Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential elections (June 15, 2013) raised expectations of a possible shift in Iran’s policy. Even though Rouhani was part of the conservative establishment for many years, he was perceived as a reformist and won broad popular support thanks to the change he promised, including repairing relations with the United States and the West in order to lift the burdensome sanctions (since they were imposed in 2012, the Iranian currency has plummeted by 60%, and its oil exports by the same amount). In a series of well-planned steps, Rouhani signaled to the West his desire for a thaw and his readiness to reach a deal on the nuclear issue. The Iranian “charm offensive” found clear expression in Rouhani’s September 2013 appearance before the UN General Assembly. The Iranian president avoided the vicious attacks against Israel the world had become accustomed to hearing from his predecessor, Ahmadinejad. Rouhani called the Holocaust reprehensible, and reiterated his promise that Iran would never strive for a nuclear weapon because Islamic law prohibits faithful Moslems to do so. Before leaving the United States, Rouhani spoke with President Obama by phone, and in so doing broke the communications silence that had existed between successive leaders of the two nations for 34 years.
Prime Minister Netanyahu called Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and warned that Israel would not be deterred from standing alone against the Iranian threat.15 The nuclear talks that were restarted did indeed produce an interim agreement (November 24, 2013) that is valid for six months while negotiations for a permanent settlement continue. Iran agreed that during the interim period it would limit its enrichment of uranium to 5% (which is not sufficient for nuclear weapons), reduce or convert its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium in a way that would make it difficult (though not impossible) to re-enable it for military use, install no new centrifuges, and build no new enrichment sites. It also agreed to allow UN inspectors to conduct daily inspections of its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo, its heavy water plant in Arak, its centrifuge production facilities, and its uranium mines. The agreement does not apply to nuclear research and development or to the Iranian missile capacity. In exchange, Iran has received recognition of its right to retain an enrichment capability on its soil within the framework of a permanent agreement, and a partial easing of the sanctions including the release of $4 billion in frozen Iranian assets held in the West, and limited resumption of petrochemical exports, trade in gold and other precious metals, and spare parts imports for aircraft. The agreement came into effect on January 20, 2014 and the six months allocated to reaching a permanent settlement on the nuclear issue began (the possibility of six-month extension exists).
Netanyahu pronounced the agreement a “historic mistake.”16 Critics of the agreement claimed that it did not slow Iran’s progress toward possessing a nuclear weapon, as all of the steps Iran is taking under the agreement are reversible, and because the agreement allows it to continue to progress toward its nuclear goal on all necessary development tracks: the production of fissile material, the development of new generations of centrifuges, the development of the weapons themselves, and the preparation of their delivery missiles. According to the critics, the agreement does not impose any restriction on the continuation of Teheran’s regional subversion (see Syria) or its involvement in terrorism, and in essence grants it legitimacy for continuing nuclear enrichment within Iran in contravention of UN resolutions and previous demands that it stop doing so, while also leaving its existing nuclear capabilities in place: approximately 19,000 centrifuges, some of them of high quality (in 2003, Iran had fewer than 200), sufficient enriched uranium for 5-6 atomic bombs, a heavy-water plant under construction that is inefficient for electricity generation but has the potential to produce weapons grade plutonium, enrichment sites, and long-range missiles. It is further claimed that the easing of sanctions removes the pressure that had been effectively applied and sends a message to the Western business world to begin a race to win lucrative business from Iran (and, in fact, European and Russian delegations are already streaming to Teheran, although the lack of an agreement on the nuclear issue is delaying the signing of numerous deals).
Permanent settlement negotiations, which began on February 18, 2014, are supposed to achieve “a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure that Iran’s nuclear program be entirely peaceful.”17 The United States is striving for a settlement that will limit Iran’s nuclear capacity to civilian purposes, and that will cause its nuclear weapons breakout capability to require more time. The talks are focusing on the following topics:
- Limiting uranium enrichment to 5%.
- Removal of most of the stocks of fissile material from Iranian soil.
- The dismantling of thousands of centrifuges.
- Limiting the quality of the centrifuges to their current level.
- Closing enrichment sites (especially the one constructed deep under the mountain at Fordo).
- Closing the heavy-water facility at Arak in order to close off the plutogenic route, or at least to convert it to a light-water reactor consistent with a civilian nuclear program or to a production level lower than originally planned (once completed, the facility at Arak will have a production capacity of approximately nine kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for one nuclear bomb).
- Tightening the inspection arrangements, including access to the facilities suspected of being nuclear weapon construction sites (for example, the military base at Parchin).
- Obtaining an Iranian answer to evidence the West possesses that points to previous nuclear-weapons tests.
- Restricting Iran’s ballistic missile program.
- Removal of the sanctions and the release of the $100 billion currently frozen in Western banks.
Most commentators believe that, in complete negation of Israel’s position, the United States and the West will reach a settlement that will leave Iran with a nuclear capacity, including allowing uranium enrichment on its soil. While the United States seeks to ensure that Iran will not have a rapid nuclear-weapons breakout capability, the Iranians will seek to achieve a status identical to that of other NPT members without nuclear weapons (such as Argentina and Brazil, which enrich uranium and are subject to relatively loose inspections). The interim agreement does indeed state, “The Iranian program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”18 In this spirit, Iranian leaders declare that they have not agreed, and will not agree, to dismantle any centrifuges, nor will it agree to close the facility at Arak.
