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Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran: A four-point reality check

Analysis: Some of the Israeli prime minister’s core arguments for scrapping negotiations with Iran are questionable

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday urged U.S. lawmakers to reject the nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran and world powers, warning that it would help Iran acquire nuclear weapons and threaten Israel’s survival. Iran’s regime could not be trusted to abide by any agreement, he warned, and he urged the United States to increase pressure on Tehran until it agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and change its regional behavior.

The White House has long warned that abandoning the current negotiating framework would open a path to war — an argument he rejected. But the Israeli leader’s characterization of the deal and of Iran’s current nuclear efforts have long been challenged by Western governments involved in the talks.

Here is a reality check of four of Netanyahu’s key arguments.

1. “Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons” threatens Israel’s “survival”

Netanyahu presented as an established fact that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons and that it would use such weapons to destroy Israel. But neither claim could be considered an established fact.

Tamir Pardo, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, in December 2011 reportedly told foreign ambassadors that while it would present a strategic challenge, Iranian nuclear weapon capability would not threaten Israel’s existence. And Netanyahu’s former Defense Minister Ehud Barak in 2009 said, “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel … Israel is strong. I don’t see anyone who can pose an existential threat.” When asked in 2011 whether Iran would drop a nuclear bomb on Israel, Barak answered, “Not on us and not on any other neighbor.” 

The Israeli security establishment’s confidence may be based on Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal — numbering more than 150 warheads, according to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter — and on the fact that its combination of land, sea and air delivery systems give Israel the means to destroy every major city in the Islamic republic within hours.

Netanyahu’s insistence that building nuclear weapons is Iran’s intent is open to question, not simply because Tehran denies it. Iran has accumulated nuclear infrastructure permitted for peaceful use, which gives the country the ability to produce bomb materiel. And there are unanswered questions about whether it may have been researching weapon design before 2003, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Tehran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein.

Still, the consensus among international intelligence agencies, including Israel’s, is that despite putting the option to build nuclear weapons within reach, Tehran has not made a decision to do so — and, according to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran would make such a decision on the basis of a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis, based principally on its reading of whether external threats to the regime’s survival necessitated a nuclear deterrent.

2. Iran’s regime is implacably revolutionary, hellbent on “conquest and subjugation” and can’t be trusted to abide by any deal

Netanyahu painted Iran as a revolutionary regime that cannot be trusted to make international deals. He pointed to Iran’s support for groups such as Hezbollah and for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria to claim that Iran is hellbent on regional conquest and the destruction of Israel, warning that any deal with Iran should be made conditional on changing its behavior in the region — a reversal of Israel’s longtime opposition to seeking a grand bargain with Iran rather than a more narrowly focused nuclear deal.

The PM implied that Iran’s regime since the 1979 revolution has been so dangerous that it could not be engaged with as a rational actor and that its alleged drive for nuclear weapons to destroy Israel was deeply ingrained. But beyond Iran’s stated opposition to nuclear weapons, it’s not clear from the historical record that Iran is unable to abide by international agreements or immune to rational calculation based on self-interest.

Western and Israeli intelligence have concluded that Iran has largely abided by the November 2013 interim agreement that sharply limited its nuclear work and required shrinking of stockpiles, with the exception of a continued dispute over access granted by Iran to International Atomic Energy Agency monitors.

Analyst Peter Beinart notes that its track record suggests the Iranian regime’s aggressive behavior in the region remains tempered by a pragmatic concern for its survival.

“Iran is seeking to extend its power without doing something so aggressive that it provokes retaliation that imperils the regime’s survival,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “Iran isn’t doing truly reckless things like invading a Saudi ally in the Persian Gulf or launching chemical or biological weapons at Israel, either directly or through its terrorist proxies. And it never has.” He pointed to the regime’s acceptance of a cease-fire in the brutal eight-year war with Iraq rather than fight to the death and cooperation with the U.S. against the Taliban as signs of pragmatism.

Current and former intelligence officials in both the U.S. and Israel, moreover, have long assessed Iran’s behavior is based on rational self-interest calculations, revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding. In an interview with CBS in 2012, former Mossad head Meir Dagan said, “The regime in Iran is a very rational one.”

