What is good enough for the West is not good enough for Israel
There is something emblematic about the fact that the UN and Switzerland, the hosts of this week’s talks with Iran, decided to cover-up a famous wall carving at the Palais des Nations in Geneva where the talks are taking place. The carving, called “The Creation of Man,” depicts a nude. The hosts of the nuclear talks thought that this landmark artistic heritage would offend Iranian delegates. If the negotiating powers (the US, Russia, China, France, the UK, and Germany) are so concerned about offending Iranian sensibilities, will they have qualms about confronting Iran on its nuclear program?
In his speech at the UN two weeks ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that “Iran wants to be in a position to rush forward to build nuclear bombs before the international community can detect it and much less prevent it” and that Iran wants to reach the point of “sufficient nuclear material and sufficient nuclear infrastructure to race to the bomb at a time it chooses to do so.” This is why Netanyahu listed four conditions for the negotiations with Iran to succeed: 1. Cessation of all uranium enrichment; 2. Removal of the stockpiles of enriched uranium from Iran’s territory; 3. Destruction of the infrastructure for nuclear breakout capability (including the underground facility at Qom and the advanced centrifuges in Natanz); 4. Cessation of all work at the heavy water reactor in Iraq aimed at the production of plutonium.
The negotiating powers are willing to settle for less than that –indeed for much less. They seem willing to reach an agreement in which Iran will commit not to produce nuclear weapons but will be allowed to produce a large amount of highly enriched uranium and plutonium –two ingredients that are required to build a nuclear weapon. The problem is that the development and manufacturing of nuclear weapon components are very hard to detect. So in the emerging trade-off between Iran and the negotiating powers, it will be nearly impossible to know if Iran actually has nuclear weapons. Iran would be able to keep its nuclear weapons a secret, and it could even replicate Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity.”
If the US is willing to accept such an agreement, sanctions against Iran would be eased or even repealed. Iran might also demand, and likely obtain, a US commitment to prevent an Israeli attack and to stop supporting Iranian opposition groups. In such a scenario, the US would be able to claim that it prevented Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. For Iran, such a deal would provide protection from an Israeli attack, it would weaken internal opposition, and it would ease or even repeal economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Iran would be able to secretly produce more bomb material. That would be an excellent deal for Iran but a terrible deal for Israel, because Israel would not be able to detect whether or not Iran is building a bomb, and because Israel would not be able to prevent Iran’s “breakout capability.”
Israel has good reasons to doubt the United States’ ability (or willingness) to prevent Iran’s “breakout capability,” because no less than four countries obtained nuclear weapons under America’s nose: Israel itself (in the 1960s), India (in 1974), Pakistan (in 1998), and North Korea (in 2006). The latter successfully bought time by fooling the international community. The only two countries that abandoned their nuclear programs are South Africa (in 1989) and Libya (in 2003). Western economic sanctions were critical in convincing South Africa to abandon its nuclear program. As for Libya, the 2003 US-led military intervention in Iraq convinced Kaddafi that he was next in line and that forgoing his nuclear program was the only way to prevent a US attack.
In other words, there is no precedent for successfully ending a nuclear program by diplomacy. On the other hand, crippling economic sanctions have worked in the case of South Africa, and military threat has worked in the case of Libya (as well as in the case of Syria’s chemical weapons). Netanyahu, therefore, is correct to argue that for the current negotiations with Iran to succeed, sanctions must be maintained and even reinforced, and the military threat must be as credible as ever.
Israel’s problem is not that the West doesn’t agree with Netanyahu’s undisputable argument. Rather, the problem is that what is good enough for the West is not good enough for Israel. The United States and Europe are likely to let Iran enrich uranium and plutonium as long as it doesn’t actually build a bomb. But for Israel, that would mean giving Iran the option of building a bomb when it so decides.
The naked man on the wall of the Palais des Nations in Geneva might be covered for the duration of the talks, but the Emperor has no clothes: both Iran and the United States are seemingly willing to compromise on a mutually face-saving formula. If such is the case, Netanyahu will inevitably conclude that Israel stands alone. And as he said in his UN speech: “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
Dr. Emmanuel Navon heads the Political Science and Communication Department at the Jerusalem Orthodox College, and teaches International Relations at Tel-Aviv University and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. He is a Senior Fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.