America Is Back—but for How Long?
Political Polarization and the End of U.S. Credibility
Most of the world is applauding the thaw between the United States and Iran. Then there are the Arabs and Israelis. Their reaction is dread, and with good reason: neither trusts U.S. President Barack Obama to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or from at least acquiring the capability to produce one. Israel, which has a wide base of political support in the United States, will try to stymie any nuclear deal it sees as too lenient -- but that won’t be easy.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered messages that few wanted to hear. He reminded the world that the Iranians have lied before, warned that they may well be lying still, and claimed that they have done nothing to earn credibility. He said that Iran should first be made to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency and UN resolutions, which it has defied for decades -- most notably by developing clandestine, unsafeguarded sites and by continuing the enrichment of uranium. Netanyahu is setting forth standards for a nuclear agreement that are far tougher than the Obama administration believes can be negotiated and, as a result, are not even being sought.
The hard part for Israel comes next, when the world’s leaders have returned home. The recent debate over Syria -- when the administration backed away from using force, Congress seemed on the verge of voting against the use of force, and opinion polls showed the public against any military involvement -- has seriously undermined the credibility of the U.S. military option. What will Israel’s approach be in the coming months, when Washington’s position -- whatever its rhetoric -- has moved from “all options are on the table” to a blind pursuit of diplomacy?
The first thing the Israelis will do is repeat, over and over again, their arguments against trusting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. They will remind U.S. and EU officials, journalists, and anyone who will listen that he is not a reformer but a regime stalwart who, as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, had the job of buying time for the nuclear weapons program.
Second, they will make the case that any deal should have very tough standards. In this sense, Israel will be forced to be the bad cop, and to enlist other bad cops in Europe and in the U.S. Congress. If Israel had its way, Iran would have to fully account for its past (secret) work on a warhead, stop its centrifuges, stop enriching uranium and ship its existing stockpiles out of the country, prove it has no alternate route to nuclear weapons through plutonium work at the Arak facility, dismantle the underground site at Fordow, and cease the conversion of first-generation centrifuges to more efficient second-generation ones. It seems very unlikely that the United States and the other P5+1 countries will, for one thing, demand an end to all enrichment inside Iran; on all these conditions, in fact, compromise is more likely than the fulfillment of Israel’s demand that all nuclear activities stop. If a full stop to the Iranian program is judged by Washington to be unattainable, Netanyahu will argue that Iran should be held to its own claim that it needs nuclear technology for nuclear power; in that case, it would need only uranium enriched to about 3.5 percent, very few centrifuges (and those in one location that is declared and inspected), and only a tiny stock of enriched uranium.
Third, Israel will ask that sanctions be strengthened, and that the Obama administration not be allowed so many waivers to permit other countries to flout the sanctions regime, until Iran actually changes its conduct -- not just promises to change it. That is, sanctions should be reduced in the coming months only in exchange for Iran’s exporting enriched uranium, warehousing centrifuges, and providing truthful information about the military aspects of its nuclear program.
Finally, Netanyahu will ask that the military option be strengthened, not weakened. Here, Washington’s rhetoric matters, but it could do far more to bolster the now-diminished credibility of its threat to use force by carefully leaking information about U.S. military preparations or by positioning forces so that they could strike Iran should it be necessary. But the Israelis may guess that they won’t get much here, so a more promising line may be to ask Washington to help them enhance their own capabilities -- by providing more bunker-buster bombs and more air refueling tankers. The idea would be to demonstrate that, at least for Israel, all options are in fact on the table, and that the Americans like it that way.
The first three steps could be taken without the approval of the Obama administration -- in fact, they are steps meant to limit U.S. flexibility. The fourth step would require the Obama administration’s approval and action. If Israel plays its cards right, it might be able to convince Washington to help with the fourth step by promising to refrain from the first three. That is, Israel could say it can live with the possibility of Iranian cheating and moving closer to a bomb only if its own military option grows stronger.
Israel does retain one option for stymying the negotiations if they appear to be heading for what Israelis would view as a bad deal, one that would allow Iran to escape sanctions and creep closer to a bomb. That is for Israel to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Its ability to do so is already being narrowed considerably by the diplomatic thaw, because it is one thing to bomb Iran when it appears hopelessly recalcitrant and isolated and quite another to bomb it when much of the world -- especially the United States -- is optimistic about the prospect of talks. A window for an Israeli attack might open up if the talks bogged down and Western negotiators suggested that the Iranians were refusing to compromise, perhaps speculating that the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards did not want a deal after all. But Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are probably too smart to allow such pessimism to creep into Western ranks.
In short, the Israelis find themselves in a far worse position now than they have been for several years. There was no way for them to avoid this situation other than attacking last year; bombing Iran when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president would have been more defensible in the court of global public opinion. Now they must fix bleak smiles to their lips and say that they hope for the best -- all the while wringing their hands about the likely terms of the deal. Given that Israel may have little ability to persuade the Western negotiators to be tough, its best path for now is to appeal to Americans, especially in Congress, to refuse to lift sanctions until Iran makes significant concessions.
Here, the Syria episode might actually help Israel, since it increased mistrust about the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy, even among Democrats. Refusing to lift sanctions and adopting tougher rhetoric toward Iran would not be partisan issues. Plenty of Democrats think that those actions are both good politics and good policy.
The Israelis have a difficult task ahead. They do not wish to play the bad cop role in an American game with Iran -- and, in fact, the metaphor is misleading. In the good cop/bad cop routine, both officers are on the same team and are carefully coordinating their approaches. In this case, the Israelis fear, the bad cop wants to see the criminals jailed, and the good cop is open to a sweet plea bargain. If that’s what the Iranians get, they will sit back and smile while the United States and Israel end up in a bitter argument.