And U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said in Senate testimony in 2012, “We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.”

3. The agreement between Iran and world powers “all but guarantees that Iran gets nuclear weapons”

Netanyahu’s argument is that the deal currently under discussion would leave Iran with uranium-enrichment infrastructure that could be repurposed to make bomb materiel and that the agreement would expire after 10 years.

He would clearly prefer a reversion to the George W. Bush administration’s approach that Iran should not be allowed any uranium enrichment capability on its soil, despite this being permitted for civilian applications under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory. Despite sanctions and the threat of force by the Bush administration, Iran began enriching uranium in 2006 to energy-reactor grade and continued to expand its capability, albeit under permanent international inspection, as required under the NPT.

Once Iran had established uranium enrichment as an intractable fact on the ground, world powers began negotiating in search of a deal based on agreeing to stricter, verifiable safeguards against Iran’s weaponizing nuclear material rather than on eliminating Iran’s enrichment capability — which Iran has made clear is not up for negotiation.

Netanyahu is correct that such an agreement accepts Iran as a nuclear threshold state, one that, like Japan and Argentina, has infrastructure that could be repurposed to assemble a bomb. But as Avner Cohen, an Israeli historian of his country’s nuclear program, said on Tuesday, “Iran was already a nuclear threshold state before it signed the interim agreement [of November 2013],” adding that the NPT “bans the development of nuclear weapons but does not explicitly ban member nations from becoming threshold states.” What is being negotiated between Iran and world powers is the size of that threshold — that is, how long it would take Iran to cross — and the safeguards against its doing so.

Cohen also said that the deal extends the breakout time, which refers to the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb — although, as Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst, notes, there may be a few years more between having enough materiel for a single bomb and having an actual nuclear weapon arsenal. 

The proposed agreement leaves Iran with the capability to build nuclear weapons but increases the time required to do so and reinforces the tripwires that would alert the international community and allow a forceful response.

After the 10-year limit expires, Iran would not be free to pursue nuclear weapons at will. The current deal requires Iran to accept limits on its nuclear work far beyond those required by the NPT to prevent weaponization; after it expires, the rules set by the NPT and the verification and inspection regimes — and probably, also, the Additional Protocols that Iran has been willing to sign to accept a more intrusive inspection regime — would still apply.

And that’s if Iran’s strategic cost-benefit analysis prompted it to pursue weapons.

4. By killing the current deal, the U.S. and its allies can get a “much better deal”

“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal,” Netanyahu argued, suggesting that the current negotiations be allowed to collapse and that an escalation of sanctions and other pressure would bring Iran back to the table willing to offer terms more to the liking of Israel and Western powers. 

This better deal would demolish much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and curb its regional ambitions.

But Netanyahu’s optimistic assessment of the consequences of tearing up the present deal omitted a few realities. For one, none of the six world powers currently negotiating with Iran accept the Israeli demand that Iran cannot be allowed to have any civilian enrichment capacity. The premise of the negotiating effort of the past seven years has been that Tehran would retain some enrichment capacity but with tighter limits and stricter safeguards than those required by the NPT. 

More important, perhaps, the current sanctions regime depends largely on the willingness of foreign countries to observe restrictions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union. (The U.S. has not traded with Iran since 1979.)

“If the United States should reject what is perceived to be a reasonable Iranian offer, there are growing signs that the coalition might begin to fray,” Gary Sick of Columbia University, a former National Security Council Iran specialist for three administrations, wrote in November. China and Russia would likely lead the way as many of Iran’s key business partners resumed full trade and investment ties, meaning that Tehran could ease the pressure of sanctions without the implementation even of the current deal.

China and Russia have deepened trade with and investment in Iran, and China has engaged in military exercises with Iran’s navy.

Netanyahu provided no explanation of how his position would maintain the international coalition on which the sanctions effort depends or on how — without going to war — Iran could be persuaded to settle for his terms.

“On the core issue, which is ‘How do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?’ — which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region — the prime minister didn't offer any viable alternatives,” President Barack Obama said in response to Netanyahu’s speech.

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