An Agreement That Is Good for Israel, Bad for Netanyahu

Paul Pillar

One of the strangest aspects of the frantic crying of alarm over Iran's nuclear program—with the crying having reached its most publicized peak in Benjamin Netanyahu's Republican/Likud campaign rally in the House chamber—is that the chief crier is the government of a country that not only has the most advanced nuclear program in the Middle East but has kept that program completely out of the reach and scrutiny of any international control and inspection regime. It is hard to think of a better example in international politics of the pot calling the kettle black, and in this case the pot is much blacker than the kettle—and was so even before Iran put its program under the unprecedented restrictions and intrusive inspections to which it agreed more than a year ago in negotiations with the United States and the rest of the P5+1. As for any military dimensions (the focus, of course, of all that crying when it comes to Iran), although neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, just about everyone else on the planet who says anything on the subject takes it as a given that it does, and that it has a fairly sizable arsenal of such weapons.

The person outside government who has studied the Israeli nuclear program most extensively is Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born scholar currently based in the United States. Cohen has written two books on the subject, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb. He probably knows more than anyone outside the Israeli government about the Israeli program and the strategic thinking underlying it. It thus is especially interesting to hear what Cohen has to say about the current battle over the Iranian program. In a commentary just published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Cohen writes about how, as I discussed the other day, the actions and lobbying of Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds with his own alarmist rhetoric, and about what this implies concerning Netanyahu's motivations.

Cohen criticizes Netanyahu's drumbeat message that the agreement being negotiated would be very bad for Israel; he notes the “potential advantages” of the agreement, which is from the standpoint of Israel's interests a “reasonable compromise.” He points out that the demand to prevent any Iranian enrichment of uranium will never be realized, and that the demand has no basis in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Cohen goes on to state that the emerging agreement “also contains unique advantages barely discussed in Israel. It clearly distances Iran from a nuclear bomb—from a few weeks as was the case in 2012 to about a year. Most importantly, it establishes a regime of safeguards and transparency for almost a generation.”

Cohen concludes by pointedly describing what Netanyahu's scaremongering efforts are really all about, which have to do with Netanyahu having made such alarmism his political signature music, on which he relies both to maintain political power in Israel and to rationalize his policies to the outside world:

“Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel—the only nuclear power in the Middle East—but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’être has been taken away from him.”

Netanyahu's narrowly-motivated efforts to destroy the diplomacy with Iran are not only directly contrary to U.S. interests; they also are contrary to Israel's interests. Those who really do care about Israel and its security, rather than just ritualistically referring to them while swaying and bobbing up and down to Netanyahu's music, need to realize that. 

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

Iran’s Overrated “Genius” Hasn’t Got Us Cornered

The Buzz

Ali Khamenei is, warns Ray Takeyh, “a first-rate strategic genius.” The Iranian leader, he argues, has bamboozled the West in the nuclear talks and is now on the verge of signing a nuclear deal that will allow him “to forge ahead with a nuclear program while safeguarding [his] regime and its ideological verities.” By attaining an agreement that “is technologically permissive and of limited duration,” the elderly cleric has “entered negotiations with the weakest hand and emerged with the strongest.”

It isn’t mad to interpret Khamenei’s latest moves as those of a clever tactician. Khamenei is a skilled player of Iranian domestic politics. He outmaneuvered his rival Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had helped Khamenei ascend to the supreme leader’s post in what many have interpreted as a bid to limit Khamenei’s power (since Khamenei lacked the religious qualifications and popular appeal needed to master the role). Khamenei has often managed to keep himself above the day-to-day political fray while still enforcing its boundaries and shaping its balances. And he’s slowly accumulated religious authority and financial clout. We’re not dealing with an old fool. But that doesn’t mean that Khamenei is on a path to victory in the nuclear talks.

First, while Khamenei has often been willing to move slowly, Takeyh’s reading of Khamenei’s intentions and goals suggests that the supreme leader is patient to Petrosian-like extremes. Under the nuclear deal rumored to be taking shape, Iran’s program would be under serious restrictions for ten years, and these restrictions would be lifted over the following five years. The deal, in other words, would sunset in 2030, having entered twilight in 2025. And Iran would likely need some measure of time—months, years—after the sunset to develop a useable bomb even if it chooses to do so immediately. The Iranian nuclear program will have existed without attaining its putative goal for more than four decades. In this time, Iran would have continued to live without the deterrence provided by a nuclear weapon.

