Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

Israel's Iran Dilemma

  • Roger Cohen
| Nov. 25, 2013

The era of traumatized alienation is over. The United States and Iran have embarked on a new phase in their relationship. It is marked by bilateral negotiations, handshakes, smiles, side-by-side flags and significant compromise, including United States acquiescence to a “mutually defined enrichment program” for Iran in any long-term agreement and an Iranian commitment that “under no circumstances” will it “ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.”

The six-month interim deal between major powers and Iran, renewable for a further six months pending a full accord (for a period to be defined), freezes Iran’s nuclear program about where it is — at a technologically advanced point short of militarization. But it fast-forwards American-Iranian relations and may thereby redraw the strategic map of the Middle East.

This explains Israel’s over-the-top “nyet,” its insistence that a deal heading off escalation makes the region more dangerous. Israel is the status-quo Middle Eastern power par excellence because the status quo cements its nuclear-armed domination. Any change is suspect, including popular Arab uprisings against despotism. As changes go, this U.S.-Iranian breakthrough is big, almost as big as an Israeli-Palestinian peace would be.

Just as the United States has had to adapt to a world where its power is unmatched but no longer determinant, Israel will have to do the same. With enlightened leadership this adaptation could strengthen the Jewish state, securing the nation through integration in its region rather than domination of it. For now Israel is some way from this mind-set. Its overriding prism is military. It was important that President Obama set down a marker, as he has through this deal, one that may spur new strategic reflection in Israel. (An Israel already alarmed by isolation is not about to embark on a Samson-like military strike against Iran.)

Let us be clear. This is the best deal that could be had. Nothing, not even sustained Israeli bombardment, can reverse the nuclear know-how Iran possesses. The objective must be to ring-fence the acquired capability so its use can only be peaceful.

This aim has been advanced through holding Iran’s low-grade uranium at current levels, eliminating or diluting 20-percent enriched uranium, stopping installation of new centrifuges, halting construction at the Arak heavy-water reactor and intensifying international inspection. In return, Iran gets sanctions relief worth about $6 billion to $7 billion. It gets to inch back toward the world, which is where the vast majority of its young population wants it to be and where the West has an interest in seeing it, because contact fosters moderation and isolation spurs extremism. As Obama said, “Ultimately, only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

The strategic divergence between the United States and Israel is not merely tactical. The admirable John Kerry, whose commitment to this diplomatic endeavor has been exemplary, was not altogether frank on this point.

The United States has acknowledged that any lasting accord must concede a limited enrichment program to Iran. The agreement speaks, under an eventual long-term agreement, of an Iranian nuclear program that “will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT” — so putatively placing Iran in the same category as Japan or Germany, other signatories of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with enrichment programs. Israel, to the contrary, wants zero Iranian enrichment and Libyan-style nuclear dismantlement.

The United States is prepared to conceive of an Islamic Republic fully reintegrated in the community of nations, with equal rights. That state of affairs is a very long way off. Iran will not swiftly shake off the suspicions its actions and (sometimes vile) words have aroused. Nor should it be allowed to. But Obama and Kerry are ready to entertain Iran’s rehabilitation.

Not Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants to keep Iran down. “Push us down, that is all I hear when I listen to Netanyahu,” one Stanford and Harvard-educated Iranian businessman told me. He has a strong belief that drawing Iran closer to the world is essential, a strong dislike of the Iranian regime, and a strong sense of outrage at Israel’s contempt for Iran’s national aspirations.

Diplomacy involves compromise; risk is inherent to it. Iran is to be tested. Nobody can know the outcome. Things may unravel but at least there is hope. Perhaps this is what is most threatening to Netanyahu. He has never been willing to test the Palestinians in a serious way — test their good faith, test ending the humiliations of the occupation, test from strength the power of justice and peace. He has preferred domination, preferred the Palestinians down and under pressure.

Obama and Kerry have invited Netanyahu to think again — and not just about Iran. Nothing, to judge by the hyperventilating Israeli rhetoric, could be more disconcerting. Nothing is more needed. Cheap allusions to 1938 are a poor template for Israel in the 21st century.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Future of Diplomacy Project
For Academic Citation: Cohen, Roger.“Israel's Iran Dilemma.” The New York Times, November 25, 2013.

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