Israel had opposed the nuclear deal brokered between the United States and Iran, but if President Trump follows through on threats to scrap the pact, the move will present Israel with a volatile predicament.
Though Israel long called the terms of the deal flawed, some Israelis fear its demise would spur Iran to further its nuclear ambitions. Under the deal, Iran agreed to destroy or disable most of its nuclear infrastructure in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.
In the words of Yoaz Hendel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former director of communications, “we’re in the same dilemma … the U.S. administration is in.”
“On the one hand,” he said, “it’s a bad deal. Israel and the United States must say that all the time. It’s a bad deal.”
On the other hand, “canceling the deal will mean that Iran will harden its position. It wants to be the regional hegemon, and it will want to prove itself. And I mean that in the Middle Eastern sense — militarily — not using the graces of European diplomacy.”
The Israeli government declined to comment on Trump’s possible actions. The president must notify Congress by Sunday whether Iran is complying with the pact. Over the objections of several of his top national security advisors, Trump is leaning toward announcing that Iran is not in compliance.
Netanyahu fought hard against the deal, and the disagreement with the Obama administration shook Israel’s historic ties to the United States.
“This deal caused us very significant damage,” Hendel said in an interview, “but it’s spilled milk. If Trump certifies the deal, we have a borderline nuclear nation at our border and major consequences in terms of Iran’s subsidy of terror organizations, especially Hezbollah. But if he decertifies, we’re back where we were in the old days, where the only way to change the regional situation is a military strike.”
Candidate Trump made canceling the Iran deal, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievement, a central campaign promise. In talking of withdrawing from a deal ratified by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, Trump appears to be trying to change the pact’s framework. Until now, the agreement focused on Iran’s nuclear development.
In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the United States could change what constitutes “compliance” with the agreement, as Netanyahu has been pushing it to do. Perhaps, for example, a revised pact would address Iran’s development of missiles.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran has been complying with the deal, but critics say the U.N. agency has been too lenient in its reviews of Iran’s actions.
If Trump declares Iran out of compliance with the 2015 deal, it would fall to Congress to decide whether U.S. sanctions related to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program should be put back in place. Under law, Congress would have 60 days in which to act.
“[Trump] wants the headlines of deconstructing various aspects of Obama’s legacy — Cuba, Obamacare, the Iran deal — without the actual real-world impact of those decisions or coming up with alternatives,” said Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017.
“Even some prominent opponents of the deal are trying to spin the fact that Trump will decertify but Congress will decide not to renew the sanctions that were suspended. They seem to want their cake and to eat it too,” Shapiro said.
For Israel, said Eldad Pardo, an expert on Iran who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “the best case would be to leave the deal and then improve it to include missile development.”
“Trump’s advantage is that Iran perceives him as unpredictable,” he said. “They are not irrational actors. They will have to submit to him out of fear that the regime could collapse if Trump prepares for war. Iran is in a position of great weakness in relation to the United States, and rattling the deal will remind them of this.”
Pardo’s prediction may have been borne out late Friday when an Iranian source confirmed to Reuters that, hoping to reduce tensions, Tehran had indicated to the six Western signatories of the Obama-era deal that it is open to talks about its ballistic missile arsenal.
The assessment of Israel’s military intelligence professionals has consistently been that the deal has offered Israel tangible benefits — that even though inspections in Iran by monitors are not as rigorous as some would like, they are better than no inspections.
“The prevailing view of current and retired Israeli military officers is that while it is flawed, the deal is serving Israel’s interests,” Shapiro said. “Canceling it now will bring the moment of truth of Iran getting nukes much closer, and that is not to Israel’s advantage.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.