Even if Khamenei is confident that President Obama won’t go to war with him, that confidence only gets him to early 2017. If Khamenei wants the bomb to scare off his enemies, does he believe that the next decade and a half will not be dangerous? If, on the other hand, Iran is aiming for an offensive nuclear weapon, why is Khamenei giving his targets so much time to prepare and to build up nuclear arsenals that would overshadow his even more vastly than they already do?

Second, Takeyh’s assertion that there will be “no legal limits” on Iran’s nuclear program and that “Western powers will have no recourse” after the expiration of a deal is simply not true. Iran would remain under the verification provisions of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, including those which assure the peaceful nature of a nation’s nuclear program. Iran would face the same risks—sanctions, isolation, military action—that it does today if it maneuvered toward nuclear breakout. And if the nonproliferation regime fails to put a nuclearizing Iran back at the top of the international agenda, but the United States and Israel develop concerns of their own, well, history does not suggest that either state will bow to international law or the whims of the international community when it perceives its national interests to be at stake.

Third, we must consider whether any viable policy path could allay Takeyh’s concerns. If Takeyh’s reading of the situation is correct, but there is nothing we can do to obtain a better outcome, Takeyh’s essay is a mere historical analysis. A viable alternative doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The Iranians, after all, have yet to show interest in an agreement with no sunset, even as the negotiations have been extended twice, so we can’t expect that they’d change under the current negotiating framework.

On the other hand, allowing these talks to break down while tightening sanctions would be an enormous gamble. We’d have (again) humiliated the factions in Iran’s government that have sought negotiations with us, empowering their critics and strengthening the narrative that the United States simply cannot be trusted. The Iranians would likely resume their riskiest enrichment activities and claw back the other concessions they made at the beginning of the current round of talks. More centrifuges would be built, letting them enter the next round of talks with a fait accompli even bigger than the one we face now. Those moves toward a nuclear breakout that Takeyh suggests may come when a deal sunsets in 2025 or 2030 could instead come much sooner. War would be more likely—and war is merely an expensive way to kick the can a few years down the road. The talks remain the best attainable approach even if Ali Khamenei really has outfoxed us.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.


TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

Putin's Gambit

The Buzz

With the ceasefire in Ukraine showing early signs of holding, international attention will now intensify towards finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis facing the country. For Kiev and its Western backers, prospects are bleak for bringing about their desired settlement. But it will also not be easy for Vladimir Putin to convert his considerable short-term bargaining power into lasting strategic gains.

On the face of it, Russia’s position in Ukraine is strong. Even though the Russian economy has taken a battering as a result of Western-imposed sanctions, Moscow still enjoys a commanding position on the ground. Only with Russia’s blessing can the conflict be brought to a permanent halt, which would seem to grant Moscow a sizable degree of leverage for extracting concessions from its Western adversaries.

There has been much speculation about what Russia’s long-term strategic goals might relate to: its fear of NATO expansion, its desire to recreate a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space and its deep-seated craving for prestige on the world stage. But the overlooked point is that if Vladimir Putin wants to convert his position in Ukraine into a lasting victory along any of these dimensions, then he needs to play his diplomatic cards very carefully indeed. And even if he does so, the odds are heavily stacked against him.

Putin’s ability to win meaningful concessions from the West—a renunciation of the Western interest in Ukraine’s future or broader recognition of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, for example—will depend upon his ability to engineer a fissure among the powers ranged against him. Putin will not succeed in ambitious reforms to the European security architecture if the other great powers stand firm. Instead, his gains will be limited to influence over eastern Ukraine at most. But if Putin is able to broaden the appeal of Russian foreign policy, he will emerge from the crisis with a permanently stronger hand in global affairs. Simply put: Putin needs allies.

History suggests that the most effective revisionist powers are those able to split potential opposition to their policies. Nazi Germany was able to remilitarize and expand its influence across Mitteleuropa partly because Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union were either slow to see Hitler’s regime as a menace or else were convinced that others would deal with the threat. Imperial Japan’s rise to power during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was facilitated by a military alliance with Britain, which served to deter others who stood to lose from Japan’s rise from doing anything to stop it. And during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was at its most threatening to the United States when Moscow looked close to splitting the Western alliance—through lobbying West Germany to make a separate peace with the Warsaw Pact, for example, or by encouraging leftist governments to “go neutral” (or “Finlandize”).

