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Israel's opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran doesn't make sense

Israel's opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran doesn't make sense
Published 22 Nov 2013 

Dina Esfandiary is an Iran specialist and a Research Associate in the Non-proliferation and Disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Israel is the loudest of the dissenting voices over the potential deal with Iran. But it stands to lose the most if no agreement is reached. 

Another round of negotiations began with Iran in Geneva this week. The meeting, held at political director level, aims to overcome the last-minute stumbling blocks that emerged during the talks in Geneva two weeks ago. 

Those opposing a deal have spent the last two weeks highlighting the dangers of compromising with Iran and insisting that the only way out is to maintain and strengthen the international sanctions regime. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu launched his own PR campaign against a potential deal, labeling it 'extremely dangerous', 'a mistake of historic proportions' and 'an exceedingly bad deal'.

But if there is no agreement, the biggest loser is Israel. 

An interim deal like the one being discussed would suspend Iran's nuclear program while negotiators hammer out a final agreement. Although the exact details of the talks are being kept hush hush, it appears it would suspend Iran's 20% enrichment, address stockpiles of enriched uranium, suspend activity and perhaps even construction at the Arak heavy-water reactor and increase transparency. Clearly, a step forward from the current status quo.

In exchange, Iran will receive some sanctions relief and perhaps some form of recognition of its 'right' to enrich. [fold]

Of course, this is not ideal. Ideally, the Iranians would come to Geneva and sign away their nuclear program, never to be heard of again. An Israeli official said the only deal Israel 'could accept' was one that would roll back the Iranian program by two years. That is, Iran would be two years away from being nuclear-capable. But Iran would never go for that sort of deal. 

If we follow Netanyahu's logic, anything short of near-complete dismantlement of Iran's program is a bad deal. But if there's no agreement, Iran will continue its program unabated, the very thing the Israelis are trying to avoid. But what's more important is how unlikely we are to get a better opportunity for a negotiated settlement. The US wants a deal, Tehran wants a deal. This is as good a chance as we are likely to get.

The new Rouhani administration has renewed everybody's hopes that a deal is possible. Although he appears to have a mandate to resolve the crisis, it will only last until hardliners discredit him. In the US there's a rare moment of heightened enthusiasm for an agreement versus continued punishment of Tehran. But in the US and the rest of the P5-1, patience is also wearing thin. After all, they've been negotiating with Iran for the better part of a decade, to no avail. Now, the stars have aligned for the two sides to come to a preliminary agreement. 

If this opportunity is missed, then we will be left with a slowly advancing Iranian nuclear program and a greater risk of a military attack to try to stop it. Indeed, the chances of an Israeli air strike on Iranian facilities is higher if there is no deal. But unless (and perhaps even if) the US joined Israel in strikes on Iran, then all an attack would do is increase the likelihood of an Iranian bomb. 

An Israeli attack would derail future negotiations and give Iran the excuse it needs to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and go for the bomb. It would drive the Iranian program further underground, making it harder and costlier to attack. 

An attack would also provoke the collapse of the international consensus on the sanctions regime, the very thing the Israelis are afraid a negotiated deal would do. Hardliners have called for more, not fewer, sanctions. To Netanyahu, the sanctions 'are working' because Iran's economy is 'on the ropes'. But it's unclear how no deal and more sanctions will curb Iran's nuclear program. In fact, sanctions alone won't stop the program. For those imposing them, sanctions are intended to prevent Iran from going nuclear and the Israelis from attacking Iran. They are also intended to get Iranians to the negotiating table. Right now, the Iranians are at the table.

We are closer to an agreement than we have ever been. The US and its allies want a deal not only to restrain the Iranian program, but to restrain the Israelis too. The choice is between a deal that curbs Iran's program or a status quo that carries the risk of Israeli air strikes. Strikes that will likely lead to a nuclear Iran. If Israel is really worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon, it should start looking for the best outcome it can actually achieve, not an abstract ideal one.

The success of these talks would be that best realistic outcome.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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