The Magazine

Getting Ready for a Bad Deal

Israel’s security establishment steps up.

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The world’s attention was largely turned to Ukraine last week. To the extent that the Middle East was on the front pages, the focus was the new agreement between the PLO and Hamas, its implications for the “peace process,” and John Kerry’s comment about Israel as an “apartheid state.” 

But in Israel a different subject was getting a lot of attention: Iran’s nuclear program. April 28 was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and that was the context in which Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke about Iran at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. 

Netanyahu discussed the world’s blind refusal to see what was coming in the 1930s despite all the evident warnings: “How is it possible that so many people failed to understand reality? The bitter, tragic truth is this: It is not that they did not see. They did not want to see.” He then asked, “Has the world learned [from] the mistakes of the past? Today we again face clear facts and a tangible threat. Iran calls for our destruction. It is developing nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu turned then to the current negotiations with Iran and drew the analogy: 

This time too, the truth is evident to all: Iran seeks an agreement that will lift the sanctions and leave it as a nuclear threshold state with the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons within several months at most. Iran wants a deal that will eliminate the sanctions and leave its capabilities intact. A deal which enables Iran to be a nuclear threshold state will bring the entire world to the threshold of an abyss. I hope that the lessons of the past have been learned, and that the desire to avoid confrontation at any cost will not lead to a deal that will exact a much heavier price in the future. I call on the leaders of the world powers to insist that Iran fully dismantle its capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons, and to persist until this goal is achieved.

He then repeated a pledge he has made in the past that Israel will not tolerate Iran as a nuclear threshold power: “The people of Israel stand strong. Faced with an existential threat, our situation today is entirely different than it was during the Holocaust. .  .  . Today, we have a sovereign Jewish state. Unlike the Holocaust, when the Jewish people were like a wind-tossed leaf and utterly defenseless, we now have great power to defend ourselves, and it is ready for any mission.”

Of course, Netanyahu has been saying these things for years, and listeners may wonder whether this is just more of the same: rhetoric, or at best a kind of “psy-op” meant to toughen the American position at those talks with Iran. After all, though Netanyahu is said to have come close to ordering a strike at Iran in the summer of 2012, it didn’t happen. In addition to feeling great American pressure against acting, Netanyahu clearly did not have a consensus in the Israeli security establishment for such a grave decision.

Those who consider Netanyahu’s words just more rhetoric should consider, then, two additional statements made last week—by two key figures in the security establishment, both viewed as balanced and sensible voices.

On April 23, five days before Netanyahu spoke, retired general Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence and now director of the Institute for National Security Studies, wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post. Like Netanyahu, he objected to a deal with Iran that would allow it to preserve its nuclear weapons program—and said that appears to be where the West is headed. The Iranian “concessions” are not real, he wrote: “Iran is trying to portray itself as a country prepared to make fundamental concessions, but at the same time it is preserving the core abilities in both routes it is developing for a nuclear weapon.” 

Yadlin rejected the view that inspections alone could prevent Iran from cheating: Inspections are “insufficient. The international inspection systems are not perfect and have always been known to fail. They already failed in the past to discover on time the efforts made by Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Iran to secretly develop a military nuclear program. These systems can cease to exist in case of a unilateral Iranian decision—like what happened with North Korea.”

So what should a deal with Iran contain? 

The powers must demand that Iran will dissolve most of the centrifuges and leave a symbolic number of non-advanced centrifuges. They must demand that the uranium enrichment stockpile in Iran will be limited to a low level and symbolic amount (less than the amount required for one bomb). They must also demand the dismantlement of the enrichment site inside a mountain near Qom, which aims to guarantee a protected site immune to a quick breakthrough towards a bomb. They must demand that the Arak reactor will be altered so that it would not be used for military purposes and demand an answer to the open questions regarding the military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program.

Yadlin said the mark of an acceptable deal with Iran is that “the time it takes Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, if it decides to do so, will be measured in years rather than in months.”

General Yaakov Amidror, the former Israeli national security adviser and before that head of research for Israeli Military Intelligence, wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post one day later. Like Yadlin, he brushed aside assurances that inspections and intelligence will spot any Iranian moves toward making a bomb: “There is no such thing as a monitoring system that cannot be sidestepped. There is no way to guarantee that the world will spot Iran’s efforts to cheat. American intelligence officials have publicly admitted that they cannot guarantee identification in real time of an Iranian breakout move to produce a nuclear weapon.”

And what if Iranian cheating is discovered? “Anyone who thinks that a U.S. administration would respond immediately to an Iranian agreement violation, without negotiations, is deluding himself. .  .  . Israel cannot accept the existential threat caused by this delusion.” The determination of the P5+1 to stop Iran will erode in future years, he argues, just as it has eroded in the past few years as the demands being made of Iran have steadily been reduced. Requirements considered essential a few years ago have already been dropped, including the demand that Iran simply stop enriching uranium.

Amidror also dismissed the idea that Iran won’t cheat and try to build a bomb out of fear of the likely American reaction: “Does anyone believe that the use of force is a possible option for the United States? What are the chances that the United States would obtain the support of the Security Council for the use of force against Iran? What are the chances that Washington would act without U.N. support?” Amidror argued that optimistic assumptions about a deal with Iran cannot be sustained—“neither the assumption that a monitoring regime can guarantee identification, in real time, of Iranian violations; nor the assumption that the United States will act with alacrity if a breach is identified; nor the assumption that, in the real world, Iran will truly be deterred by U.S. threats.”

Where does this argument lead? Amidror concluded: “With such a flimsy agreement, I wonder what will be left of Western commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And Israel will have to draw its own conclusions.”

These three statements, from Israel’s prime minister and two of its leading security figures, are of course meant to toughen the American position in the coming talks. Watching the P5+1 effort to conclude a deal with Iran by the July deadline, the three men are urging tougher terms than many in the West (not to mention Russia and China) seem willing to require. They are restating the point that a bad deal is, as American officials have agreed at least in principle, worse than no deal, because it would offer false assurances that we’ve stopped Iran while strengthening the Islamic Republic through the elimination of economic sanctions. And they are reminding us, yet again, that while the P5+1 may be willing to take a chance and let Iran progress a bit more slowly toward a bomb, Israel may make a different calculation and “draw its own conclusions.” 

It may be difficult to think of Israel acting alone in the face of a widely celebrated nuclear deal with Iran or even in the face of continuing negotiations that function as a cover for Iran’s progress toward a usable weapon. But watching Israel’s prime minister deliver his warning from Yad Vashem, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a reminder that Jewish history has taught Israel’s leaders powerful lessons about the past—and the dangers the future holds. 

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author, most recently, of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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