The challenge for revisionist states, then, is to ensure that their actions do not provoke unified opposition. Judged against this yardstick, Russian diplomacy is looking less than stellar. From rekindling relations with North Korea to buzzing coastal Britain with nuclear bombers, Putin appears to place more stock in flexing Russia’s muscles than in showing diplomatic restraint. Such bullish grandstanding might play well in some domestic circles, but it does no favors to foreign leaders like Angela Merkel, who might otherwise be disposed to serve as a bridge between Moscow and other Western capitals and could feasibly mediate a grand bargain that would cement some lasting strategic gains for Russia.

If Russia continues to represent itself as a military threat to its neighbors, it will find itself isolated and unable to reshape international politics in the truly fundamental ways that its leadership would like to. This is good news for those who would like to see Russian influence stop at Russia’s borders. But complacency must not be allowed to take hold. The danger for Western capitals is Putin finding a way to break the diplomatic cordon sanitaire—if the United States loses enthusiasm for protecting the peace of Europe; if dovish European states pursue appeasement over deterrence; or if the great powers of tomorrow, China and India especially, turn out to be silent partners (or worse) in Putin’s challenge to the liberal order.

Indeed, weak in their condemnations over the annexation of Crimea and continuing to make noises in favor of concessions to Putin, there seems to be at least some appetite in Beijing and New Delhi for seeing Russia succeed in chipping away at Western stewardship of world affairs. As the localized conflict in eastern Ukraine begins to stabilize, then, the global effort to keep Russia contained and isolated must be redoubled.

Image: Flickr/theglobalpanorama/CC by-sa 2.0

TopicsDiplomacyPolitics RegionsEurope

Russia Is Building New Aircraft Carrier, Navy Chief Confirms

The Buzz

Russia is building a new aircraft carrier its navy chief confirmed on Monday, according to reports in state-owned media outlets.

On Monday Itar-Tass News Agency reported that Viktor Chirkov, Russia’s top naval commander, announced Russia is building a new aircraft carrier.

"The Navy will have an aircraft carrier. The research companies are working on it, and strictly in compliance with the requirements from the Chief Commander," the reported quoted Chirkov as saying. Itar-Tass did not report any additional details except that Chirkov made the remarks while speaking to workers at the Kolomensky Zavod plant. The plant makes diesel electric engines for navy vessels. which makes diesel electric engines.

Russia currently has one operational aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1985. However, last month Russian media outlets began reporting that the government-owned Krylov State Research Center was in the rudimentary stages of developing a new carrier-class for the Russian navy.

The reports said that the carrier was still in the conceptual phase of planning. However, when completed the new Russian aircraft carrier would reportedly be able to hold roughly 100 aircraft on board. That would make it 10 percent larger than America’s current Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which can store roughly 90 aircraft carrier.

In addition, the reports last month claimed that the new carriers would utilize catapult take-off launch systems. All Soviet-era carriers used ski-ramps to launch aircraft from their flight decks. However, a scaled mockup of the new carrier shown on Russian television had the old ski-ramp style launch systems.

The reports last month were greeted with some skepticism abroad. Writing in Reuters, for instance, War is Boring’s David Axe said the new carrier “is likely to remain a paper concept. A quarter-century after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia lacks the money, expertise and industrial capacity to build aircraft carriers.” He later added: “But the Kremlin has failed to maintain its expensive shipyard facilities and perishable worker skills. So it can’t actually complete the new vessel any time soon.”

In recent years, Russia has launched a massive program to modernize its military equipment. The program was announced by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in a speech in early 2010. At the time, he said the goal was to revamp “arms and equipment at a rate of 9 to 11 percent per year for the next decade, in order to reach a target of modernizing 70 percent of military equipment by 2020.” That same year Russian officials said the rearmament program would cost around $600 billion.

While many foreign analysts dismissed the announcements as mere bluster at the time, since then Russia has been debuting new weapon systems at an impressive rate. As Nikolas Gvosdev wrote in The National Interest last year, “Russia is now engaged in its largest military buildup since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.” He went on to observe, “The rest of the world is taking notice.”

Image: Wikimedia/Gaz Armes


The Real Subject of Netanyahu's Congressional Spectacle (It Isn't Nukes)

Paul Pillar

Benjamin Netanyahu will talk next week, as he has innumerable times before, about how an Iranian nuclear weapon is supposedly an extremely grave and imminent (he has been saying for years that it is just around the corner) threat to world peace and to his nation. There has been genuine concern in Israel about this subject, but Netanyahu's own behavior and posture indicate this is not the concern that is driving his conduct and in particular his diplomacy-wrecking efforts. He is acting out of other motives, ones that—quite unlike the objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon—are not shared with the United States and instead directly conflict with U.S. interests.

