Nuclear deal’s aftermath || Obama’s problem, Saudi Arabia’s concerns and Israel’s new goals

The bad news: The struggle over the Iran deal has poisoned Israel’s relationship with the U.S. The good news: Tehran will be forced to reduce its involvement in terror activities.




By Amos Harel |

1. Iran

Almost a week after the signing in Geneva of the interim agreement between the P5+1 − the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany − and Iran concerning Tehran’s nuclear project, many unknowns remain. Not only are the arguments about the quality of the agreement continuing; the meaning of the accord’s actual details remains steeped in controversy. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said, in response to journalists’ questions, that some “technical details” have yet to be finalized. The statement followed Iran’s accusation that Washington was putting out misleading information about the full text of the agreement. In other words, negotiations over what was supposed to have been agreed upon in the negotiations are likely to continue.

The interim accord is meant to be in force for a six-month period, during which the sides will formulate the final agreement, but the countdown has yet to begin. In the meantime, then, Iran is apparently not hemmed in by the concessions it took upon itself undertook in the interim agreement.

The American admission about the technical details did not surprise Israelis who followed earlier rounds of talks between Iran and the powers, dating back to the talks with the European troika a decade or so ago. In this case, the cultural cliche looks to be accurate: This is classic Iran. The Iranians are indeed skilled at conducting long and wearying negotiations. Many times, the agreements reached serve them only as a point of departure for renewed bargaining.

Contrary to the hopes of the Israeli leadership, Tehran did not come crawling to Geneva, and Tehran also apparently did not forgo the basic principles with which it came to the negotiations. The nuclear project has been slowed, but the Iranians can view the agreement as de facto recognition by the international community of their right to enrich uranium. They have already made significant advances in many areas, even if the pace of development was not as rapid as predicted in the pessimistic forecasts of Western intelligence in the past two decades. The uranium stocks already in Iran’s possession would allow it to make a “leap forward” and complete the enrichment to a high − military − level within a few short months, if the decision is made to do that.

Iran’s missiles continue to threaten a large number of countries, including Israel, and many experts now think that the time needed by Iran to produce a nuclear warhead for those missiles has was considerably shortened in recent years. At present, given that global opposition to the further continuation of the nuclear project had put the survival of the regime in immediate danger − and this is always the regime’s primary consideration − Tehran has decided to compromise. The economic damage, and even moreso, the growing frustration of the Iranian public, dictated the compromise in Geneva, but it looks like one the ayatollahs can live with.

None of this would have been accomplished with a somewhat loopy lightning rod like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad out front. But with the moderate Hassan Rohani elected president, and with Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, a graduate of academic studies in the United States, as Tehran’s delegate to the talks, the result was very different. The way the Iranian delegation in Geneva comported itself, including its behavior with the foreign media, reflected a self-confident return to the fold of the international community. At times, it seemed as though the West was longing for a hug from Iran; it was Israeli sourness and suspicion about the agreement that were greeted with hostility.

The Iranian leadership is now apparently following a sagacious and relatively cautious path. The interim agreement is not likely to prevent Tehran from charging ahead with the manufacturing of a nuclear weapon, if a convenient opportunity should arise while the West’s attention is directed elsewhere. At the moment, Iran sees itself as a nuclear threshold state, which has stopped on that threshold for reasons of its own. The world’s powers − and the neighboring states − will have to acknowledge that fact.

Iran can chalk up another strategic accomplishment, namely, that its intervention in the Syrian civil war (especially the decision to dispatch Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to the campaign) has helped save President Bashar Assad’s regime, at least for now. This is the approach of a country that views itself as a regional power possessing all-embracing interests across the Middle East. The nuclear accord has already spawned an invitation to Tehran to take part in shaping Syria’s future in another conference planned for Geneva, this time in an effort to end the civil war. On the other hand, the renewed honeymoon with the West might compel Tehran to reduce somewhat its involvement in terrorist activity, particularly its cooperation with Hezbollah in attacking Israeli targets abroad.

Do the successes recorded by Tehran in the past few weeks guarantee the regime’s long-term survival? That is far from certain. If there is one thing the upheavals in the Arab world over the past three years have shown us, it is never to say never in this part of the world.

2. United States

A large disparity exists between the perception of the interim accord in Washington and the reactions in the Middle East. Though the hawkish wing of the Republican Party (at least among those in it who bother themselves about foreign policy) and Israel’s friends in Congress were critical of the way the Obama administration handled itself, the White House and the State Department view the agreement as an achievement. It follows hard on the last-minute agreement reached in August with Russia, which forestalled an American attack in Syria when the Assad regime agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons stocks.

The Geneva agreement, like the Syrian compromise before it, after President Barack Obama threatened to attack Syria in reaction to the regime’s killing of 1,500 civilians in a chemical weapons attack, reinforces the administration’s preference for diplomacy and agreements over the use of massive military force. In the past decade, the United States brought advanced technology and vast destructive might into play in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet concluded them with disappointing strategic results. Now it is looking for new methods: from the use of soft power − diplomatic and economic − to cyber warfare and under-the-radar sabotage.

This approach dovetails with two other aspects of administration policy. The first, about which much has been written, involves a shift of the strategic emphasis in terms of economic interests, toward the rising economies of East Asia. America’s diminishing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, together with growing disgust at the chaos in the Arab world (as well as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) add another incentive.

