This week, Benjamin Netanyahu took the unusual step of openly calling for American Jews to lobby their representatives in Washington against John Kerry’s proposed deal with Iran.
For historically close allies, it’s a striking moment. For outside observers wondering why Israel would be so strongly opposed to an agreement that could prevent Iran crossing the threshold of nuclear weaponry, it’s a confusing one, too.
Having spent much of last week in Israel (courtesy of BICOM) meeting a variety of political and former military figures, this week’s pronouncements sounded familiar.
The words Bibi used to justify his opposition to Kerry’s approach are carefully chosen, not off the cuff:
“That’s a bad deal.”
Those two words, “bad deal”, came up again and again in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week.
As far as Israel is concerned, a bad deal – one which is widely accepted but which would fail to permanently prevent an Iranian nuclear capability – would be worse than no deal at all. A bad deal would see their international allies press them to accept an agreement which would allow Iran either to continue to work towards the bomb, or to sat just on the acceptable side of the threshold, able to arm itself in a short period of time.
They fear that the accepted international narrative is in danger of becoming that Iran could have nuclear power, but not nuclear weapons.
In reality, it is a relatively short step from the fuel for the former to the fuel for the latter – so short, in fact, that Saudi Arabia is readying itself to receive its own nuclear capability from Pakistan just in case the Iranians make it. A Saudi bomb would likely lead to Egypt and Turkey following suit, adding further to the risk of a conflagration in the Middle East and leaving the non-proliferation policy in tatters.
Israel is many things, but most of all it is serious. They have no intention of messing about over their security – understandably so, given the history of their neighbourhood.
The political establishment in the Middle East’s only democracy is the most strategically-minded I have ever come across. Every discussion of every idea involves weighing every possible future ramification – strikingly unlike our more tactical politics in Westminster.
Israel’s objective is simple: Iran must not have nuclear weapons.
A fudged deal would, they believe, allow that to happen – hence the Israeli Government pulling out all the stops this week to ensure such a deal is not struck, and the French putting such tough conditions on the negotiations, as Garvan Walshe reported on Tuesday.
The conversations I had last week left me in little doubt of the outcomes they would find acceptable. A good deal, in which Iran’s nuclear programme ends. Or an air strike.
The air strike is far from unlikely. It is a tried and tested approach, used on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear research programme in the 1980s and on Syrian targets smuggling advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah over the last couple of years.
Even securing a good deal would, so the thinking goes, require a credible threat of an air strike – just look at what brought Assad to the table over chemical weapons.
That’s not to say that military action is taken lightly.
Any attack on Iranian facilities would likely spark another rocket bombardment from their clients, Hezbollah – only more intensive than before, and using rockets with the range to reach right across Israel’s territory. It’s hard to see how such a bombardment wouldn’t result in a ground war like that we saw in 2006 (the mistakes of which campaign the IDF has been carefully studying).
So it would be a painful option, but it remains a serious possibility. Only a good deal, not just any old deal, would prevent it.