There have been plenty of reasons to doubt all along Netanyahu's alarmist rhetoric. There has been his history of wolf-crying on the subject, against the background of an Iran that has not even decided to build a nuclear weapon. There is the further background of Israel's overwhelming military superiority in the region, at not only the conventional level but also at the level about which Netanyahu is raising such alarm. And there are the repeated indications that his alarmism goes beyond what even his own security services believe.

But even those reasons are not the main ones to conclude that Netanyahu is not acting on behalf of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. The main, and most obvious, reason is that he is pushing for an outcome that would remove restrictions and enhanced monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program and would give the Iranians more freedom to expand that program than they otherwise would have. That would be the result of destroying the negotiation process that Netanyahu is trying to destroy, while destroying along with it the preliminary agreement that has kept the Iranian program more heavily restricted and monitored than it had ever been before. An absence of agreement is the only plausible alternative to whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations, and Netanyahu is smart enough to realize that.

The made-for-TV (and for Israeli campaign ads) platform in the House of Representatives chamber does not give members of Congress an opportunity to ask questions of Netanyahu. All that members can do is to bob up and down out of their seats in a gluteus-abusing way of supposedly expressing their “support for Israel.” But if they could ask questions, the glaring question begging to be asked is, “Mr. Prime Minister, if you really are so concerned about the possibility of the Iranian nuclear program leading to a nuclear weapon, why are you urging us to take actions that would result in that program having fewer restrictions, and less international monitoring, than it otherwise would?”

The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu's defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government's objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.

From Netanyahu's viewpoint this objective serves several purposes. It diminishes the freedom of action of a major competitor (the second most populous country in the Middle East) for regional influence, and one that will continue to be highly critical of Israel as long as the Palestinian issue endures. By postulating a permanent, ominous threat emanating from Iran, one of the assumptions underlying a U.S. strategic relationship with Israel is retained. By opposing—and to the extent Israeli efforts are successful, preventing—the United States from doing any worthwhile business with Iran, whether on nuclear matters or on anything else, the Israeli claim to being the only reliable and effective U.S. partner in the region sounds more convincing.

The specter of Iran and especially of its nuclear program also serves as the best possible distraction and diversion from issues in which Israel is the chief problem and that Netanyahu and his government would rather not talk about. This especially includes, of course, the continued Israeli occupation of, and policies in, Palestinian territory. Netanyahu repeatedly and quickly responds to efforts by others to engage on these other issues, and especially to any direct criticism of Israeli policies, by reminding us that Iran is the “real” threat to peace and security in the region. Permanent festering of the Iranian nuclear issue serves Netanyahu's objectives better than any resolution of the issue would.

The United States does not share an interest in any of these objectives, and some of them are clearly contrary to U.S. interests. The United States does not have an interest in blanket favoring of any one competitor for regional influence over others; it instead has interests in many individual issues, on some of which its interests might align with those of particular regional players and on others of which it may share interests with other players. It is contrary to U.S. interests to give the right-wing Israeli government any means to perpetuate the occupation and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, given the multiple ways, including having the United States share blame for the occupation in the eyes of most Middle Easterners, that the occupation redounds to the disadvantage of the United States.

Probably the most direct conflict with U.S. interests comes from Netanyahu in effect telling the United States that it cannot do business with certain other countries, and that it cannot fully use its diplomatic tools to pursue U.S. interests as it sees fit. It is in the U.S. interest to use diplomacy with Iran, most obviously and immediately to restrict the Iranian nuclear program but also potentially on many other issues of importance to the United States. Netanyahu is trying to keep one of the United States' hands tied behind its back. He is trying to restrict the freedom of action not just of Iran but of the United States.  That is bad for U.S. interests no matter what party is in power in Washington, no matter who is the U.S. president, no matter what other countries U.S. diplomacy may touch, and no matter what specific policies the U.S. administration of the day may want to achieve and ought to have both hands free to try to achieve.

Amid all the understandable controversy about the highly inappropriate way in which Netanyahu's Congressional appearance has come about, there have been appeals to focus on the substance at hand. Good advice—as long as we recognize the actual substance and the actual game being played. We should not be diverted by the scaremongering rhetoric from the man at the podium, who is acting so inconsistently with the implications of his own rhetoric, any more than we should dwell forever on the underhanded political games that got him there. In between the bounces on their seats, members of Congress should think hard about whether it is Likud's interests or U.S. interests that they have at heart, and how efforts associated with the former are undermining the latter.                                               

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East