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Israel says no: Why it's opposed to Iran nuclear deal

The deal is the brightest example that peace can be achieved through negotiations and mutual respect and trust. In an age when offense is the preferred form of defense and in a region where wars have been unfolding for decades now, the vision, zeal and statesmanship of the P5+1 and Iran to give peace a chance is commendable.

analysis Updated: Aug 12, 2015 13:01 IST
Viju Cherian
Viju Cherian
Hindustan Times
Iran nuclear deal,Iran,Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (Dan Balilty/Pool Photo via AP)

As you read this article almost 60 legislators, in two batches, from the US House of Representatives are visiting Israel. The trip is arranged by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-which calls itself 'America's pro-Israel lobby'. On the face of it this should not raise any red flags-after all, US-Israel ties have stood the test of time. But what's caught the attention of observers is the timing of such a trip.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act is set to come up for voting in the US Congress in September where the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)-commonly referred to as the Iran deal, signed by the P5+1 and Iran, will be decided. While Europe and many other world nations have welcomed the Iran deal, Israel is vociferously opposing the deal.

The AIPAC officials have said that the trip was planned much before a vote on the deal was expected, but as former US president Franklin D Roosevelt said: "In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way."

What the Iran deal promises

The Iran deal is the brightest example that peace can be achieved through negotiations and mutual respect and trust. In an age when offense is the preferred form of defense and in a region where wars have been unfolding for decades now, the vision, zeal and statesmanship of the P5+1 and Iran to give peace a chance is commendable.

According to the deal, signed on July 14 in Vienna, Iran will have to slash by two-third its centrifuge reserve, destroy its stockpile of Uranium (medium), destroy 98% of its Uranium (low grade) and keep its Uranium enrichment levels at 3.67% (down from the current ~20%). Without firing a bullet, without bombing the Natanz or Fordow reactors or even resorting to any off-the-record means, the deal has managed to stop Iran in its tracks--and Tehran's not complaining.

The importance of the deal is that it has bought both the US and Iran on to the same page. The deal does not bring Washington and Tehran to the pre-1979 bonhomie, but if the US Senate passes the deal and if Tehran stays true to its promise, the Iran deal will certainly help in moving things in that direction.

At a time when West Asia is facing, perhaps, its biggest challenge from non-state actors, the Iran deal is the brightest idea on the table.

Israel sees red

Even though it is not part of the deal, why is Israel, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to be the protagonist in this plot? Given that the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has welcomed the deal, albeit cautiously, it would be passing strange that Israel, which shares no border with Iran, is against a development that is largely seen as positive.

One of the major concerns raised by those opposing the deal is that with the lifting of UN (and subsequently US) sanctions, Iran's economy will surge northwards giving Tehran more rial to pump into its plans to play a greater role in West Asia. Iran's support to the Hezbollah and Iranian-made rockets landing in border towns like Sderot as recently as last summer has Tel Aviv anxious. Given this, the prospect of Iran emerging stronger from this deal is naturally upsetting Israel.

Another factor, which needs more explanation in the deal, is whether Iran will have to address concerns regarding the possible military dimensions (PMD) to its nuclear programme before receiving any relief from sanctions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Iran Nuclear Agreement. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It's clearly not nuclear

A nuclear-armed Iran is not what's really troubling Israel. Israel with its "unadvertised" nuclear weapons (to quote Yitzhak Rabin when he was ambassador to the US in 1968) is comfortably placed in the region. Moreover, such is their advancement and capacity that militarily there is no power in West Asia to rival Israel.
To understand why Israel-and not, say, Saudi Arabia or Qatar or even Turkey-is opposing the deal one needs to take a few steps back and see the wider strategic picture. And it's not hard to understand that more than nuclear weapons what has got Netanyahu concerned is the geopolitical edge Iran will command once the deal is through.

As long as the US viewed Iran as the bad boy in the region and till Tehran saw the 'Great Satan' in the US, it suited Israel and the Sunni kingdoms. So great was the focus on Iran and its 'misdeeds' that the spotlight seldom fell on the other offenders in the region. But now, the US is dealing straight with the 'enemy', and that's upsetting the West Asian apple cart.

America's credibility that's at stake

The Obama administration is working overtime to see that the deal is passed when it comes to vote. Washington is trying to gather support from world nations to bolster the deal. If on August 3rd the US-GCC meeting in Doha approved the Iran deal, three days later it was Asean nations applauding the deal. On the other side, the AIPAC is rumoured to be shelling out about $40 million on advertisements in the US to turn the tide against the deal.

If the deal is rejected by the US Senate, it would not only embarrass US President Barack Obama and his administration, but also at stake is US' credibility as a superpower that the international stage. A rejection would also give credence to the chatter that in Washington decisions might be taken at the Capitol but the real power lies with the pro-Israel elements of the Jewish lobby. If the deal is rejected, it would mean that more than Obama, the US Senate listens to Netanyahu. If the deal is passed, US would have called Israel's bluff and it'll be interesting to see how the Netanyahu government reacts. Israel will have to, like other nations, wait and see that Iran sticks to the line - and closely scrutinise it for any deviant behaviour. Definitely, building bridges with Iran is not on Israel's cards.

The question is: Will Obama win the US Senate? Or, will Netanyahu derail the deal.

It's to be seen as to who'll blink first.

(The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @vijucherian.)

First Published: Aug 12, 2015 12:50 IST