The Race for a Nuclear Deal: Why Israel Remains on the Sidelines

The United States aspires to reach a deal with Iran as soon as possible, perhaps to recruit Iran to the struggle against the Islamic State. Israel’s security considerations are sidelined at this stage, and the prime minister’s office doesn’t necessarily have the right to complain.

We have not yet recovered from the last crisis in Israel-U.S. relations revolving around the issue of construction in Jerusalem, and we have now been notified of more disagreements, this time about the struggle against the Islamic State group (Da’ash) and Iran’s nuclear program. Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece according to which U.S. President Barack Obama sent a secret message to the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Obama stated his desire to cooperate with Tehran in the struggle against the Islamic State group after a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue is achieved.

Israel’s foreign secretary, Avigdor Lieberman, was quick to express Israel’s reservations to this U.S. plan. According to news sources, the U.S. did not inform Israel and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf of this plan. In a news conference with the EU’s chief of foreign policy, Lieberman noted that “we oppose the creation of a connection between the Iranian nuclear program and the struggle against ISIS (…) Iran is not a partner for any moderate coalition against ISIS or any type of dialogue in the Middle East.”

The question of incorporating Iran in the struggle against the Islamic State group has been on the U.S. agenda for quite some time. Washington wants to assemble an international coalition which will be as expansive as possible and which will, foremost, consist of countries in the region which perceive the Islamic State group as an immediate threat. Iran is a country central to Middle Eastern affairs and views the Islamic State group as an immediate threat to its Syrian brethren and its geographic neighbor Iraq; on the surface Iran is, therefore, a worthy partner in the American coalition.

In this spirit, the U.S. pursued Iran the last few months and continues to do so. Apart from talks between senior U.S. officials and representatives of the Iranian regime surrounding the nuclear issue, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sent an invitation to Iran to partake in an emergency meeting initiated by France last September in Paris. The meeting was meant to coordinate the various countries’ stances on the struggle against the Islamic State group. However, due to threats of boycott from Saudi Arabia, Secretary John Kerry was forced to cancel the invitation to Iran. Afterward, officials in Washington had to clarify that “the U.S. has no intention of coordinating stances and cooperating with Iran” on military matters.

In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, prior to Obama’s secret message to Iran, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stipulated that his country’s consent to participate in the struggle against the Islamic State group is contingent upon the achievement of a solution to the nuclear crisis. This was stated while simultaneously blaming U.S. policy for creating a crisis in the region. In this respect, Obama’s message to Khamenei, in turn, strengthens the Iranian line. Still, even though both nations have an interest in toppling the Sunni organization the Islamic State group, this is not enough to reassure those who fear that the United States will make even greater compromises in the nuclear negotiations, just in order to get the ground ready for Iran’s integration into an international coalition.

Clearly, the U.S. and its partners in the negotiations with Iran have not accepted Israel’s position on the need for Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear capabilities. To the dismay of Israel, the U.S. generally allows Iran to continue its uranium enrichment program, which will enable Iran, should it so decide, to produce material for manufacturing a nuclear bomb in the future. Therefore, Israel is trying to ensure that the “breakthrough time” — the amount of time Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb — will be as long as possible.

Both countries wish to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. However, the United States does not share Israel’s perception (and neither does the writer of this article) that a nuclear Iran (or an Iran on the threshold of nuclear capability) is an existential threat; unlike Israel, Washington suggests it will be able to “live with the threat” and stop it should it be necessary.

It can be assumed that once the nuclear crisis is resolved or neutralized (and there are still questions surrounding these possibilities), the disagreements between the U.S. and Israel will worsen, as the U.S. administration will seek to enter into a dialogue with Iran on regional issues for which both countries (the U.S. and Iran) share common interests.

Such a dialogue may also exacerbate the lack of trust between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as well as between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, which will view growing U.S.-Iranian relations with a lot of suspicion. Incidentally, the U.S. will not be the only country to take advantage of the newly created situation; EU countries, aware of the significance of a politically, and especially of an economically strong Iran, will also try to normalize relations with Iran.

Obama’s message to Khamenei, reportedly made “behind the back” of the region’s countries, contributes to the feelings of distrust among Israel and the Gulf. If this is true, then this will almost certainly not be the first or last time the U.S. did not notify Israel of its moves in the region. The U.S. government didn’t notify Israel about secret contact with Iran, brokered by Oman, in the months preceding the signing of the 2013 interim agreement. Likewise, it can of course also be said that the Israeli government did not bother, on several occasions, to update the White House about construction plans in East Jerusalem.

Shimon Stein, former ambassador to Germany, served as deputy director of State Commonwealth in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today he is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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