Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What The Iran Deal (Really) Means For Israel

This morning, the EU/EU+3 and the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to a Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran's nuclear program. The 159-page agreement sets limits on Iran's enrichment capacity in return for a staged lifting of international and US sanctions.

Israel's leadership across the political spectrum has expressed concern about the deal. Prime Minister Netanyahu called it an "historic mistake,"centrist MK Yair Lapid called it a "bad deal," and Head of the Opposition Isaac Herzog expressed concern over the agreement as well. 

Without judging whether the deal is good or bad, it will likely generate three outcomes of interest to Israel.

Most importantly, Iran will have a real but reduced capacity to threaten Israel. While Israel would likely be unsatisfied with any agreement with Iran, many of its security concerns are legitimate. Sanctions relief on unsavory entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may increase the money available to sew instability in the Middle East and to target citizens of Western countries including Israel. Additionally, no agreement can fully prevent covert enrichment of fissile nuclear material. Given Israel's proximity to Iran, and Iran's constant threats to destroy the country, Israel has a lower capacity to tolerate Iranian violation of the deal than the EU/EU+3. 

On the other hand, an extended time for breakout capacity and the 3.97% limit on enrichment gives Israel and the West significantly more time to act against Iran should it decide to go nuclear. While no agreement can guard against all covert enrichment, the agreement does increase significantly the amount of monitoring that the international community can conduct in Iran. Furthermore, under the JCPOA, companies that sell equipment to Iran will also be able to verify that Iran is using it for a stated purpose. The agreement is not perfect from an Israeli perspective, but it does reduce some of the risk Israel faces at the current time.

Second, the Obama Administration will be slightly more hesitant to threaten the use of force against Iran. The effects of this hesitancy, however, will be largely diplomatic. While the administration may tone down its rhetoric to incentivize compliance with the JCPOA, it will maintain a heavy military presence in the Arab Gulf. The US presence in the Gulf acts as a check on Iran's violation of the agreement, and as a sign of support for its jittery Gulf allies. Israel will be doing more saber rattling at Iran over the next decade than the United States, and may seek reassurances that if Iran were to decide to pursue breakout capacity, the US would not take military action off the table.

Finally, the deal incentivizes further Israel-Gulf cooperation. While Israel has begun to broach the subject publicly, it will likely have greater domestic and American support to strengthen its Gulf alignments. The alignment may open opportunities for defense collaboration, and may set the ground for economic cooperation in the longer term. However, it will also put Israel under pressure to capitulate to demands from Gulf States including a) acquiring defense technology that could threaten Israel and b) accepting the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative. Making gradual shifts on both these issues will create opportunities for Israel to maximize the security benefits of an Arab Gulf alliance against Iran. 

While Israel's concerns are reasonable, its best strategy is not to make pre-fabricated statements that alienate its security guarantors. Rather, Israel should be vigilant and urge vigilance from the United States and other parties to the JCPOA. While any international agreement runs a chance of failure, the agreement could also, in the long-term, significantly improve Israel's security by sustaining its role as a regional hegemon. While Israel should be cautious, it also should not reject the potential for these benefits out of hand. 


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