The more things change, the more Israeli officials stay the same: As American and Iranian officials work to sell their nuclear deal at home, their Israeli counterparts are laboring to kill it. The Netanyahu government’s upcoming fight in the U.S. Congress reveals an inconvenient truth: Twenty-five years of Israeli policy have failed because Iran’s status as a de facto nuclear state has been recognized by the international community, and U.S.-Iran relations are gradually improving without the approval that Israel thought it had to give. Israel’s failure to block these monumental shifts has altered the regional balance of power vis-à-vis Iran. Unless it follows Washington’s lead and adapts, Israel’s stumble may damage its strategic interests indefinitely.
Since the early 1990s, Israel’s goal has been to compel the United States to undermine Iran politically, economically and militarily. According this logic, a weakened Iran would be less likely to challenge Israel’s military strategic edge, which is essentially Israeli military hegemony. What Washington viewed as containment of Tehran, Israel viewed as support for its de facto military hegemony. As the United States commenced serious nuclear diplomacy with Iran in 2013, Israel doubled down on its 25-year goal because it perceived Washington and Tehran’s success at the negotiating table coming at its own strategic expense. In reality, by opposing America’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran from the outset, the Netanyahu government is creating a strategic isolation of its own making.
In my conversations with current and former Israeli officials, most have long conceded — privately — that any viable nuclear deal with Iran would likely include enrichment on Iranian soil at an internationally agreed-upon level, strict inspections and verification mechanisms and the termination of nuclear-related sanctions. However, this acknowledgement rarely diminished their resolve to stop it from becoming a reality because it meant Iran would achieve a strategic middle ground called nuclear latency.
Often referred to as the “Japan option,” latency de facto recognizes Iran’s current status as a country making significant progress in civilian nuclear energy without developing key expertise to produce a nuclear weapon. Through the Iran deal, Tehran’s status as a nuclear state did not receive a boost. Instead, the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program were kept at manageable levels, and a ceiling was built at those levels to ensure Tehran cannot surpass them and venture into military territory. Israel wanted to tear Iran’s program down to ground zero, but that was neither achievable nor necessary. As MIT-trained nuclear physicist and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz confirmed, the Iran deal blocks Iran’s four pathways to a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear latency does not violate Iran’s international commitments — hence the freshly minted United Nations Security Council resolution that no longer deems Iran’s nuclear program illegal. However, latency does provide Tehran with a geostrategic equalizer in a region where Washington’s backing has allowed Israel to sit unchecked at the top of the pecking order for decades. And therein lies the rub. Precisely because latency provides Iran with some of the same deterrent effects as an actual nuclear weapon, Israel correctly calculates that the deal struck in Vienna shifts the regional balance of power by reducing its own maneuverability and deterrent capabilities.
If Israel had any hopes of bombing Iran, those hopes died with the nuclear deal. Tehran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle helped compel Washington to seal the deal in order to avoid war — and with it came de facto recognition as a regional power and increased strategic significance in the region vis-à-vis Israel, given the Jewish state’s aforementioned goal of trying to compel Washington to undermine Tehran over the past quarter-century. Resolving the nuclear issue has reduced U.S.-Iran tensions to the point where top American and Iranian officials are on the record as stating that engagement on regional issues is possible.
The differences of opinion between Washington and Tehran are well documented, but their interests are beginning to converge while Israel’s interests are diverging. A quick glance at the geopolitical chessboard tells the story: While past confrontations between the U.S. military and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force limit cooperation in Iraq, the United States and Iran are both seeking ways to stabilize the country, support the central government, fight the Islamic State (the organization also known as ISIS or ISIL) and promote unity among Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds in order to prevent the disintegration of Iraq’s borders. In the meantime, Israel openly supports separatist aspirations for Kurdish independence. While disagreements over President Bashar Assad’s future severely limit cooperation in Syria between Iran and the United States, both countries are searching for a solution that will stop the killing of innocent civilians, fight Islamic State and facilitate a political transition and a power -sharing arrangement. Meanwhile, fighters from the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front have been treated in Israeli hospitals.
There is no sign of Israel trying to leverage opportunities for U.S.-Iran collaboration in the Middle East. Instead, by trying to prevent such cooperation through a zero-sum approach to regional security, the Israeli government has left itself in a worse strategic position. If it does not adjust, Israel’s own actions may gradually turn its fear of abandonment into a self-fulfilling prophecy. No regional power — Israel included — can balance and contain Iran without U.S. support, and America is no longer willing to pay the increasingly costly price that is required to keep Israel’s preferred policy of containment in place.
The days of Israel free riding on an American-enforced regional security framework based on Iran’s exclusion — a framework that contradicts the natural balance of power — are likely over. Decision-makers in Washington recognize the diminishing returns and implausible sustainability over the long run. Left with the choice of bombing or integrating Iran into the regional order, the United States wisely chose the latter. Israel is thus far unwilling or unable to adjust, and the cost of not doing so is steadily increasing. If Israel shows greater flexibility, it can still influence the post-nuclear deal agenda between the United States and Iran. If Israel digs in its heels, it will increasingly become a liability rather than a strategic asset to the United States.
If Israel’s preferred course of action on Capitol Hill is any indication, its rift with the United States over Iran policy is set to deepen. There is no discernible opposition group working to kill the nuclear deal in Congress that is not a hawkish pro-Israel organization aligned with the Netanyahu government’s position. Israel is now working directly against American interests and disregarding the potential consequences outlined by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: “If Congress were to overturn [the nuclear deal], our friends in Israel could actually wind up being more isolated and more blamed [by the international community].”
Israel shot itself in the foot by opposing America’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran rather than helping to shape it. As a result, much of the world sees more of a problem in Israel than in Tehran on this issue, and U.S.-Israel relations have devolved to their lowest point in at least 25 years. Now that the deal has been sealed, Israel must choose: Shoot itself in the other foot by trying to single-handedly kill the deal in Congress, or cut its losses and walk with a limp. The cost of sabotage now outweighs the cost of living with the deal and adjusting Israel’s regional strategy accordingly.