The Iran Deal: Israel, the U.S. and the Middle East

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on June 28, 2015. AFP PHO
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on June 28, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / ATEF SAFADI (Photo credit should read POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

They are visibly happy in Tehran and they are visibly very unhappy in Jerusalem. If pictures and body language are indicators of actual diplomacy, then the images project a great Iranian victory and consequently a great Israeli defeat. Images though may not tell the entire and real story. They are too happy in Tehran, too unhappy in Jerusalem, and in both cases they somewhat exaggerate.

Iran made some major concessions, chiefly accepting the regime of international supervision over its military installations, as well as agreeing for the lifting of sanctions on its ballistic missiles project only after eight years and the arms embargo after five years. Also, the readiness to check if and whether nuclear tests were already performed by the Islamic Republic. The West, led by the U.S., had its share of concessions, main among them, the inability to automatically reinstate sanctions on Iran, in case of a violation of its obligations, so the Iranians will have ample time to take care of any violation if one is suspected before any international supervision can and will take place. It is called verification, and this is a key element in any such deal. Suffice it to see what happened with the ill-fated Clinton administration nuclear agreement with North Korea in 1994. So much talk then about a historic agreement, a new dawn and whatnot, and in 2015, North Korea is, by all accounts, a nuclear state. Add up to this the lifting of the economic sanctions (though not in a matter of days, surely not by the U.S.), as well as the fact that none of the military installations will be dismantled, and so with the centrifuges. On balance, Iran conceded less than the West, hence a reason for Israel to feel like the loser. The point is, that in Jerusalem they intentionally dramatize the sense of defeat, at the same time that in Tehran they intentionally do the same with the impression of a victory. It is called politics, mainly domestic, and from now the real battle moves from the PR sphere to the political one. The former battle was determined already, as pictures of Foreign Minister Zarif surrounded by the foreign ministers of the West, John Kerry in particular, look much better than PM Netanyahu surrounded by his ministers.

Netanyau finds himself in a challenging situation. He can say, as already he has, the "I told you so," and feel right about his warnings regarding the agreement, particularly the American role in achieving it. Yet, saying that also exposes him domestically to the inevitable criticism, which is already coming, about putting so much political stock behind his opposition to achieving an agreement which in the end was sealed and signed. So, there starts to be a change of emphasis in Jerusalem. "We," so people around Netanyahu say, "are committed to prevent Iran from having the bomb, not to force the Western powers to not sign an agreement." This is a somewhat self-defeating line, because it implies that Iran is not so close to the bomb itself, and preventing her from having the bomb is exactly what President Obama is also committed to do. Clearly, Netanyahu will not be brought down over this failure, as the Center-Left opposition in Israel, while being after his political head, does concur with him that the agreement is very bad to Israel.

This state of affairs leaves Netanyahu with two options. First, to continue to intensify the secret (?) cooperation with Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others, which dread almost as much as Israel the spectre of a stronger Iran, even if it still is short of the actual bomb. Second, Netanyahu can use all his influence in the U.S. Congress. With regard to the the Arabs, the most Israel can expect is to see more concerted and effective Arab action against Iran in Syria, as well as other Middle Eastern theaters, such as Hamas in Gaza. No public displays of a sudden Saudi love affair with Israel are to be expected. Regarding the U.S. Congress, here Netanyahu will not serve Israel's overall interest if he chooses to have another well-publicized, highly visible public battle with the Obama administration. A visit now in the U.S., for example, may prove to be a very serious blunder. Netanyahu never shies away from the limelight, can he be restrained this time? I, for one, doubt it. Congress can thwart the agreement, but with Netanyahu on the Hill, the chances of it happening are slimmer. Yes, there always exists a military option. A realistic one? Well, not now as a first priority for sure, possibly not also in the more distant future.

But then there is also Iran, and its understandable but still dangerous victory celebrations. The Sunni Arab world cannot and will not swallow a strong Iran. The containment of Iran as a first priority will get even greater momentum, and while it will take time, Iran will not become the final arbiter of Middle East politics. Then there is the domestic Iranian arena, and here the picture is not one-dimensional. The regime definitely can show a great diplomatic achievement to the public on the one hand, but also exposes itself to a wave of expectations for a quick and dramatic economic improvement coupled with political liberalization, two scenarios which may not materialize, surely not so quickly. Judging from past experience, rising unfulfilled expectations can be very toxic. The Mullahs may have their moment of celebration, but it could still backfire.

Altogether, an important agreement. Historic moment? Too early to judge, but not too early to view it as another element of instability, judging by Arab and Israeli displeasure. The Middle East can do without another dose, and such a large one, of uncertainty and concern.