For Israel, the Problem with Iran Diplomacy Is the Prospect of Nuclear Compromise

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Gali Tibbongali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the official ceremony for Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day on April 18, 2012 at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amplified his skepticism of President Obama’s Iran strategy on Wednesday, when he used a Holocaust remembrance speech to warn that Iran was building nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel. “The Iranian regime is acting openly and decisively toward our destruction, and it is acting feverishly to develop a nuclear weapon to achieve this goal,” Netanyahu said, two days after accusing the Administration and its partners of giving Iran a “freebie” in last weekend’s nuclear talks in Istanbul. The combination of those statements creates an impression that the Israelis see the current diplomacy with Iran as prevarication in the face of a mortal threat to Israel — a message calculated to raise the domestic political heat on President Obama.

Of course, the U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessment is that Iran is not in fact currently embarked on a feverish dash to build nuclear weapons; it has not yet taken the strategic decision to build such weapons even as it steadily accumulates the capability to do so. And even Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, has suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran would be unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, given Israel’s own capability to “lay waste” to Iran. Administration officials believe that because Iran has not yet opted to build nuclear weapons and the pressure of steadily escalating sanctions has made Tehran more amenable to compromise, it remains possible to seek a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear work — and that if it could be achieved, such a solution represents the best and most durable solution. Still, it should come as no surprise that Israel’s leaders are agitated and openly skeptical over the U.S. entering a new process of diplomatic engagement on Iran’s nuclear program. They know that even the best-case diplomatic outcome would fall short of Israel’s demands but might do enough to de-escalate the conflict and push the issue off the international community’s crisis agenda.

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The principles guiding the ongoing talks between negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 group, as laid out by chief Western negotiator and EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton on Saturday, are compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a sustained process of step-by-step concrete actions undertaken on a basis of reciprocity. That framework alone is cause for disquiet in Israel, which is not a signatory to the NPT and which insists that Iran cannot be allowed to maintain any uranium-enrichment capability. Although the NPT obliges Iran to account for all its nuclear work to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — which Iran has yet to do — it also guarantees Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. A diplomatic solution based on the NPT, therefore, would be one that strengthens the safeguards against Iran using its nuclear capability to build weapons but would not dismantle and remove Iran’s enrichment capability as Israel — as well as France and more hawkish elements in Washington — has demanded. The Obama Administration’s position on the issue has been ambiguous, having initially inherited the Bush Administration’s zero-enrichment stance but more recently spoken of Iran’s having the right to a peaceful nuclear program in line with the NPT.

The examples of Japan, Brazil and Argentina, all of which could relatively quickly build nuclear weapons should they choose to, highlights the fact that the NPT allows signatories to develop nuclear “latency” or “breakout capacity” while remaining compliant. Iran has arguably already acquired that capability — its officials claim as much, even as they insist that the Islamic Republic would not actually build them. (Nuclear latency carries many of the deterrent advantages of actually having a weapon but without the same costs: President Obama, for example, has vowed to take military action if that became necessary to stop Iran from building a bomb but sees no need to do so on the basis of the present status quo.)

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The initial focus of the current diplomatic process is not on forcing immediate Iranian compliance with U.N. Security Council demands that it suspend all uranium enrichment. Instead, its initial goal is to achieve concrete and substantial “confidence building” measures, focusing on Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20% purity. That dimension of Tehran’s program, ostensibly undertaken to meet the needs of a medical-research reactor, creates nuclear material far closer to weapons grade than the 3.5% low-enriched uranium Iran has been producing as reactor fuel. A sufficient stockpile of 20% fuel would considerably shorten the reprocessing time required to create weapons-grade material, which is why the priority of the Western powers is on halting that level of enrichment, persuading Iran to ship out its existing stockpile of 20% material for conversion into fuel plates and convincing the country to shutter the hardened Fordow facility, buried deep in a mountainside near Qom, beyond the reach of Israeli airpower.

Haaretz on Wednesday quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official as telling Israelis that “even if Iran carries out trust-building steps and suspends uranium enrichment to 20%, it will not receive anything in return,” and there would be no easing of sanctions. That may be wishful thinking or spin, given Ashton’s emphasis on reciprocity. The Iranians have indicated that they may be willing to halt enrichment to 20%, claiming their medical needs have been fulfilled, but are demanding relief from sanctions as the price of their cooperation: “If the West wants to build trust, it should begin with sanctions, because it can help speed up the talks reaching a solution,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Tuesday. But Western powers expect Iran to make the first move. “I believe in action for action,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. “But I think in this case, the burden of action falls on the Iranians to demonstrate their seriousness. And we’re going to keep the sanctions in place and the pressure on Iran as they consider what they’ll bring to the table in Baghdad, and we’ll respond accordingly.” Realistically, the Iranians will take that concrete step only if they know what reciprocal response such a move would bring from the West.

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Defining and sequencing the reciprocal steps will likely be the focus of the ongoing preparatory talks ahead of the Baghdad meeting on May 23, and perhaps beyond that, even. Even agreeing the parameters of the initial concrete steps by both sides is likely to be a difficult and protracted process, made all the more perilous by a U.S. election season that considerably raises the domestic political obstacles to President Obama engaging in confidence-building with Tehran. Diplomacy is inevitably an exercise in dividing the proverbial loaf, and no party to such a process is likely to get all of what it seeks. It is unlikely to produce a definitive conclusion this year.

Iran may well have expanded its 20% enrichment precisely in order to create leverage that can be traded away to secure its core objectives of easing international pressure and gaining Western acceptance of its right to low-level enrichment of uranium. If so, it will expect an incremental easing of sanctions in exchange for its own steps, in line with the principle of reciprocity. A confidence-building deal that ended 20% enrichment in Iran would not resolve the nuclear standoff, but it would stop the “ticking clock” of escalation and allow time and space for a more sustained process of negotiating a diplomatic solution. The danger perceived by Israeli leaders is that while such a deal might reverse some alarming recent steps by Iran (expanding 20% enrichment), it would likely reinforce previous status quo of low-level enrichment that Israel had deemed unacceptable, while taking the Iran issue off the front burner.

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Indeed, the Israelis may fear Iran taking a page out of their own book. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 withdrew from Gaza, one of his top aides, Dov Weissglass, explained the purpose of the move was to ease international pressure to do a deal with the Palestinians, freezing the peace process and winning U.S. consent for Israel’s consolidating its grip on the West Bank. By the same logic, Iran may agree to end 20% enrichment in order to consolidate Western acceptance of their right to the lower level of enrichment in line with NPT guidelines, while easing sanctions pressure and taking the issue off the agenda of urgent global-security priorities. And it is the prospect of an outcome that presents Israel with what it would deem a half-loaf solution on Iran’s nuclear efforts that will likely continue to generate political static over the diplomatic process in the months ahead.

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