After a week of meetings in Israel, one thing is clear to me: Israel has no Iran strategy. Seemingly spent from the losing public campaign against the Iranian nuclear deal, not even the passage of “Adoption Day” on October 18 roused Israeli officials from their post-deal slumber. Israelis reluctantly see themselves as bystanders to their fate—a position reinforced by Russia’s intervention in Syria—relegated to pleading with an Obama administration that is still crowing from its resolute achievement. Focused on abating the recent wave of Palestinian terrorism, Israel seems listless in the post–Iran deal era.
For six years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran strategy was clear. He successfully enlisted the United States in a coercive effort, consisting of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and a credible military threat, to force the Iranian regime to choose between its nuclear program and its survival. Cognizant that Obama opposed such a strategy, he shielded it from all interference. He made unprecedented and politically perilous concessions, such as the ten-month settlement moratorium and the unilateral release of seventy-eight convicted Palestinian terrorists, in order to satisfy Obama and shift the focus back to Iran. Similarly, he instituted a minimalist policy in Syria, oversaw a measured response to Hamas and Hezbollah provocations, and maintained a patient-but-strong approach to the regional tumult—all to avoid any unpredictable and lengthy engagements that could have jeopardized Israel’s Iran policy. Keeping the American eye on the Iranian ball was the name of the game.
Israel’s current Iran policy priorities reflect its lack of real strategy. First, Israel wants the P5+1 to strictly enforce the deal. Given that the only penalty mechanism is a total sanctions snapback, it is hugely concerned that the Obama administration will sweep Iranian violations under the rug for fear of jeopardizing the overall accord. Second, Israel would like to reach detailed understandings with the administration on how it interprets the finer points of the deal. The administration’s delay, reluctance and inability to exact any penalty on Iran for its recent ballistic missile test—despite its clear violation of the JCPOA and related UN Security Council resolution—or its arrest of a fourth American citizen is supremely worrisome. The accord’s many ambiguities could mean endless intra-ally litigation over statutory interpretations. Finally, Israel would like to seal the very public wound in the alliance and restore a positive relationship for the president’s final year. What this means and how it will happen is very unclear, but Netanyahu’s upcoming summit with the president will mark the formal beginning to such a process.
The strategy reached a high point in early 2013—Israel had avoided capricious distractions and Iran was beginning to feel real economic pain—but it began to unravel soon after Obama’s reelection. Having concealed its secret negotiations from Israel for nearly two years, the United States and Iran signed an interim accord that encapsulated several crucial American concessions, transforming American policy from one that opposed Iranian proliferation to one that managed it. In exchange for an immediate and permanent end to the U.S.-led coercive policy, Iran agreed to temporary constraints on its enrichment and reprocessing program. In a matter of months, all nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended or abrogated, all covert actions against Iran’s program will be discontinued and Iran will be treated as a regional stakeholder on issues such as Syria. The JCPOA and what it represents marked the ultimate undoing of Israeli strategy. In short, Barack outfoxed Bibi.
This approach stands little chance of success. It is aimed not at Tehran, but at Obama, who not only has little sympathy for his junior ally, but also sees Iran as a problem solver as opposed to a troublemaker. Even if Israel’s paeans to the president were successful, the temporary nature of the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing activities, i.e. the sunset provisions, means that even the deal’s strict enforcement will not prevent Iran from becoming a legitimized threshold nuclear power. Of course, Israel’s kinetic option remains militarily viable, but is now diplomatically disastrous, a reality that weighs heavily on the Israeli psyche. Apprised of how lackluster their new approach is, Israelis shrug and count the hours to January 2017.
Israel cannot afford to wait until the next president. Ironically, the deal, if enforced, reduces the threat of an Iranian nuclear breakout in the short term, but it also greatly increases the threat of more conventional Iranian aggression. Israelis are confident that Iran’s immediate cash windfall will result in exponential increases in Hezbollah’s capabilities. Moreover, they believe that the deal will embolden Iranian belligerence, concluding that the Administration’s threshold for nefarious Iranian behavior will be even higher in order to avoid imperiling the nuclear accord. The Israeli government openly acknowledges these deep concerns, but is struggling to articulate a strategy appropriate to the JCPOA era.
What could an Iran strategy in the JCPOA era look like? First, Israel could tempt Iran to cheat on its commitments. Unlike the United States, Israel is not a party to the JCPOA and therefore can never be in violation of it. In practice, a re-emphasis of cyber and covert sabotage of the Iranian nuclear military infrastructure would not be surprising. More controversially, Israel could echo the recent comments of the UAE, whose ambassador to the U.S. reportedly suggested that it will seek the same right to enrich that the administration has granted Iran. Were Israel to follow suit, it could still maintain its policy of not being the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region, but it would challenge the prestige of the Iranian regime, which still chafes at even the modest restrictions imposed by the deal. Iranian cheating would either lead to the JCPOA’s dissolution or, at the very least, provide greater diplomatic breathing room should Israel decide to take direct action. The sword of Damocles would be pushed back a little further from Israel’s neck.
Second, Israel should lay the diplomatic groundwork for a more aggressive strategy to counter Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria before the Iranian proxy benefits from the deal’s financial and political windfall. Theoretically, such a shift has the administration’s support. While selling the Iran deal to a skeptical Congress, the administration even promised it would interdict Hezbollah weapon shipments as part of a broader effort to counter conventional Iranian aggression throughout the region. Jerusalem could make clear, to both the United States and to Iran, that Hezbollah’s military activities—such as rockets, firing on military patrols, planting of IEDs on Israel’s border or consolidating its position on the Golan Heights—would spur a far more disproportionate response than Israel has ordered over the last six years.
This would also oblige Israel to clarify and reorder its Syria policy, seeing it as a fluid battle space where it can degrade Iranian capabilities. A more robust Israeli policy in Syria and Lebanon would also earn it the plaudits of the Gulf states, which are seething at Obama’s acquiescence in Iran’s expansion. In the aftermath of the Iran deal, Israel priorities should shift to defanging Iranian proxies.
Third, Israel needs to institutionalize enforcement cooperation with Congress. Despite what Republican presidential candidates contend, this deal will likely live on beyond Obama. Absent egregious Iranian cheating, no American president will have the diplomatic and political capital to simply walk away from the agreement without cause. For perspective, it took the Bush administration nearly two years to annul the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, despite Pyongyang’s blatant clandestine uranium enrichment program and near-universal Republican opposition to the deal from its inception.
Jerusalem could seek to revive the moribund “Joint Security Committee Between the Knesset and the U.S. Congress” and refocus it on the JCPOA’s enforcement. With an upgraded status, it would serve as a lodestar for long-term oversight and provide a forum to codify an exchange of views between the two allies. With an accord as complex as this one, the committee’s work would be an asset for the day the deal falls apart.
There is no question that the JCPOA has done severe damage to Israel’s strategic situation. However, Israel also needs to understand that the status quo ante will never be restored. Instead of just beseeching Obama to be a better enforcer of the agreement than he was a negotiator, Israel can take numerous proactive steps to mitigate the deal’s fallout and lay the groundwork for the day after the JCPOA. Israel has emerged bruised from its fight with Obama. To not be beaten, it needs to begin formulating a new Iran strategy that accounts for new realities.