The first negotiation period ended on July 20, 2014 without a permanent agreement, but the parties did agree to a four-month extension of the talks. Israel will likely find itself faced with a reality in which the interim agreement with Iran is extended again and again (or, alternatively, may find itself with a permanent agreement that does not satisfy its demands). Some commentators believe that the two sides have incentives to reach an agreement, that the talks are being conducted in a serious manner, and that there is already a draft agreement (albeit with gaps between the positions, of course). The main effort is focused on a formula that is intended, from the United States’ point of view, to extend the timeline necessary for Iran to break out and produce an atomic bomb. The reality of the interim agreement and continuing diplomatic talks or of an unsatisfactory agreement could leave Jerusalem with a dilemma – over whether to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Opinions are divided among the various experts. Some claim that Israel cannot, under any circumstances, permit a situation in which Iran can be allowed to establish itself as a nuclear threshold state with the capability to make progress and eventually to break out relatively quickly to construct a nuclear weapon, and that it will, therefore, be forced to take militarily action against the threat. Others claim that such a scenario is implausible because Israel will not attack Iran so long as the United States is negotiating with Teheran, and all the more so if the United States reaches a permanent agreement with Iran. This approach posits that Israel essentially forfeited the military option against Iran by not striking on the eve of the 2012 U.S. elections (a point at which it could have assumed that the United States would have had no alternative but to support such a move).
The negotiations with Iran expose the significant disagreement between the United States and Israel over their goal. Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley describes this bitter reality as follows: “Israelis do not want Iran to be a nuclear threshold state. But Iran is in fact already a threshold state and will likely remain one – that line has been crossed.”19 The so-far unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation in Congress calling for a tightening of sanctions against Iran highlight differences on the Iran issue between Israel (and its supporters in the United States) and the Obama administration (more on this below). Against the backdrop of U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s visit to Israel in early May 2014, Netanyahu expressed dissatisfaction with the status of the talks with Iran: “Iran seeks to destroy the State of Israel and is building a nuclear bomb toward this end… I want to emphasize Israel’s position – we believe Iran must not have the capability to produce a nuclear bomb. Today Iran has thousands of centrifuges, thousands of kilograms of uranium enriched to produce a bomb. A bad agreement will enable them to retain these capabilities. I am concerned that we are liable to be faced with a bad agreement in which Iran retains its capability to develop a nuclear weapon. It is better not to reach an agreement at all than to reach a bad one.”20 At its root, the dispute centers on the question of whether to leave Iran with an independent, monitored capability on its own territory, and if so, precisely which capability in terms of the time needed to break out to the weapons-grade fissile material needed for one bomb and to the weapon itself.
Beyond the nuclear issue, the talks with Iran have raised speculation over a possible broader thaw between Washington and Tehran. Middle Eastern states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia find themselves in one camp, which fears not only that a nuclear deal will leave the Iranian threat in place, but that it will also a signal that the West grants legitimacy to Iran’s ambition for regional hegemony (for example, if it regards Iran as an ally in the effort to vanquish the radical Sunni movements that threaten Western interests in the Middle East). In addition to these harsh scenarios, there are also those who raise the possibility of a more positive picture, which might even represent an opportunity for Israel: an Iran whose relations with the West are improving and which is embarking on the road to economic reconstruction will be forced to reduce its subversion and its support for anti-Israel elements like Hezbollah. Such a scenario, even if its probability is not considered high, points to the possibility that Iran might change its policy toward Israel and recognize it.
During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Iran left the question of recognizing Israel to the Palestinians, even though it expressed opposition to recognizing Israel itself. In 2003, a resolution was even passed at the Islamic Summit held in Teheran that supported the Arab Peace Initiative. Since then, though, the Iranian position has hardened and acceptance of Israel’s existence has been negated entirely. There are now some who see the possibility of change. During Ahmadinejad’s tenure, Iran stood firmly on the side of Hamas and opposed Fatah positions, which accept Israel’s existence and which support a two-state solution. Progress in the nuclear talks may, therefore, simultaneously reveal a greater Iranian willingness to come to terms, even if only de facto, with a process that envisions a two-state solution. This would make it even more difficult for Israel to convince the world of the need to attack Iran militarily, but it would also open a window to new diplomatic possibilities. Thus, an agreement is likely to lead to greater cooperation between Iran and the United States and, apparently, to greater regional stability, but it is also possible that the removal of sanctions will make it easier for Iran to divert more generous resources to deepening its involvement in the region. At the same time, it cannot be ignored that, in practice, Iran is continuing to cultivate forces hostile to Israel – Syria, Hezbollah, and Palestinian terrorist organizations – and providing them with advanced weaponry, and that in the middle of the talks with Iran, Israel intercepted a ship in the Red Sea en route to deliver advanced missiles to Gaza at Iran’s initiative (March 5, 2014).