Next week, President Trump will declare whether he intends to certify the nuclear agreement with Iran and reaffirm the easing of US sanctions. After grudgingly certifying the deal last time, media reports indicate that the president intends to do no such thing again. His position is opposed by both the state department and the defense establishment, including the secretary of defense, who testified in Congress last week that Iran is in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and that the US stands to gain from upholding the deal. In Israel, senior defense officials past and present have also spoken up in favor of maintaining the deal. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by cowardly political silence at home, is staunchly supporting Trump’s rejectionist attitude.
To achieve his apparent goal of destroying the agreement, Trump will probably kick the ball over to Congress by claiming that the deal doesn’t serve US interests, since Iran is violating the spirit of the deal by supporting terror organizations and engaging in negative regional activity. If Congress decides to reinstate the sanctions, the US will effectively withdraw from the agreement, possibly causing it to collapse altogether; if Congress decides otherwise, the price will be another volley of insults from the White House. While Congress may make the responsible decision to uphold the agreement, the lack of public debate in Israel is certainly not lending a hand to this outcome.
True, the deal is far from perfect: It overlooks Iran’s past attempts at gaining military nuclear capabilities and negative regional involvement; when it ends, the constraints on Iran will be lifted (although inspection and verification will remain). Yet without the deal, we would not only be facing a pro-terror state but also contending with a negative international force that is also a nuclear threshold state.
However, one doesn’t have to believe that the deal was good when it was signed, to be against walking away from it now. It appears that Trump’s idea is to pressure Iran to agree to “a better deal” by refusing to certify the current one. The problem is that the US did not sign alone. The other signatories – the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – have all announced they will not renegotiate the agreement. Naturally, the Iranians will not agree to worse terms offered by a party that they have seen unilaterally violate agreements. At best, if Netanyahu gets what he wants and the US withdraws, the deal will remain in place but US influence over its implementation – demanding surprise visits to military sites, for example – will be severely compromised.
At worst, Iran will declare US actions a major breach of the agreement and revert to enriching uranium at full capacity. Netanyahu may hope for a US military response, but Trump has not shown great loyalty to US allies thus far. With the threat of nuclear war with North Korea looming, he cannot be counted on to attack Iran. Also, if the US imposes sanctions on European companies that continue to do business with Iran, the EU may retaliate towards American companies, as it has already signalled is possible. This would divide the West at a time when its unity is crucial for global stability, in general, and for Israeli security, in particular.
Netanyahu has succeeded in one thing: Strengthening the international association between the ramifications of a nuclear Iran and Israeli security. Yet he is voicing support for a move that would seriously jeopardize this security. Given this state of affairs, one would expect Israeli politics to be knee-deep in debating the prime minister’s position and its implications for Israeli security. Instead, we have resounding silence. The result is that Netanyahu and his US supporters can freely claim to represent the Israeli consensus. It is high time we heard from those in the Israeli political system who realize this and are in a position to influence public debate.