Israeli Objectives Regarding the Iranian Nuclear Issue
by Paul Pillar
Moderator Dale Sprusansky: Dr. Paul Pillar is a
Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Center for Security Studies in the
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
In 2005, he retired from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence
community, in which his last position was the National Intelligence
Officer for the Near East and South Asia. He will discuss AIPAC and
Netanyahu’s objectives and the American interest.
Paul Pillar: Well, good afternoon. And for those of you who have been sitting all day, to the very last speaker of the very last panel, congratulations.
The campaign to kill an agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program has certainly been one of the biggest efforts by the Israeli government and its lobby here in the United States to influence U.S. policies, certainly the biggest on any issue that does not relate specifically to U.S.-Israeli relations or matters on which Israel is directly involved, like the Palestinian problem.
The nature and purpose of the campaign are worthy of attention, I think, for at least two reasons. One is the importance of the agreement itself, for all the reasons that Reza [Marashi] just outlined. It behooves us to understand why such an agreement, which is so much in U.S. interests, is being opposed. And some of the reasons are to be found, as Reza hinted, in domestic U.S. politics right here. That is to say, people in Congress and elsewhere who want to deny Barack Obama any kind of achievement, either foreign or domestic. But it’s obvious that the most energetic and persistent agitation against the agreement has come from the current government of Israel, and thus also from that government’s lobby here in Washington.
The other reason for studying the basis for the anti-agreement campaign is to observe what that demonstrates more broadly about Israeli motivations and intentions as they relate to U.S. interests.
The starting point for understanding those motivations is to ask why, if an Iranian nuclear weapon is as fearsome a prospect as it is said to be, that the Israeli government has been opposing, rather than supporting, an agreement whose very purpose is to place severe restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, to subject it to an unprecedented degree of intrusive international inspection, and to keep it peaceful. The alternative to this laboriously negotiated agreement, after all, would be no agreement at all, which would mean Iran would not be subject to any special restrictions on its nuclear program, none of the special intrusive inspections that Reza described, nothing beyond the general obligations it would have as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
If an Iranian nuke is the worry, in other words, then sabotaging the negotiations and opposing the agreement that emerges from them simply makes no sense.
Now we’ve heard, of course, including from the Israeli prime minister, the notion of getting a “better deal.” But let’s give the prime minister credit to be smart enough to realize that there is not going to be a better deal than what is emerging from the current negotiations. Once all the details are laboriously hammered out over these next two and a half months, the negotiations will have been going on for the better part of two years, consuming enormous time and attention of our secretary of state, other foreign ministers, other senior officials, and with the Obama administration taking very firm stands on matters such as uranium enrichment capabilities. The deal that emerges will be the best one that can be gotten, and Mr. Netanyahu knows that. Besides, we’ve already seen from past experience what happens when the United States turns away from a possible agreement with Iran, turns the sanctions screws tighter, and hopes for some kind of Iranian capitulation and crying uncle. The Iranians’ response has instead been to expand and advance their nuclear program, which has been the basic story over the past 10 to 15 years. We might also note that Mr. Netanyahu's track record of moving the goalposts on this subject gives us a strong basis for concluding that he would not support any agreement with Iran no matter what the terms.
There is, to be sure, genuine concern and even fear among many sincere Israelis about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, notwithstanding the strategic fact of Israel having the wherewithal to destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran in retaliation if Iran ever really did try, with what still would be far lesser capabilities than Israel’s, to inflict lethal harm on Israel. But, such fear is what has led a politician such as Mr. Netanyahu to develop a political strategy largely centered on exploiting that fear. And, of course, when you exploit a fear it exacerbates it even more. But even allowing for a large emotive element in how ordinary Israelis think and feel about this subject, it still makes no sense to oppose negotiation of an agreement explicitly designed to assure that the Iranian program stays peaceful. The reasons for the Israeli government’s opposition to the negotiations and to the agreement have to be found elsewhere.
Finding those reasons requires thinking more broadly about some of the follow-on political and diplomatic effects of the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners striking a nuclear deal with Iran. And again, we should give the Israeli prime minister and other Israelis credit for being smart enough to understand those effects. A nuclear agreement represents a partial breaking of diplomatic ice, especially in U.S.-Iranian relations. Recall that only a couple of years ago, U.S. and Iranian officials weren’t even talking to each other. It is a step toward Iran getting partly out of the international penalty box. It won’t get entirely out of that box, and there are plenty of other issues besides the nuclear one that are reasons for sanctions that have been placed on Iran and that would remain in place. But a nuclear deal would entail partial relief from Iran’s pariah status. And that has several implications of interest to Israel, and specifically to the Israeli government.
One is that it will make Iran a less fettered, less restricted competitor with Israel for regional influence than it has been so far. As the second most populous country in the region, Iran, and specifically an unshackled Iran, would be unsurprisingly—and quite legitimately, I might add—a major player in any contest for influence in the Middle East. It already is a major player, but it would be an even less restricted one than it is now.
