Iranian nuclear talks: Not what Israel wants you to believe

How are the Iranian nuclear talks really going? The answer is: very well, thanks for asking.

By Shemuel Meir

Contrary to what some in Israel would have you believe, the Iranian nuclear talks are not stalled and are proceeding full steam ahead. Between official meetings in Vienna, the technical talks are continuing – and those talks are building the framework for a permanent agreement, which will lead to a non-militarized nuclear Iran. High-level banter in Israel about “deceptive discussions” has no basis in reality. The sides may not yet have reached the stage of mutual trust (which is anyway not necessary; it is preferable to concentrate on verification and intrusive inspections) but there is mutual respect. At the conclusion of the latest rounds of talks, the Iranian and American spokespersons said that these talks had progressed well. The nuclear talks are apparently not an exact replica of the talks-to-nowhere taking place with the Palestinians.

The Iranian nuclear talks are proceeding according to an interim roadmap (Joint Plan of Action) which determined clear parameters along the way to a permanent agreement. At the end of the process, Iran will have the status of a non-nuclear weapon state with the capability to enrich low-level uranium (up to 5 percent, which is not suitable for nuclear weapons) under tight and intrusive IAEA supervision. (Already, in accordance with the interim agreement, daily monitoring is carried out at the centrifuge sites.) At the final phase of the permanent agreement, Iran will be required to ratify the IAEA “Additional Protocol,” allowing intrusive, short-notice inspections of undeclared sites (i.e., on the basis of U.S. intelligence).

Israel’s insistence on “zero uranium enrichment” is not realistic and is not on the agenda of the negotiations. According to the interim agreement, after a “probation period,” Iran will be treated in the same way as all states that have signed the NPT — as non-nuclear weapon state. The duration of the “probation” period will be a tough nut to crack and will require creative diplomacy. Another difficult issue will be the heavy water reactor at Arak, whose construction has been frozen. The U.S. would like to see the closure of the heavy water option and its transformation into a light water electricity reactor, which would not pose a military threat. Iran has taken a positive step toward the U.S. and has hinted at its readiness to carry out “modifications” (Iranian terminology) at the Arak reactor. This is a positive sign, but the exact meaning of “modifications” still needs to be determined. In addition, Iran has committed itself to not build a plutonium separation facility, which would be the only way to separate and produce military quality plutonium from the reactor’s used radiated fuel rods.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his fellow P5+1 foreign ministers, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center, listen as European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton speaks at United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013. [State Dept.]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his fellow P5+1 foreign ministers, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center, listen as European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton speaks at United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran’s nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013. [State Dept.]

However, this is not the picture one gets from high-level Israel officials discussing the nuclear talks. Old new voices have been added to the daily portion of scary declarations about “existential threats”, “foot dragging,” general expressions of “there is nothing new under the sun” and assurances that Iran is continuing its dash to the bomb. Parallel to the announcement of the opening of the latest round of talks in Vienna, the Haaretz main headline reported that Defense Minister Yaalon hinted that Israel must be ready to take “unilateral military action” in the face of the Iranian threat – without asking permission from the U.S., which “cannot be relied upon.” A few days later, on March 20, another headline informed us that the prime minister and defense minister instructed the military to ignore the nuclear talks and to continue preparing for an “independent attack” on Iran. For this purpose, it was reported, NIS 10-12 billion ($2.86-$3.43 billion) has been allocated. A similar sum was invested in 2013.

But talk of an independent attack is not feasible – either militarily or politically. One cannot compare a single-strike surprise aerial attack on an isolated and unprotected target, such as the attack on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981, with a wave of aerial strikes over a number of days to destroy protected military targets (more than just nuclear facilities) thousands of kilometers from Israel’s borders. This would require the capability of a superpower. From a political point of view, it is not reasonable that the U.S. – the gatekeeper of the NPT which is in the middle of intense diplomatic negotiations to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons – would assist a country outside the NPT (Israel) to attack an NPT member (Iran). Furthermore, a military strike would be liable to bring the opposite of the intended result: Iran would withdraw from the NPT and begin developing nuclear weapons.

