The Side Deal Not Yet Signed
by Avner Golov
Despite aggressively rebutting each other in public over the recent Iran nuclear deal, both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have clarified in the past month the resilient strength of U.S.-Israel relations. Nevertheless, public debate over the agreement erodes the strategic alliance between the countries, jeopardizing both nations’ interests. Washington and Jerusalem are not going to agree wholesale on the Iran issue. However, in order to weather this squall and maintain the alliance, both sides should focus their efforts on an intimate U.S.-Israel dialogue and agreement. Now that the American president has managed to secure enough support in Congress to block any legislative attempt to override him, it is time to change the discussion between the two leaderships.
Netanyahu asserts his responsibility to voice Israeli concerns about the dangers of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and corollary deals signed between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran. The Israeli prime minister should adhere to his responsibility, but instead of purely grandstanding about achieving these objectives, his efforts would be more effective pursuing a private strategic dialogue with the American administration.
In this dialogue, for example, Israel should point out that the nuclear deal does not “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” – an objective set by President Obama. Iran will be able to advance its research and development program, creating more advanced centrifuges that shorten the time required to cross the nuclear threshold. It does not guarantee absolute transparency, leaving some “blind spots” that could potentially be exploited for military purposes. It also lacks a feasible and rapid international response mechanism that encourages Iranian compliance.
Israel also has concerns that if Iran does not decide to violate the agreement and cross the nuclear threshold in the first decade, it could close the gap in the second decade without cheating. Iran can enhance its nuclear program after ten years, so any western attempt to stop it from going nuclear would be extremely difficult. Though Iran has possessed significant threshold capabilities in the past two years, it never had international legitimacy to do so. Now that it does, there is a risk that other countries in the region will push for the same.
Furthermore, Israel should also explain that even though the Obama Administration rightly argues that the nuclear agreement was never intended to address Iranian behavior in the region, it cannot disregard the consequences of improving Tehran’s international status while it boldly supports terrorism, aggressively promotes regional instability, and takes an active role in the civil war in Syria. Relieving the embargo and Iran’s missile program sanctions does not help the administration’s argument. Netanyahu has warned that some of the more than 100 billion dollars Iran expects to receive will increase its support of terrorism and empower its proxies against Israel (namely, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza). Altogether, in the eyes of many, the nuclear deal weakens the credibility of American deterrence (both nuclear and non-nuclear) as well as its commitments to allies in the region on those issues.
To alleviate Israeli concerns, the U.S. should sign a side deal with its strongest ally in the region. The notion of a parallel agreement has been promoted in recent months by former head of IDF Military Intelligence General Amos Yadlin and myself. This agreement should be signed before international sanctions against Iran are lifted as a product of intensive dialogues between Washington and Jerusalem.
There are five critical components to an effective agreement. First, both countries should engage in unprecedented intelligence collaboration to swiftly detect any Iranian violation of terms. This commitment of resources will be an effective information-sharing mechanism and part of a rapid decision-making process.
Second, the two countries should agree on an interpretation of the agreement and responses to Iranian non-compliance. They must clearly define how a nuclear deal with Iran would be implemented, how to handle violations, and what could be done outside the framework to incentivize Iranian compliance.
Third, the two governments should work out a contingency plan under which if Iran decides to acquire nuclear weapons, Israel will be able to take action independently without relying on an international consensus. In order to be a credible deterring force against this potential threat, especially after the main constraints on Iran’s nuclear program are lifted, Israel will require advanced weaponry to ensure that this scenario is not realized under any circumstances.
Fourth, special efforts should be made to halt Iran from advancing its missile program before it is capable of launching nuclear attacks against its adversaries in the Middle East and beyond. Iran’s missile program is a crucial factor in the Iranian nuclear decision-making calculus, and may be the most significant challenge faced by Tehran if they decide to cross the nuclear threshold. The nuclear deal endeavors to preempt this concern as it states that missile program-related sanctions will only be lifted after eight years. The U.S-Israel deal must address this.
Lastly, the U.S. and Israel should agree on tenets for countering Iran’s possible exploitation of the nuclear deal and expanding influence in the region. These measures should both improve Israel’s defensive capabilities and include a bolder American offensive strategy for the Middle East, both aimed at actively challenging Iran’s regional policy. This essential tenet signals to Israel that Washington is not abandoning the Middle East and leaving it susceptible to the influence of Iranian hegemony as it becomes a more dangerous place. As the Iran deal and its tributary deals are fait accompli, the U.S. and Israel should actively cooperate on formulating a policy for the next major side deal between the two countries.
Image "P052011PS-0414" Courtesy The White House / Public Domain
About the Author
Avner Golov is a PhD Candidate and a Harry S. Truman Scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He also serves as a researcher at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) and as a research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).