Almost all the reporting from Israel about reactions to the Iran deal is terrible. It stinks from the head, as they say about fish. The head in this case is Bibi Netanyahu, who gave a pitiful performance in which he bitched and moaned to the world saying it wasn’t a “historic deal,” but a “historic mistake.” That’s followed by that adept military strategist, Naftali Bennett, who told Charlie Rose that the Iran deal would lead to “nuclear suitcases” blowing up in New York and Madrid “within five years.” Bennett added that it would make it more likely that Israel would have to go to war against Iran.
Naturally, if the country’s leaders are spouting such nonsense, a docile press is following suit. The leading right-wing dailies like Yisrael HaYom and Maariv feature lurid headlines, and a “blame game” has even begun assigning fault to Bibi for the “allowing” the deal to happen. It’s hard to tell whether this is an attack from the right or left (since often there’s so little difference between the two in Israeli politics).
There are a few voices of reason to be heard. Globes, Haaretz’s business publication took a decidedly upbeat view:
A new app came out on the world market recently and is available for free download. It allows users to solve bitter conflicts with dialogue and compromise, without violence, and makes use of a revolutionary language that hasn’t been known in this region. The owners of this innovative new patent are Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry. There are those who are quite satisfied with it and those who think it’s buggy, but one thing’s for sure: the world will not be the same.
…America has the right to demand that Iran give up the right to create a nuclear weapon, but it doesn’t have the right to demand that any country give up the right to create nuclear energy. Certainly not when its ally Israel enjoys a highly developed nuclear program of its own.
…The rapprochement between America and Iran will bring dramatic changes to the balance of power within the entire region. It might return Iran to the role of ally of the U.S. and eclipse its relationship with other Arab states, foremost among them Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This is the nightmare of the Arabs.
…It’s very likely that this morning, Barack Obama dismantled the Iranian bomb without firing a single shot. Israel should be happy about that and not frown at Washington as if it’d been betrayed behind its back.
Channel 2’s “Arab affairs” correspondent, Ehud Yaari, sees a silver lining in the deal and says it will diminish Iran’s “dash” toward a nuclear weapon. As with even Israel’s moderates, there is much nonsense in Yaari’s assumptions, including the notion that Iran is “racing” toward a weapon. But at least there is some modest sense of reality about his views. I say this despite the fact that he has falsely disparaged me on the air. In fact, I don’t find him to be a very convincing “expert” on Arab affairs, which is why I put his journalistic “beat” in quotation marks above. The fact that I’m featuring his views here gives you some sense of how little positive there is to report about Israel’s reception of the deal.
Menashe Amir, a distinguished Israeli expert on Iran, whose views are also quite pragmatic, also takes a more positive view of the deal in this Yisrael HaYom column. He says that any celebration that Iran may be having is premature. He claims, unjustifiably in my view, that Iran will be the main loser. But you have to understand that he’s saying this, in my opinion, because the overwhelmingly prevalent view in Israel is that Iran has pulled off a nifty card trick. That Iran has pulled the wool over the world’s eyes. So to retain credibility in Israeli circles, you have to speak in such harsh terms.
As proof to support his view, Amir says that Iran has now accepted limitations on its nuclear program it rejected in the past. He points to the requirement that Iran allow IAEA inspectors to visit any sites it wishes, including those which had been off-limits to them previously (presumably he’s talking about Fordo and Arak, though he doesn’t specify).
Amir also notes the impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy and claims (as many western commentators have done) that they are one of the prime motivators for the leadership to seek a compromise they’d refused earlier. I find this claim to be smug, self-satisfied, and condescending. It suggests that Iran is a political monolith and that the only way to bring change is by using a sledgehammer to bring the regime to its senses. This perspective discounts the existence of a pragmatic element even within the political élite (thus accounting for Rouhani’s rise to power). It rejects the clear truth that no amount of economic pain would dissuade Iran from retaining the right to enrich uranium, a right guaranteed under the NPT, of which it is a signatory (while Israel is not).
Iranian-American Prof. Muhammad Sahimi responds to this formulaic meme of the mainstream media:
I reject this claim. Sanctions have certainly played a role in bringing about the accord, but they are not even the top reason, or among the top reasons. We must remember that the same team, Rouhani/Zarif and former President Mohammad Khatami wanted to reach an accommodation with the West during 2003-2005, limiting Iran’s total number of centrifuges to 3000, etc., at a time when there was no such crippling sanctions. The same team suspended Iran’s nuclear program for nearly two years at that time.
So, the most important factor in bringing about this accord is the election of Rouhani and the mandate that the Iranian people gave him. Rouhani had no social base of support of his own. He was elected simply because the reformists and supporters of the Green Movement took him up on his promise to pursue the same moderate policy that he, Zarif and Khatami had pursued before, elected him, and gave him the mandate.
Returning to Israeli analyst Amir, we have to consider the audience to which he is speaking. It is a constituency which has been sold a bill of goods by its generals and leaders. They’ve told the people that there are two options: sanctions or war. If there is going to be a deal that gives Israel less than it wants, analysts like Amir want to succor those Israelis; to tell them that the sanctions policy wasn’t totally wasted (which it was).
A final interesting note in Amir’s bio is Yisrael HaYom calls him “an advisor to institutions and organizations.” This sounds generic enough, except that the singular form of the world for “institutions” in Hebrew is Mossad. In other words, Amir is an advisor to Israeli intelligence.
Despite my sharp criticisms of the Mossad and Shin Bet, there are some pragmatists and realists among them who see clearly what must happen regarding Iran. They are beset on every side by delusional ideologues like Bibi. To be heard, they have to engage in the sort of gyrations you can read above. They likely feel that this is the most realism they can get away with amidst a country awash in mistaken notions about Iran.
To those like Amir, who claim that the Geneva deal got more from Iran that it’s ever offered in the past, it’s important to remember that Pres. Khatami offered virtually the same deal in 2005. Of course, Iran’s nuclear program was far less developed then, and it didn’t have some of the advanced facilities it now has. But as former Iranian negotiator Hosseein Mousavian argued so cogently in the Financial Times, the west could’ve gotten the same deal from Khatami. That deal might’ve suspended the Iranian nuclear program in the state it was then. In that case, there might not even be a Fordo or Arak to worry about now. There would certainly be far fewer centrifuges and far less highly enriched uranium.
All this suggests that if we lose this opportunity, either we won’t get another one in the future and Iran may attain nuclear capability; or it might take another ten years before another set of moderate leaders come along who can resume where we left off in the attempt to head off a nuclear catastrophe in the region.