Analysis

Trump and the Iran deal: four views from Israel

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The US President Donald Trump decided not to recertify Iranian compliance in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), many analysts brought Israel into the discussion and argued that Israel’s security establishment was broadly supportive of the JCPoA and didn’t want Trump to leave it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been particularly outspoken in his opposition to the JCPoA, but it is still unclear whether he would prefer the deal to be abrogated or altered. In a speech at the UN, Netanyahu called for the deal to be “fixed or nixed,” explaining that “nixing the deal means restoring massive pressure on Iran, including crippling sanctions, until Iran fully dismantles its nuclear weapons capability” while fixing it “requires many things, among them inspecting military and any other site that is suspect, and penalizing Iran for every violation… above all… getting rid of the sunset clause”. In a meeting last week with Prime Minister Theresa May, Netanyahu said:  “The goal that I have in mind is not keeping or eliminating the deal. It’s improving the deal and correcting its main flaws.”

While the professional opinions of Israeli security officials are being used in the American political debate to strengthen one position over another, the view of Israeli officials on Iran, the JCPoA, Israel-US relations and how to block Iran’s regional ambitions are far from homogenous and include a number of perspectives. Some Israelis saw deep problems with the 2015 deal but believed it was a fait accompli and that Israel shouldn’t damage its strategic relations with the US by seeking to undermine it; some feel the deal is flawed but think the US should stay in it now that it has been signed and Iran has already received substantial sanctions relief; some hold that the US should strive to stay in the agreement, but believe the best way of improving it is by non-certifying Iranian compliance to Congress.

To reflect some of the divergent opinions, BICOM has interviewed four Israeli experts to get different perspectives on the Iran nuclear deal and how to move forward:

Eran Lerman is a former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council.

Michael Herzog is BICOM’s Senior Visiting Fellow and former head of the Strategic Planning Division of the IDF.

Sima Shine was Deputy Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and served as head of research at the Intelligence Division of the Mossad.

Emily Landau is a Senior Research Fellow at the INSS think tank and has published and lectured extensively on nuclear proliferation, arms control, and regional security dynamics in the Middle East.

While their perspectives were different, all of them emphasised the same three problems with the JCPoA itself: the sunset clauses; the area of ballistic missiles, which a UN Security Council resolution deals within very weak terms; and the monitoring and inspection of various sites, which the deal’s clauses leave open to interpretation.

Emily Landau believes the deal failed to comprehensively resolve Iranian nuclear activity but thinks it would be “lose-lose” if the US were to exit the deal now, as Iran would be left with only the restrictions of the NPT rather than the JCPoA (and having already received sanctions relief). She argues it is wise to present the JCPoA as only one component of overall policy towards Iran which should also include dealing with its ballistic missile program and its regional ambitions. Landau argues that if Iran gets stronger in the region, it will ultimately be better placed to get nuclear weapons down the line and says although the Trump administration is deeply controversial, the other countries involved in signing the deal should get on board with the current policy.

 

Eran Lerman is convinced that, given the sanctions on Iran and the potential military threat, a much better deal could have been forged before 2015. He believes that Congress can play a major role in rewriting some of the key provisions – most importantly the so-called “sunset clause” – in order to ensure it doesn’t give Iran a free run to the bomb once the deal expires. He also claims that, similar to agreements that were made with the Soviet Union, a deal with Iran should be an “entire package” and also relate to its behaviour in the region, human rights, and ballistic missiles programme. Lerman contends that if the international community resumes serious systemic pressure the deal can be renegotiated, and that if European countries realised the choice was between renewing sanctions and war (rather than renewing sanctions or the current status quo) they could be convinced to renew sanctions.

 

Sima Shine warns that the JCPoA provides Iran with the legitimacy to become a nuclear threshold state once the agreement ends and that it allows Iran to continue R&D, which allows the nuclear program to continue to advance. Shine believes that there is a real possibility that Trump will actually walk away from the agreement in spite of the people around him who think differently. She believes that in terms of priorities, the most important issue for the international community to deal with is the regional policy of Iran adding that while the Europeans would be open to working with the Trump Administration on this (as they don’t want Trump to walk away from the nuclear agreement), the absence of close relations between the US and Russia makes it difficult to resolve Iran’s regional policy. She also thinks that the Iranians may be able to swallow a change to the sunset clause but feels it is highly unlikely they will agree to inspections to all military sites nor any limitation on their ballistic missiles program (or if they do it will limit their development of missiles that can reach Europe but won’t affect their ability to hit Israel).

 

Michael Herzog says that when people in Israel talk about “nixing” or “fixing” they are focused on fixing and argues that this can be done without exiting or renegotiating the deal but rather by strengthening deterrence outside of the agreement and strictly interpreting some of the clauses within the agreement itself which are ambiguous. Herzog believes that Trump plans to use the leverage gained from decertification to work with Congress and European allies to address the flaws in the nuclear deal, and argues that because the Europeans are petrified that Trump will leave the agreement, they are willing to work with him to improve some of its flaws.