The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Israel-US dialogue is necessary about Iran’s nuclear program, since a good agreement with Iran is a clear Israeli interest. But Israel must be prepared with a military option against Iran, as a last resort.

A few days ago, a journalist said to me that “Israel must realize that ultimately a P5+1 agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program is good for Israel too, especially given that the alternative is a complex and dangerous Israeli attack.”

I replied with the following remarks: “All these years, Israel indeed hoped for an agreement with Iran. That is what we told our American interlocutors time and time again. Moreover, Israel helped quite a bit in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, as well as with the process itself. At the same time, we always made it clear that no agreement with Iran is better than a bad agreement.”

In my estimation, President Obama and the P5+1 concluded the JCPOA (the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran) behind Israel’s back because they knew that it was bound to be a bad agreement. Indeed, in retrospect it has turned out to be very bad agreement.

I further told the reporter that “If there is no new and improved agreement with Iran, Israel may reach the point of having to go to war to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry.”

“Granted, such a war would be complex and dangerous, and therefore it is not Israel’s preference. But complexity and risk must not deter Israel from safeguarding its existence and its vital interests. The State of Israel was founded upon the basic desire of Jews to defend themselves in time of danger. And I don’t understand those who are willing so readily to give up or rely instead on others for security.”

Those who say that Israel disengaged itself from negotiating process prior to 2015 are wrong, to say the least. The truth is that Israel played a central role in the early negotiations. It dialogued intensively with the Americans and the other negotiators too, including the Chinese and the Russians who were considered more rigid partners. Israel sought a good agreement with Iran.

Even after it became apparent that US negotiators had concealed the truth from Israel, Israeli officials continued to assist the P5+1 with the details of the negotiations, to fix some of the holes in the agreement. Regrettably, in many cases, Israeli experts failed in this regard because American negotiators had moved into “concession mode.” Nevertheless, Israel did not give up on the attempt to improve the agreement, even after Washington undermined the spirit of cooperation between the US and Israel.

Many of the US experts realized they had a bad agreement in their hands but were not willing to follow this understanding to the requisite conclusion. A senior US official who presented the agreement at an AIPAC conference said it was “the best agreement that could be achieved.” Even if Israel were to assume, for argument’s sake, that she was right, one nevertheless must ask whether the fact that the US could not get a better agreement should convince Israel’s leaders to accept an agreement which they believe places their country in great peril. I think that the answer to this question is no.

Israel has made the correct decision to commence negotiations with the Biden administration about the contours of a “better agreement” with Iran; an agreement which Israel could accept as a foundation for its policy towards Iran as well. A good agreement is obviously a clear Israeli interest, but the other side of the equation remains in effect too. Better no agreement at all than a bad agreement.

Another bad agreement with Iran would lull people into falsely assuming that a solution to the Iranian problem has been found and that that one need expend no additional effort to curb the perilous Iranian nuclear project. Conversely, with no agreement, the world usefully will have some trouble deceiving itself that all is fine and dandy. In that situation, there may be more receptivity in the West for combining forces with Israel to truly block Iran’s nuclear gambit.

In sum, this means that Israel’s current dialogue with the Biden administration is the right and an important path towards a meeting of minds on policy towards Iran. However, if few understandings with Washington are reached, and the US re-enters the old JCPOA as is (what is termed a “clean return”) or it concludes an agreement with Iran that is only cosmetically better than the JCPOA – Israel must be prepared with its own military option against Iran, as a last resort.

Israel cannot agree to a situation where Iran draws closer to nuclear weapons, even if this means engaging in a complex and dangerous campaign to destroy key elements of the Iranian nuclear project.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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