Was it inevitable that Iran would one day gain nuclear weapons?
Identifying causality in human actions is a tricky exercise, especially when it comes to historical events, like the outbreak of World War Two. Was appeasement the cause? Or perhaps a war with Germany was unavoidable as long as Adolf Hitler was in power?
It may also be fated that a nation of ninety million people, proud about its history and place in the world — Persia was already an advanced civilization when barbarian tribes roamed the British Isles — would become a nuclear military power.
That nuclearization process actually commenced under Mohammad Reza Shah and continued because of concern that, thanks to French assistance, Iran’s adversary Iraq was on its way to developing a nuclear weapon. That plan was thankfully wrecked by Iran’s arch-enemy, Israel.
There are many reasons explaining why Iran is now on its way to getting the Bomb, but according to liberal American and Israeli pundits, the cause is clear: the decision by Washington to tear up the Iran nuclear deal in the 2018!
And the two main villains in this narrative are — Surprise, surprise! — former president Donald Trump and his Israeli sidekick, former prime minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, an early supporter of the disastrous Iraq War, describes the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as “one of the most poorly thought out and counterproductive US national security decisions of the post-Cold War era.
Friedman, the king of metaphors, compares the current negotiations in Vienna on renewing the nuclear deal to a poker night. The Iranians could win a royal flush and President Joe Biden may be left with a losing hand because, well, Trump had overplayed his hand in 2018.
In Ha’aretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times, columnist Amir Tibon bashes “Bibi” for selling “one big lie” to the Israelis when he bragged that he succeeded in pressing Trump to scrap the deal with Iran, a move that, according to Tibon, accelerated Iran’s drive to get the bomb.
Like other critics, Tibon also blames “Bibi” for ruining Israel’s relationship with the Democrats in Congress by campaigning publicly against President Obama’s “very bad deal” as Netanyahu described it.
Right! There is no doubt that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would be now on her way to Israel on a trip sponsored by the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree there — if it wasn’t for Netanyahu’s address to Congress blasting the nuclear deal in March 2015.
And in a bow to bipartisanship, the researchers in the Quincy Institute for “Responsible Statecraft,” a Washington think tank that has consistently echoed the views of the “moderates” in the Islamic Republic, the negotiations with Iran have been stalled because “President Joe Biden refused to commit to keeping sanctions lifted on Iran for the rest of his term, even if Iran rejoins and complies with the nuclear deal.”
In fact, Trita Parsi, a former president of the National Iranian American Council, and a co-founder of the Quincy Institute, has argued in the spirit of Blame America First, that the Iranians elected the hardliner Ayatollah Ebrahem Raisi because Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy vis-à-vis Tehran had “undermined centrists and reformers, setting up a rigged election with an increasingly certain outcome.”
Indeed, if only the West would have been more accommodating toward “moderate” Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin would have not come to power.
But to employ Tibon’s term, the “one big lie” that underlines these and similar criticism is the notion that the nuclear deal with Iran that was drawn by then president Barack Obama and the Dr Kissinger wannabe John Kerry was an historic diplomatic-strategic triumph for the America on a par with the nuclear arms-control agreements the US signed with the former Soviet Union or the opening to China.
In fact, notwithstanding its grandiose name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was no more than a sloppy exercise in kicking the Iran can down the road, allowing the Iranians to pretend that they were freezing their nuclear program in return for the promise of economic engagement with the West — aka US dollars.
The deal couldn’t even win the support of the two-thirds majority in the US Senate needed for ratification. It amounted to “a non-binding commitment” by the president that could be reversed by his successor in office as Republican lawmakers had warned the Ayatollahs.
Contrary to the myth perpetrated by the likes of Tibon and Friedman, almost all Israeli generals, active or retired, believed that that the JCPOA was a lousy agreement that would allow Iran to continue secretly developing its nuclear capability while destabilizing the Middle East by arming its Shiite proxies in Lebanon, Iran and Yemen.
And that’s exactly what Iran has been doing since the US decimated Iraq as a strategic counter-balance to Tehran and allowed pro-Iran Shiites to come to power in Baghdad, and that it felt even more free to do after the signing of the 2015 deal.
From the perspective of Israel’s strategic interests, the JCPOA made it more difficult for the Israelis to justify using military force against Iran which could have possibly drawn the US into a war with the Iranians. That was indeed the main reason President Obama rushed to sign the tenuous deal.
And it’s more likely than not that if the more hawkish and pro-Israel Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama in office, the deal with Iran would have not survived the expected growing tensions over Iran’s failure to fulfill its commitments under the JCPOA and its destabilizing policies in the Middle East.
It’s not a secret that most Israeli policymakers from the center-right to the center-left have concluded that the only realistic way to slow Iran’s nuclear build-up is through the use of military force by the US and/or Israel, by attacking the country’s nuclear sites, in the same way that Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 and Iraq’s in 1981.
Facing an Obama administration that rejected utilizing the military option against Iran, the Israelis came close to launching a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites in 2011, only to cancel the plan at the last moment. That move played into the hands of the Obama-Kerry duo by making the diplomatic option look more viable.
Revoking the nuclear deal made sense for a Trump administration that, unlike its predecessor, was ready to play tough with Iran and assist Israel and the Arab Gulf states in standing up to it hoping to persuade Iran to negotiate a better deal.
The problem was that neither the Americans nor the Israelis had a Plan B in place; that would have had to involve the use of military force in case the “maximum pressure” strategy would not achieve its goals and Iran didn’t cry uncle.
In fact, President Trump himself seemed to be reluctant to use force against Iran at a time when he was trying to reduce US military presence in the Middle East, which in a way reflected the strategic calculations of both his predecessor and his successor in office.
To borrow Friedman’s poker game metaphor, the only winning hand that President Biden could play in Vienna is the threat using military force against Iran, and short of that, sending signals that he would give Israel a green or yellow light to do that.
There is no doubt, however, that in the post-Trump-Netanyahu universe, the Biden administration has been projecting diplomatic irresolution, a willingness to appease Iran and just plain incompetence. In the process it has weakened the American hand in Vienna.
For example, what kind of message did the selection of Robert Malley as the US special representative send to Iran?
Malley is the son of Simon Malley, an Egyptian-born journalist, a radical leftist and third-worldist who had counted Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro among his buddies. His son seemed to follow at his footsteps, regularly bashing Israel in articles in the New York Review of Books and calling for US rapprochement with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It’s like imagining Winston Churchill nominating Oswald Mosley to negotiate a deal with Hitler. No wonder Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett refused to meet with Malley. But then he would probably be rewarded with a senior fellowship position at the Quincy Institute after retiring from government.
In Israel, the government headed by Bennett — a long-time supporter of annexing the West Bank to Israel — includes left-wing peaceniks and even an Islamist politician. But it has been unable to embrace a clear strategy to deal with what many expect would be an American deal with Tehran, or a decision by Iran to withdraw from the talks and become a nuclear threshold state.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who described the 2015 deal as an “historical mistake” and who supported striking Iran in 2011, expects Iran to become a nuclear threshold state in a few weeks or months, and argues that Israel needs to prepare for such a scenario and cannot count on the US to prevent that from happening.
“I’ll be very cautious saying this here, but I am not sure that Israel or the US have a doable plan that would allow us to wake up in the morning and declare the Iran is three years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb,” Barak told Israeli television channel 12 News.
That the Iranians negotiators in Vienna probably have known that all along may explain their sense of confidence, if not arrogance in the talks. They recognize that an America bidding farewell in the Middle East, tired of wars, and led by an elderly and weak president and a divided and anxious Israel, is not an America ready for a shootout at high noon. At least Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu gave the impression that they were.