JERUSALEM — In his first public comments on the Geneva agreement Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal between the six western powers and Iran a “historic mistake” that makes the world a “much more dangerous place.” He added that Israel is not bound by it.
Netanyahu said sanctions offered the “best chance for a peaceful solution” and that easing them in return for “cosmetic Iranian concessions” places Israel and other countries in danger.
Israel has the “right and obligation to defend itself, by itself,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet, emphasizing that Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accused the West of “short-range considerations and lack of determination.” These, he said, legitimized Iran’s military nuclear program and allows it to continue “the most active and prosperous terror factory in the world.”
Other senior Israeli ministers sounded similar harsh criticism. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel would not join the “international celebration based on Iranian deception and self-deception,” and Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman warned that the agreement would plunge the region into a “nuclear arms race.”
The good news about the agreement, according to Ephraim Asculai of the Israel National Security Studies think tank, is that Iran will not enrich uranium to a grade higher than 3.5%. This is also the bad news, he said, since Iran can move from that level to the 90% needed for military purposes almost as quickly as it could from the 20% that had been Netanyahu’s red line.
While the agreement does include some positive elements, Israel’s main concern remains that Iran’s “breakout possibility has not been negated” by the agreement, said Asculai, a former official with the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and the IAEA in Vienna.
From the moment the regime decides to break out in the military direction, it would take four to six months to produce a nuclear explosive device and perhaps carry out a test; an atomic bomb would take a bit longer. Others estimate Iran is only two months away from breakout capability.
While most Israeli commentators denounced the deal, there were some prominent voices of support. “Compared to the alternative of a military strike at this point, the agreement reached is far superior,” lawmaker Omer Bar-Lev, of the left-leaning Labor Party, told Israeli media.
Soli Shahvar of the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies at Haifa University said the success of the agreement depends on its goals. If it is aimed at preventing Iran from being able to achieve nuclear weapons on short notice, it is a bad deal, he said. But, he added, if it is intended to prevent a military confrontation in the next six months, it is likely to succeed.
While this largely depends on Iran’s compliance with the agreement, Shahvar believes Iran will avoid egregious measures that could provoke an attack. “They aren’t likely to risk this in their situation, which is on the way up and can only improve from here,” he said.
According to Shahvar, “Iran will not want to give Israel an excuse by crossing any red lines.” For now, the interim agreement helps Iran protect its key interest of preserving the regime and protecting it from domestic and external threats.
Compliance could also advance another strategic interest of Iran’s: repositioning itself as a peaceful country and “turning world attention to Israel as a war-mongering source of regional instability,” Shahvar said.
Most observers agree that Netanyahu was right to try to influence the agreement but some worry about the diplomatic price. Now that the interim deal is sealed, Israel must focus on two tasks — working for a better comprehensive agreement, and restoring intimacy to relations with the U.S., Finance Minister Yair Lapid said.
Energy Minister Silvan Shalom insisted relations with the U.S. remain very good, but “we see things differently on this issue.” Responding to reports that the U.S. and Iran engaged in back-channel talks behind Israel’s back, Shalom said, “It’s not important if we were informed but whether we knew — and we did.”