Jacob Nagel, Mark Dubowitz
Senior Israeli officials will be in Washington next week to prepare for newly elected Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett‘s first meeting with U.S. president Joe Biden. Bennett knows the importance of public comity between himself and the American president. But make no mistake; Israeli officials are deeply troubled by Biden’s apparent readiness to bring Iran back into the fatally flawed 2015 nuclear deal at any price. It will be in both countries’ best interest if Bennett tells Biden privately—but directly—what the latter’s administration is doing wrong.
After six rounds of negotiation, during which Iranian officials refused to sit down directly with their U.S. counterparts, nuclear talks are on hold as the Islamic Republic of Iran waits for the inauguration next month of its new president, Ebrahim Raisi.
Hand-picked by the supreme leader, notorious for his role in the mass murder of Iranians and elected by the lowest number of voters in Iran’s history, Raisi will preside over a country racked with daily demonstrations. Iranians are in the streets protesting shortages of water and electricity. But the protests are also political—protesters blame the corrupt clerical regime for their suffering.
Raisi surely knows that a return to the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is the only way to get the massive economic relief that would ease pressure on the regime. Raisi surely sees the desperation of Biden and the United States’ top Iran negotiator Robert Malley to get back into the JCPOA, and will squeeze Washington for more concessions.
Jerusalem knows that any return to the JCPOA will only be worse than the original agreement, since Washington is prepared to lift even more sanctions than it did in 2015. Iran also will keep most of the gains its nuclear program attained since negotiations began with the Biden administration—and that it attained in violation of the JCPOA since 2015.
Israeli officials are warning their American counterparts that Tehran is already taking advantage of the lull in negotiations to become a threshold nuclear state.
Meanwhile, if Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is to be believed, Malley has already agreed to lift sanctions on more than 1,000 designated entities—including all Iranian banks but one. Malley reportedly agreed to remove sanctions on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his close associates, as well as take the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps off the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list. What would remain are likely minor symbolic sanctions with little coercive power.
The Biden administration has acknowledged several of the JCPOA’s major flaws and pledged to negotiate a “longer and stronger” deal. But implausibly, it insists Tehran will be amenable to this deal even after getting everything it wants in exchange for first returning to a “shorter and weaker deal,” with fewer nuclear constraints and much greater sanctions relief.
Prime Minister Bennett sees that the Iranian nuclear program is racing ahead. Iran today is enriching uranium to 60 percent purity, manufacturing uranium metal, accumulating large stockpiles of fissile material, testing much more advanced centrifuges and stonewalling the International Atomic Energy Agency by denying inspectors access to sites where nuclear-related activities took place. Tehran is digging in its heels and insisting on warehousing, rather than destroying, its stockpile of advanced centrifuges.
While the Obama administration claimed the JCPOA would “cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon,” the deal in fact opened a pathway for Tehran. Its nuclear restraints begin expiring in 2024. By 2027, restrictions on mass deployment of centrifuges, including advanced models, will begin to sunset, and all of them will be gone by 2029. By 2031, there is no cap either on stockpiles of fissile material or on enrichment levels, meaning Iran could produce weapons-grade material without violating the JCPOA. Likewise, new enrichment plants and heavy water reactors will be permitted, and prohibitions on plutonium reprocessing will go away. If the regime has sufficient patience, the JCPOA will let it have all the nuclear infrastructure it needs.
Prime Minister Bennett needs to be clear that no deal will be effective unless it places hard limits on three crucial elements of Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program: production of fissile materials, weaponization and means of delivery.
First, fissile materials, along with the technology to produce them, should be completely banned. There must be no room for negotiation on them.
Many analysts naively consider any deal that lengthens Iran’s “breakout time”—that is, how long it would take Tehran to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium—sufficient. But this obsession with breakout times is misguided. The regime will not break out; it will “sneak out” by employing increasingly advanced centrifuges, which are easier to hide because fewer of them are needed.
Second, weaponization is the most difficult to define and monitor, but its status became clearer in 2018 thanks to the atomic archive materials that Mossad exfiltrated from Tehran. IAEA inspections have turned up further signs of weaponization, although Iran continues to stonewall the agency.
An effective deal must require the regime to come clean on all previous nuclear activities, otherwise the cat-and-mouse game will continue indefinitely.
If Tehran cannot admit and specify previous violations, there will be no way to verify its compliance.
The elimination of nuclear-weapons mastermind Mohsen Fakrizadeh inflicted major damage to the weaponization program. Our sources believe that the program now is around two years from completion, confirming that the elimination of a leader will always be better than the elimination of infrastructure. At the same time, any new deal cannot allow underground facilities or weaponization groups to continue to exist.
Third, an effective deal must restrict the means of delivery for a nuclear weapon, namely ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The UN missile embargo, already weakened during the JCPOA negotiations in 2015, is set to expire in 2023. Tehran says restrictions on such missiles are non-negotiable, but it has made similar claims about other aspects of its nuclear program, only to compromise when the U.S. exerted sufficient pressure.
Prime Minister Bennett will likely not confront the United States publicly. And that’s fine, for now. But he needs to be firm in communicating Israel’s main principles. Israel must not be part of a new agreement that involves returning to the JCPOA, and must maintain its full freedom of action while strengthening its military options for dealing with Iranian nuclear capabilities. The U.S. and Israel should work together on gathering intelligence on Iran’s weaponization program and not accept Tehran’s attempts to thwart IAEA inspection. Washington cannot accept Iran’s demands, even in part: not re-opening the weaponization file, not using the archive data and not answering the IAEA’s findings.
If there is no other option to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, the Jewish state will go it alone. Any hint that Jerusalem will only act with American consent implicates Washington, which is good for no one. It would make it more difficult for the Biden team to assert plausible deniability after a strike, and may complicate or block Israeli action.
Israel must avoid another critical error—it should not enter any talks with the Biden administration about “compensation” or the definition of a “longer and stronger” agreement before Iran officially agrees to enter this negotiation.
Putting regional issues, conventional ballistic missiles or even the preservation of Israel’s qualitative military edge on the line in current talks is a mistake. Some Israeli officials and outside experts want Bennett to raise the compensation issue by leaking to U.S. and Israeli journalists what Israel should ask from Washington. With one voice, the Israeli government should explain why a return to the JCPOA is bad for both the United States and Israel. Washington and Jerusalem can address other issues after solving the nuclear one.
No country will be tougher on Iran than Israel. Any sign that Jerusalem is willing to compromise on its principles will shift the entire policy and political landscape in Washington. Now is the time for greater U.S.-Israel cooperation to counter the Iranian regime—and greater preparation by Israel if it is forced to act alone.
Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz.