Now that the P5+1 delegates have all returned home from Geneva, after having been made fools of by their Iranian interlocutors, it is time to add a bit of clarity to the American and Israeli perspectives.
It seems clear that the Obama administration does not want to commit U.S. forces to thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This does not suggest that they would not supply Israel, presumably, with virtually all it needs to get the job done — just no U.S. forces.
It is also important to note that their European partners want regional stability but have a much lower level of concern than the United States does for Israel’s safety and stability.
Like the rest of the P5+1, the United States wants a diplomatic conclusion to these negotiations, but it is concerned that neither Israel, Saudi Arabia, nor the Gulf states appear ready to accept the current negotiating terms. While Israel views Iran as an existential threat, the Saudis and their neighbors have religious, ethnic, and economic bases to their opposition. Most analysts fear an arms race among the Saudis, Turks, and Egyptians should Iran go nuclear. Pakistan is reportedly already holding weapons to deliver to Saudi Arabia upon request.
The Obama administration has concluded that it can live with an Iran able to enrich uranium, for “peaceful purposes,” and that it does not pose any immediate threat to the United States or U.S. interests. Given the national antiwar mood and the failure to convince Congress in August to authorize force against Syria, the president and national security adviser Susan Rice feel the only way out of this confrontation must be a diplomatic one. While Benjamin Netanyahu may insist that Iran could quickly ratchet up its enrichment capabilities to develop nuclear bombs, the United States feels a “freeze” is better than war. And with three years left in office, the president may already have his eyes on his party’s fortunes in 2014 and 2016.
The Israeli government is seeking a deal that gets Iran to dismantle — not “freeze” — its nuclear enrichment capabilities, making that the condition on which the West would reduce its sanctions. Perhaps Netanyahu is bluffing, either to push the Iranians harder or to urge the Senate to join the House on a new round of sanctions on Iranian oil exports. But as a former head of the Mossad is reported to have said about negotiations: While it is always possible to tighten the screw again after your gambit fails, it is much easier to wait and not loosen the screw until you are absolutely sure you will not need to tighten it later. Once sanctions are relaxed with Iran, it will be much harder to intensify them again.
Would Israel be ready to sacrifice lives and treasure to keep Iran from going nuclear — at least for a while? Can Israel live with a nuclear Iran and/or a nuclear Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia? Would that make for a safer region for Israel?
Would the Saudis, the Gulf states, Turkey, and even Egypt consider using such a weapon against a Muslim state? Was the use of chemical weapons by both sides during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War an indication that they are capable of using weapons of mass destruction against each other?
In the short term, it appears Israel will have to live with the idea of an Iran with some nuclear capabilities — frozen, according to the Western deal, but with a dangerous breakout capacity. If they opt to fight, the country will probably be alone and may well do serious damage not only to itself but to its relationship with its only reliable friend in the world.