Nuclear negotiators will resume talks tomorrow in Geneva for the third time since moderate Iranian Pres. Hassan Rouhani took his office this summer. It’s no secret that the loudest international voice against striking an interim deal with Iran—leading to six months of talks on a final deal—comes from Israel.
In the words of one international relations scholar, Israel is “wigging out.” But while the ferocity of Israel’s objections garner much attention, the substance of its claims against diplomacy between world powers and Iran often gets the short shrift.
Set aside Israel’s poor record on predicting an Iranian nuclear weapon, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dreadfully off-base prognostications about Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs; the star of this show is Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. He’s the leader of what can rightfully be called Israel’s “information war” against an Iran deal.
Below is a brief summary of Steinitz’s estimates on how much sanctions relief Iran would get—a key tenet of Israeli opposition to an agreement is that it’s too generous—from the reported interim deal that is still being negotiated as we speak.
The U.S. State Department had to take the unusual step—twice—of denying Israel’s estimates. And it turns out Steinitz’s guesswork doesn’t even match up with what other Israeli officials are telling members of Congress.
What follows are Steinitz’s estimates for Iranian sanctions relief, interspersed with U.S. and other Israeli officials’ rebuttals and estimates, respectively.
Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister, Nov. 13, 2013, via Reuters:
“The sanctions relief directly will reduce between 15 to 20 billion dollars out of this amount,” Steinitz said on Wednesday at an English-language event hosted by the Jerusalem Press Club. … “The damage to the overall sanctions, we believe, will be something between $20 billion and maybe up to $40 billion,” he said.
Jen Psaki, U.S. State Department spokesperson, Nov. 13, 2013, via State Department daily press briefing:
Without going into specifics about what we’re considering, that number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality. … I think you can safely assume they’re lower.
Obama administration officials, Israeli officials, Nov. 15, 2013, via Foreign Policy:
[T]he Obama administration is offering Iran no more than $9 billion in sanctions relief, according to a source briefed by senior officials. But Israeli officials are telling lawmakers the U.S. is offering Iran $20 billion in sanctions relief.
Jen Psaki, U.S. State Department spokesperson, Nov. 14, 2013, via State Department daily press briefing:
[T]here are very large inaccurate false numbers out there in terms of what’s on the table. They’re significantly lower than that, as we talked about yesterday.
Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister, Nov. 18, 2013, via Bloomberg:
[Steinitz] initially was quoted saying Iran would reap $20 billion to $40 billion. In a later interview with Israel Radio, he said the benefit would be $20 billion.
Steinitz said the U.S. administration estimates the value of sanctions relief at $7 billion to $8 billion over the six months of a first-step deal, a number he said he doubled to produce a full-year figure and then rounded up because “the jump to $20 billion isn’t that big.”
This last move from Steinitz is a bit of CYA—cover your ass. Note that the reported operation time frame for the interim deal would only be six months. So why is Steinitz extrapolating numbers over a full year? And note also that Steinitz didn’t mention in his first go ‘round that he was (senselessly) giving figures for a full year.
But, most importantly, note especially that Israel’s lobbying on Capitol Hill—reportedly through far-right-wingers Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and cabinet minister Naftali Bennett—relies on half the figure Steinitz gave, and tried to explain away this weekend. In other words, Israel’s own government positions call into question Israel’s government positions on sanctions relief.
According to Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), when Obama administration officials briefed senators in a bid to stay new sanctions for an interim deal to be reached, they dismissed Israeli accounts of a deal and its ramifications. “I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me,” Kirk told reporters.
Based on Israel’s own estimates—and its shoddy record—he, and we, really ought to take them with at least a grain of salt.