The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
As the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran reach a crucial moment, it is worth recalling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to the U.S. Congress. In it, he declared that Israel would be able to accept a deal with Iran "that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally." This was the first and only time that the prime minister walked back his demand that the Iranian nuclear program be completely dismantled—a message that was soon overshadowed by endless commentary on the personal rivalry between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. However, his words provided a productive way forward for U.S. and Israeli cooperation on Iran's nuclear program, an opportunity that should not be missed, as the negotiators set the principles of a deal with Iran.
Israel and the United States share the same strategic goal: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The intelligence services of both countries are also largely in agreement on the status of the Iranian program. But they remain deeply divided on what to do about it, a product of conceptual differences on five issues—the five “Ts.”
The first is threat perception. Israel views the prospect of a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. Its fears are intensified by the rhetoric of the Iranian leadership, most recently Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s November 2014 call to eliminate the State of Israel. The United States, on the other hand, views Iran not as an existential threat but as a strategic one and mainly fears that an Iranian bomb will lead to an arms race in the Middle East and Iran’s domination of the region.
The second is trauma. Israeli concerns regarding a nuclear Iran have been deeply influenced by past Jewish trauma and the fear of a second Holocaust at the hands of a genocidal regime. The American trauma, however, stems from the country's two recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost more than $1 trillion and thousands of American lives and ultimately failed to achieve their goals. The United States fears a replay of these debacles in yet another Muslim country.
The third issue is timing, specifically, the breakout time required for Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. Israel may be a regional military superpower, but even its impressive military capabilities are sufficient to do only partial damage to Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Given its limited capabilities, Israel sees allowing Iran to stay very close to the threshold—up to one year—as too risky. The United States, by contrast, as the world’s largest military, political, and economic superpower, possesses the capability to destroy Iran's military nuclear program outright and maintain a system to prevent Iran from restoring its nuclear capabilities. That is why it can tolerate the risk of leaving Iran with a one-year breakout capability.
The fourth difference is both countries’ trigger for action: in light of the gap between U.S. and Israeli capabilities, the United States’ redline is much more flexible than Israel’s. The United States is willing to bet that it can manage a developed Iranian nuclear infrastructure and attack after an Iranian decision to break out or sneak out to a nuclear bomb. Israel's redline, however, is Iran's ability to produce a nuclear bomb in practice, even if the decision to do so has yet to be made. Israeli military capabilities are simply insufficient to contend with a large-scale Iranian nuclear program and a short breakout time.
Finally, the countries have different thoughts about the alternatives to the current deal. In the U.S. assessment, the alternatives to reaching an agreement are Iran continuing to develop its nuclear program or a regional war in the Middle East. Faced with these alternatives, the United States regards almost any agreement as preferable, which weakens its hand in negotiations. In the Israeli discourse, there are a range of alternatives to an agreement, including intensified international sanctions on Iran, with an emphasis on the Iranian elite that supports the regime; intensified political pressure on the Iranian government; a covert campaign against problematic aspects of the Iranian nuclear program that could be used for military purposes, including the missile program; and, in the event that Iran continues taking steps toward military nuclear capabilities, surgical strikes on the country's nuclear installations.
So how can the United States and Israel bridge the gap? No matter what the current talks produce, Israel should acknowledge that despite its trauma, it would have to accept a well-inspected civilian Iranian nuclear program. The United States, on the other hand, would have to understand that although war is an alternative to an agreement, Iran does not wish to go to war, particularly against the world's strongest superpower. The United States would thereby improve its hand in the negotiations. Meanwhile, the leaderships of both countries should immediately stop their public bickering. Instead, the two countries should air their grievances and discuss future strategy privately via existing channels that enjoy the confidence of the leaders. If the current talks do yield a set of general principles for a future agreement, the United States and Israel should discuss a mutually agreeable deal that could form the basis for talks with Iran in the next months.
Here’s what such a future deal would look like in practice: First, and foremost, Iran would have to agree to a drastic reduction in its current number of centrifuges—over 19,000—to 3,000 at most. Recent reports indicate an American proposal to leave at least 6,500 centrifuges in Iran, which runs counter to these principles. Iran must also agree to limit its stock of enriched uranium to less than the minimum required for a single nuclear bomb: from the almost 8,000 kg the country has now (which is sufficient for at least six bombs) to several hundred. These constraints would remain in place for two decades, a sufficient period to assess Iran’s intentions.
Second, Iran must agree to the close monitoring of all aspects of its nuclear program, based on the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol, and a satisfactory Iranian response to the international community’s open files on its military nuclear activities. Any agreement with Iran should make it clear that international inspections are not voluntary, but mandatory.
Third, Tehran must agree to the conversion of the Fordow enrichment facility and the heavy-water reactor in Arak so that they cannot be used for military purposes. Recent reports that the United States may be willing to allow Iran to keep hundreds of centrifuges in Fordow contradicts this principle.
Finally, the sanctions relief should be gradual and implemented in response to Iranian progress in rolling back its nuclear program. As a result of all these steps, even if Iran decided to break out or inch toward a bomb, it would need more than a year to do so.
According to some reports, the P5+1 negotiators may set parameters for future agreements that contradict these principals. That would be a bad development, but not a game-ender. World powers and Iran still need to come to an agreement on some technical issues that are under dispute, and U.S.-Israeli cooperation will still be necessary to supervise Iranian nuclear activities. The two countries should also form a joint plan for how to deal with an Iranian violation of the agreement, including, among other things, improving the Israeli military option through advanced weaponry, which the United States could provide. If the P5+1 don’t reach an agreement, and talks are heading toward stalemate, the U.S. and Israeli governments will have no choice but to restore trust and work together.
In either case, U.S. and Israeli officials should agree on how they will work together to bridge the gaps between them in concept and capabilities so that they can effectively cooperate on the Iranian challenge. This will include parameters for a deal they can both live with, intelligence collaboration on the covert aspects of the Iranian program, and a joint plan for the future, including a strategy should the diplomatic efforts fail. To assess whether a diplomatic solution is genuinely possible, before turning to other alternatives, it will be necessary to step up the economic and political pressure on Iran and, at the same time, increase the carrots Iran will receive for demonstrating a willingness to guarantee that its nuclear program cannot be used for military purposes within a short period of time. This last diplomatic effort, however, should be a product of a well-coordinated strategy between Washington and Jerusalem.
The alliance between the United States and Israel is still the strongest in the region and continues to prove that when the countries work together, the sky’s the limit. In this sense, the nuclear threat posed by Iran is no different from other challenges. To meet their shared goal—preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—they will need to work together and show a united front.