The second element concerns Washington’s efforts to find a point of equilibrium between the rival blocs in the Muslim world. In the past few years, Israel expected Washington to strengthen the moderate Sunni bloc, which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states, against the Iranian-led Shiite bloc. However, the Americans are probably no longer dividing the region in black-and-white terms of bad guys and good guys. The hand that was proffered cautiously to Iran reflects a desire to at least leave channels of communication open with the countries of what Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, termed the “axis of evil.” Related to this is the fact that, as reported in the media, Washington and Tehran held secret talks for the past year, mediated by Oman.

Two and a half years ago, President Obama’s advisers explained that the president had adopted a policy of “leading from behind” (in connection with the toppling of the Gadhafi regime in Libya). That coinage continues to haunt Obama. The Saudis and the Egyptians, like the Israelis, were appalled at the idea of “leading from behind.” They interpreted the term as referring to preparation for a gradual American withdrawal from the Middle East, and as an expression of the administration’s disinclination to continue to bring military might to bear in the region.

Obama’s principal problem after the Geneva agreement, as analysts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed perceptively in a series of publications issued this week, is the lack of trust emanating from friendly states about his ability to implement his declarations. The Sunni capitals recall Washington’s ignominiously quick abandonment of the Mubarak regime in January 2011, the hemming and hawing about whether to recognize the generals who seized power in Cairo last July and the pullout from Iraq and Afghanistan.

3. Saudi Arabia

The Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are worried not only by the American pullout from the region but also by the rise of Iranian hegemony. Concerns about Tehran are not confined to its nuclear aspirations. The Gulf states are observing with trepidation the extensive terrorist activity being conducted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds (Jerusalem) Force and Tehran’s increasing involvement in blood-drenched conflicts between Sunnis and Shi’ites across the region, epitomized by its activity in the Syrian civil war.

The statement issued by Riyadh welcoming the signing of the Geneva agreement sounded skeptical and constrained. Notable was the comment that the agreement stirs hope, “if there are good intentions.” Senior Saudi officials, briefing journalists and think-tank analysts in the West, made it clear that if their country was not convinced that the agreement would put a stop to Iran’s project, it would consider acquiring nuclear weapons for itself as a counterweight to the Iranians’ might. Those sentiments support the surprising alliance of interests that has recently been tightened between Israel and the Gulf states − though this should not be taken for more that it is. The alliance will dissolve the moment Saudi Arabia actually moves to acquire nuclear weapons of its own − which Israel will view as a potential threat. The closest ties Israel can aspire to are with the moderate regimes in the two countries with which it already has peace treaties, Jordan and Egypt, and even then on condition that the current regimes remain in place.

4. Israel

The view from Jerusalem is that the Geneva agreement constitutes another sharp turn in the kaleidoscopic whirl of events over the past three years. It follows a wave of previous upheavals, from the fall of Mubarak to the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stock. But what the Israeli leadership finds most difficult to digest is that Jerusalem is no longer at the center of the target, for better or for worse. Just as Israel was never the only target of the Iranian nuclear project, so too it has only a secondary role in the world effort to scuttle the project. The agreement is neither a gift from heaven nor the end of the world. It is what it is. A vital pause has been achieved, which appears to make possible more intensive handling of the problem and offer a prospect of achieving a permanent settlement that will reduce the scale of the threat to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has good reason to be angry at President Obama. He was furious when he discovered, many months ago, the secret channel that the Americans had opened with Tehran. Political coordination between the United States and Israel on the Iranian question has been wobbly since Thomas Donilon resigned as head of the National Security Council in Washington this past June. It’s also true that the Americans, after masterminding the international sanctions, screwed up at the very end and returned from Geneva with a flawed agreement. The view of Israeli observers was that at the last minute, the United States took fright at itself, and became fearful of a war that the Iranians should have feared. Nevertheless, this is the right moment for Israel to disabuse itself of its grand illusions. Israel is working against its own interests by squabbling publicly with the Americans. Substantive criticism is something different from the present toxic atmosphere.

The Iranian campaign is not yet done with. The decisive stage will be that of the negotiations on the final agreement, which are supposed to get underway now. This is not a zero-sum situation. Israel needs to calibrate its desired goal in the final agreement and do its best to achieve what it wants, in coordination with the Americans and the Europeans. Critical issues exist on which a good result can be achieved further down the line, such as ensuring tighter supervision of the nuclear facilities, developing intelligence gathering and analysis capability that is coordinated with the Western states, and attempting to “roll back” as far as possible the final level Iranian capability will be allowed to reach in the final agreement. It is also very important to prepare a coordinated move with the United States on the rapid imposition of new sanctions, should it turn out that the Iranians are deceiving the international community, bringing about the agreement’s collapse. All this will be possible only if Israel stops its public blasting of the United States. Netanyahu’s repeated assertion that the agreement is bad, bad, bad could leave him in the position of the man of yesterday. The prime minister has remained in the consciousness of Israelis − going back to his stint as UN ambassador almost 30 years ago − as one who warns against anticipated threats. Back then, in the 1980s, his favorite themes were the danger of international terrorism and the Soviet Union’s abuse of the Jews there. Over the years, a large number of Israeli voters became convinced that Netanyahu is the right person to protect them from the multiple range of threats that exist in this very unfriendly neighborhood. In the meantime, though, the dangers have changed. In this round, in the face of a sophisticated and determined adversary like Iran, the winning blend of brilliant speeches, Holocaust evocations and brandishing the long-range prowess of the air force will not be enough.


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