The Iran Deal's Bad for Israel? Netanyahu's to Blame

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on August 2, 2015. AFP PH
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on August 2, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right to criticize the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran. Indeed, it is not a good deal -- certainly not from an Israeli perspective. But it is Netanyahu who should be blamed for that.

This conclusion is based on talks with Israeli intelligence officials, current and former, who are privy to the inner workings of Netanyahu's government, its defense, nuclear and intelligence agencies, and their dealings with their American counterparts.

Netanyahu's public warmongering since he was elected in 2009 -- threatening to bomb Iran -- and his closed-minded confrontational tone unwittingly played a major role in shaping Barack Obama's strategy toward Iran.

Netanyahu's threats made the Obama administration nervous that an Israeli military strike would escalate into general warfare in the Middle East. It has become obvious that the President and his advisers decided to do everything possible to prevent an uncontrollable blow-up -- even if negotiations would lead to a flawed deal.

Israel's words and actions under the two previous prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, were based on two tenets: First, not to make it appear that Israel was spearheading the campaign to stop Iran's nuclear program. Among other concerns, Israeli officials knew that questions would arise about their own country's unacknowledged nuclear arsenal.

The second reason not to be at the frontline of the struggle was that all major Israeli strategic decisions traditionally are coordinated with the U.S. The director of the Mossad spy agency, Meir Dagan, was given the task of coming up with sabotage and political gambits, and he worked closely with the George W. Bush administration -- together creating a message that told Iran's leaders they could either stay in power, or have a nuclear program, but not both.

The main public weapon was a potent set of economic sanctions. A second pillar of Israeli-American effort involved exploiting ethnic divisions in Iran: establishing useful contacts among Azeri, Kurdish, Arab, and Baluchi minorities who felt persecuted.

A third layer featured covert operations -- a Mossad specialty. Israel was credited with assassinating key Iranian nuclear scientists and "poisoning" equipment that was shipped to Iran's nuclear facilities.

The Israelis, working together with American intelligence agencies, developed computer viruses such as Stuxnet and creatively planted them in Iran's nuclear labs.

The leaders in both countries agreed that a military option against Iran was an important tool to develop, though only to be used as a last resort.

Yet Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, changed the game by making public threats. They poured $3 billion into Israel's air force and intelligence community, to sharpen their readiness for a military strike on Iran. Various exercises were designed to signal to Iran and the world -- especially the U.S. -- that they meant business.

At first, their new approach seemed to be working. The international community tightened the sanctions screws, bringing the Iranian economy to the verge of collapse.

Netanyahu and Barak may have been bluffing, but if so they carried out one of the great deceptions in the history of psychological warfare. Their own intelligence and military chiefs believed that an Israeli attack might be imminent - and let word leak that they were opposed to a strike -- and President Obama certainly believed it.

One result was the start of secret talks between the U.S. and Iran in 2013, and eventually the nuclear deal signed in Vienna last month.

The Americans were hasty, and the result is a deal that is significantly less than perfect. True, it does push Iran back from being an immediate "nuclear threshold state." If there is no cheating, Iran will have a lot less enriched uranium and fewer centrifuges.

However, the weaknesses of the deal are in the clauses regarding inspection. In addition, the deal paves the way for Iran to purchase a highly effective air defense system from Russia -- and that would make a future military strike by America and/or Israel much more risky.

Netanyahu should have taken a different approach. Instead of fighting the Obama administration, including his undeniable effort to team up with the Republicans, he should have tried quietly to coordinate his concerns with Obama to influence the outcome of the deal.

It is not too late for Israel to work with America. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who visited Israel this month, publicly suggested more intelligence and military cooperation to counter Iran's non-nuclear misbehaviors.

That seems sensible. But they also could add to the nuclear deal, for instance by repairing a significant omission: a lack of specified punishments for an Iranian failure to comply fully. The U.S. and Israel should together set red lines and declare what would occur if Iran oversteps those lines.

Yossi Melman is co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli espionage and security agencies, Spies Against Armageddon. He and Dan Raviv blog at IsraelSpy.com.