Armed for Peace: How Israel Can Embrace a Nuclear Free Middle East and Strengthen an Historic Nuclear Accord with Iran
International negotiators have now completed the arduous task of detailing a final, comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran. What remains is for arguably the most detailed, complicated nuclear treaty of all time to be distilled and sold for domestic and international approval, and then for the long march of implementation to begin. However even before most experts have parsed, let alone digested the full details of the final accord; the agreement has drawn detractors, perhaps none more unsparing than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Calling it a “historic mistake,” Netanyahu railed against what he sees as an eventual path to an Iranian nuclear weapon. The reality, however, is that for all its bellicose rhetoric, the Netanyahu government has only ever been able to drive Iran’s determination and will to increase its nuclear program.
Diplomacy is and has always been the only real way to ensure that Iran does not complete a nuclear weapon, and while the current accord is imperfect, it puts Iran farther from a nuclear weapon than it has been at any point in the last decade. Seen not as an ending, but as a starting point, the accord and the diplomacy that it represents stands as the only path towards a more stable Middle East. If the current accord is put into action, Israel will face a choice whether to look to the failed policies of the past, or work towards constructing a better future — for the leverage that exists beyond sanctions relief lies with Israel itself. By pledging to renounce nuclear weapons and signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Israel can offer Iran what no one else can, a face saving path to true nuclear disarmament, and the first concrete steps towards a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.
Several months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to congress outlining the dangers of agreeing to a “bad deal” in the ongoing negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and facilities. And though his arguments spoke to the common interests of Israel and the United States — to ensure that Iran does not, and can not produce a nuclear weapon — they flowed from a flawed premise: that the only deal achievable through negotiations with Iran is a “bad deal.” Such a false dichotomy rules out the fact that there is yet room to achieve a good deal — a narrow path that can be walked to both dismantle the Iranian nuclear enterprise and allow the Iranians to return home satisfied that they have gained the high ground.
On paper, a good deal should be an easy outcome for both sides. Israel and the West want tangible guarantees that Iran will cede the physical capabilities necessary to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran wants to maintain what it sees as a civilian nuclear capability for power and medical purposes while reversing the crippling sanctions the West has imposed on its trade and economy. These goals are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the outlines of such a deal, while not without complications, are already in place.
Firstly, Iran must dismantle its current stockpile of enriched Uranium, either by shipping the material to a third party such as Russia, or by converting such material into a form that can not then be used in a nuclear weapon. Next, Iran must dismantle much if not all of the capacity it has built to enrich Uranium. Centrifuges must be destroyed or altered in such a way that it is no longer possible to enrich up to the purity necessary to make a nuclear weapon, and assurances must be given that further capacity will not be added. Additionally, the nuclear facility at Arak — a potential source of Plutonium — must be either decommissioned or redesigned such that byproducts are no longer suitable for weaponization. All this must be completed to an agreed upon timetable and in a transparent manner that can be verified and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Arriving at the details of such an agreement will be difficult, although much work has already been done. More difficult yet, however, is to arrive at such details without losing sight of those human intangibles which drive all negotiation: a sense of equity, dignity, and respect. It is these elements — and the perception of such elements by those with a stake in negotiations — that ultimately determine the success of any diplomatic accord.
Diplomacy can only succeed where there is a framework of respect: a recognition that all boats can rise on a shared tide. It is not enough to maintain leverage alone, whether through force of sanctions or the threat of military action. If such were the case, North Korea would long ago have traded away its nuclear ambitions. Nor on the other extreme is a foundation of deep trust a necessary precondition: witness the diplomacy of the Cold War between the United States and then Soviet Russia. Respect, however, is the lynchpin of negotiation. For at the end of the day negotiations are between flesh and blood men and women. At the end of the day, Ayatollah Khamenei must be able to face the Iranian people and tell them that their sacrifices these many years have been meaningful, have gained them a stronger standing on the world stage, and have won them the respect of the international community.
The contemporary Iranian narrative is one of subjugation predicated upon the premise that the West has imposed sanctions as a means of suppression and control. That their ongoing nuclear enrichment programs are not commensurate with their own needs are in their mind not the issue at hand. What right has the United States — the only nuclear power ever to have used an atomic weapon on another country — to dictate the terms of their nuclear enterprise. Whether or not there is a moral consistency in this logic is beside the point: many Iranians, and indeed many around the world, view the negotiations through this lens, and their sense of justice plays a role just as surely as the scientific consensus on Iranian centrifuge capabilities.
The Israelis for their part would have the world believe that the Iranians are prepared to drive them into the sea — that they face an existential threat from an implacable enemy. And though hard liners within the Iranian regime may at time lend credence to such bluster, the legitimate security concerns a nuclearized Iran poses to Israel are far graver: not that the Iranians would unleash nuclear war on Israel themselves, but that they would allow Hamas or another non state actor access to nuclear materials either deliberately or through lapses in security.
This is the real danger, and the one which Israel and the Israeli political establishment must focus on combating. The hard truth of the matter is that the Iranian nuclear enterprise can no longer be confronted militarily or contained through political brinksmanship, and Israeli efforts to do so have only served to entrench it deeper and more securely than before. If history has shown anything, it is that governments truly determined to develop nuclear arms respond little either to punishing sanctions or the threat of force: indeed, oftentimes such governments welcome the nationalistic fervor that follow such actions, pinning all problems — self-inflicted and otherwise — on an external aggressor. Israel would be foolish to expect a different result by extending the same tactics the Netanyahu government has failed with for years.
Perhaps there was a time when the threat of nuclear arms made Israel a safer nation, warding off potential aggression from would be invaders, but that time is past. Israel is a military power in its own right, and no matter the political differences, shares the full backing of the United States Armed Forces. Israel should not be expected to sit on the side lines as the world confers on its very security, but it can no longer ignore the fact that its bellicose rhetoric and posturing, far from making it a safer nation, have become a liability to that very security. It may well come to pass that a deal on the Iranian nuclear program is reached in spite of Israeli opposition, but such an agreement will be both less desirable and more fragile than an accord arrived at through Israeli involvement and cooperation. Now is the time for the State of Israel to reconsider its responsibilities as a good standing member of the international community, as an agent of stability in a region wracked by chaos, and as a clear eyed realist faced with security concerns that require attainable solutions. It is time for Israel to convince Iran to leave its nuclear ambitions in the past by doing so itself.