in placing the issue at the center of the international agenda.

Subversion efforts have apparently succeeded in achieving only limited delays in the Iranian program; a military operation could achieve a further delay of a few years; regime change does not appear likely for the foreseeable future; and both the U.S. and Israel have long rejected the option of deterrence and containment. Conversely, just months after President Rohani’s election, sanctions, which Israel pressed the international community to impose for years, are finally working. Something in Iran appears to be changing.

The interim agreement’s temporary freeze of the Iranian program and the hopes that a final agreement can now be achieved should thus be viewed in Israel as the successful culmination of a twenty-year-long effort—an hour of triumph. For Netanyahu, this should be his finest hour. It is not.

Iran, he believes, is on the ropes; just a few more blows, in the form of further sanctions, are needed for a decisive defeat and a complete end of the nuclear program. Focused on a knockout blow, unlike the U.S. and other powers negotiating with Iran, he views the interim deal as the equivalent of the referee stepping in to call the fight and thereby denying the winner a clear victory. Countries repeatedly threatened with extinction view the world differently, and just last week Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, provided an important reminder of why. Israel, he averred, is a country “doomed to failure and annihilation”, “an illegitimate regime” led by “untouchable rabid dogs”, whose leaders “cannot be called human beings, they are like animals”.

Netanyahu’s hard line is thus both understandable and at least partly justified, but his harsh criticism of the agreement (“a historic mistake”) has been too strident, positioning Israel to look as the primary opponent of the agreement and exposing a rift with its irreplaceable ally, the United States. Moreover, in so blatantly positioning himself in opposition, he has probably undermined his own most important objective at this time—ensuring that the final agreement is the best deal possible. The Obama administration and other powers involved may prove less receptive to the concerns of an Israel perceived as simply recalcitrant, rather than appropriately concerned.

Netanyahu certainly has a number of legitimate concerns. The first is that a final agreement will not ultimately prove possible; and the interim agreement will end up being the final one, leaving Iran’s nuclear program fully intact, but with greatly diminished international resolve to deal with it. Second, the interim deal, which envisages a continued Iranian nuclear program even under the final agreement, albeit a supposedly civil one, could thereby leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state, rather than ending its nuclear program completely, as the United States and others have demanded until now. A third concern is that even the limited and ostensibly reversible sanctions relief embodied in the interim deal will lead in practice to a rapid unraveling of the entire sanctions regime, as governments and companies around the world scramble to once again conduct business with oil-rich Iran. The final concern is that Obama, given his less-than-successful handling of most Mideast issues, especially the Syrian chemical-weapons debacle and his apparent readiness to settle for too little in the talks with Iran just two weeks ago, will not hold out for an appropriate final deal and will be out-negotiated.

One can debate each of the concerns raised. Some may be overblown, but none are specious, and all must be carefully addressed. But if treated appropriately, the interim agreement will indeed be a historic success.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy school and the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.