In seeking to win friends and influence people, Israel and Iran are not always appealing to the same constituencies, but sometimes they are. They’re doing so in the Gulf Arab countries. One specific likely consequence of the partial unshackling of Iran will be a new rapprochement between Iran and the Gulf Arab countries, with some steps toward that end, such as some high-level visits, having already taken place in recent months, probably in anticipation of completion of the nuclear deal. Any such Arab-Iranian rapprochement makes it harder for Israel to present itself as an invaluable partner in opposing the Iranian menace on behalf of everyone else in the region.
Not only will Iran be a formidable competitor for influence in terms of size and weight; it also is one that will continue to be not at all shy about criticizing Israeli policy. It will be less restrained in that respect, as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved, than the Gulf Arabs are, with their unspoken limits on castigating Israel that accompany the Gulf Arabs’ close security relations with the United States.
A second implication of an agreement is that Iran as a threat that is a focus of, and one of the rationales for, a very close U.S.-Israeli security partnership will fade somewhat. It is not, of course, the only focus and rationale for that relationship, but it is one that is especially congenial to the way the Israelis like to describe the lines of conflict in the Middle East: it’s Iran against everybody else.
Third, the completion of a complicated and important agreement between Tehran and Washington and its Western partners, and the opening that this will provide to Washington and Tehran doing worthwhile business on other matters, as Reza suggested, where their interests happen to overlap, at least partially, challenges the Israeli mantra that Israel is the only reliable and worthwhile partner that the United States has in the Middle East. Now, Israeli fears about just how much of a challenge this will be I think are perhaps somewhat exaggerated. Iran is not about to become a U.S. ally, and there’s not even the prospect, in my judgment, of full diplomatic relations being restored between Washington and Tehran any time soon. But the claim to being the “only” this or the “only” that is an important rationale for Israel in trying to justify the extraordinary relationship with the United States that it has enjoyed.
Another of those “only” claims, of course, has been that Israel is the only democracy in the region. Netanyahu’s government may realize that this claim, too, is wearing somewhat thin, with the prime minister having made explicit his determination to hold on to the occupied territories and his biggest financial backer, Sheldon Adelson, saying, “Israel won’t be a democratic state—who cares?” Iran, despite all of its considerable democratic deficiencies, such as the vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council and the idiosyncratic role of the Supreme Leader, at least does not have a large subject population with no political rights at all, as is the case of course with the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Bearing that in mind, I think it’s fair to say that taking the greater Middle East as our framework, that the overall level of democracy in Israel and Iran these days can be considered about the same, although at the moment both are probably behind Tunisia.
A fourth implication, in many ways the most important one in the eyes of the Israeli government, is that any easing of tension with Iran erodes the role of Iran as an all-purpose bête noire that serves to distract international attention from whatever Israeli leaders would rather not talk about, and from anything that the international community would rightly see as a problem largely of Israel’s own making. The main subject to be distracted from, of course, is the continued Israeli hold on occupied territory and the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue. A response that the Netanyahu government has repeatedly and immediately made whenever this subject is raised is to say that the “real” problem in the region is Iran and especially its nuclear program, and that’s what everybody ought to be talking about instead. A successful agreement restricting that program and leading to generally better international relations with Iran will make it harder for the Israeli government to keep using that distracting device.
The Israeli government is motivated by a desire to avoid all of these consequences of a nuclear agreement with Iran and of the resulting improvement in Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, and especially with the United States. This motivation provides the only plausible interpretation of Israeli behavior and posturing on the Iranian nuclear issue, including the unrelenting effort to sabotage negotiations with Tehran on the subject. The motivation certainly provides a much more plausible explanation of that behavior than the simple fear of an Iranian nuke.
The Israeli government’s objective in this regard is not shared with the United States, and in some respects is directly contrary to U.S. interests. The United States does not have an interest in taking sides in intra-regional contests for influence, in which each contestant is pursuing its own parochial narrow interests, be they sectarian-based or anything else. The United States does have an interest in using diplomacy, freely and flexibly, in any way it sees fit, and with any foreign interlocutor it wants, to pursue its own objectives. It is contrary to U.S. interests to allow any one foreign regime to prevent the United States from doing business with any other foreign regime it may be worthwhile to do business with. And it is certainly not in U.S. interests to give Israel any further rhetorical tools to help it put off indefinitely any resolution of the Palestinian issue.
Binyamin Netanyahu has devoted a lot of rhetorical effort to the idea that the United States shares interests with Israel regarding this Iranian nuclear issue. That effort has included false statements about supposed Iranian ICBMs—there’s no Iranian ICBM—and silly parodies on beer commercials in which he has told us, “This bomb’s for you.” The U.S. and Israel do share an interest in there not being an Iranian nuclear weapon—that’s what this agreement is all about and that’s why the Obama administration is pursing it. But the Netanyahu government’s behavior, in which it is attempting to torpedo an agreement that would help to ensure that there will be no such Iranian weapon, is directly contrary to U.S. interests.
Thanks, and I look forward to the discussion.