Even if the defense minister was not serious, making repeated threats of an “independent attack” is playing with fire: the other side could take such threats seriously. Strategy is not one-sided. The other side may interpret things differently and translate “defensive” actions as “offensive” ones. Israel is not a spoiled child that can set its own rules in the global arena. Furthermore, deterrence is an elusive instrument; threats that are repeated too often result in an erosion of deterrence. More (verbal threats) is sometime less (deterrence) – and credibility is lost. It is a case of “the lady doth protest too much.”

IAF fighter jet during an exercise [illustrative ] (photo: IDF Spokesperson / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
IAF fighter jet during an exercise [illustrative ] (photo: IDF Spokesperson / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There is another great danger. Taken together, the defense minister’s instructions to increase readiness for an “attack scenario” at a cost of billions of shekels and the instinctive tendency of a “preventive strike” and the transfer of warfare to the enemy’s territory (one of the old Ben-Gurionist defense doctrine’s foundations that is no longer relevant), is liable to push us into an unwanted and unnecessary war with Iran based on insufficient estimates – a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

A public discussion based on facts could prevent us from falling down such a slippery slope. The facts of the Iranian situation point to a strategic reality that is different from that presented by proponents of the strike scenario. In an earlier article in +972 Magazine, I analyzed the interim nuclear agreement that lays down clear parameters for a non-nuclear weapon Iran. I showed how the agreement does not necessarily lead to a “nuclear threshold” state and that the North Korean model is not applicable to Iran. Statements in Israel claiming the agreement allows for “a first bomb within weeks” are the result of theoretical assumptions and probability calculations — not on facts on the ground.

Recently, senior Israeli officials have raised an old new claim to show how “faulty and dangerous” the agreement being wrought with Iran is. The alarmists claim that the result of an agreement with Iran will spell the demise of the NPT and the emergence of new nuclear states in the Middle East. They posit a type of “nuclear reflex” which will almost immediately result in Sunni Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey leaving the NPT and taking the nuclear weapons route against Shiite Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon survey a military exercise. (Photo by GPO/Kobi Gideon)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon survey a military exercise. (Photo by GPO/Kobi Gideon)

This almost apocalyptic prediction of the military nuclearization of the Middle East does not hold water. It is not reasonable that Turkey, which is a NATO member and whose territory hosts American nuclear weapons, would start to develop nuclear weapons independently. It is not reasonable that Egypt, which is militarily and economically dependent on the U.S., would leave the NPT and start to develop its own nuclear weapons. Moreover, Egyptian diplomacy is based on its non-nuclear status, which gives it an important role in the global arena. Egypt was the state that promoted the adoption of the 2010 decision to convene in Helsinki a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East and the adherence of the countries in the region to the NPT. This decision was supported by the U.S. Regarding the claim that the Saudis could get a nuclear weapon, off the shelf from Pakistan — it looks like another Iran-related spin, or at best, a recycling of old reports that were never proven (and some of which originated in Israel). The U.S.’s military presence in Saudi Arabia is an effective obstacle to such a possibility.

In effect, the danger and fear of nuclear proliferation had an opposite and positive effect. The NPT established a world order. Upholding and strengthening the treaty is of the highest priority in Washington’s national security doctrine. American fears of the disbanding of the NPT, which is responsible for the world nuclear order, explains President Obama’s assertive policy in enforcing the NPT in Iran and preventing nuclear weapons in its territory. This was well understood by Iran. It seems Iran has understood that the international legitimacy it would gain through the agreement (that would ratify its membership in the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state) is the best guarantee to protecting the Islamic regime from the “attack scenario” and “regime change” doctrine of the American neo-conservatives. This is why in all its declarations, Iran sticks to the NPT. In strategic terms, this is a rational, and not at all a messianic approach.

Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz.

Ignoring the most promising option on Iran
An important year for Iran nuclear talks: What Israel got wrong