The nightmare scenario of a “bad deal with Iran” looms for three reasons.
First, the West is not putting Tehran under enough pressure from sanctions to get it to accept what would be a bad deal for them on their nuclear program. And now the “Rouhani narrative” surrounding Iran’s new president is persuading the EU and the US to go soft on sanctions with the hope that by doing so they will be bolstering moderates.
Second, Iran has a strategy to keep its nuclear weapons program capacity. President Rouhani—a regime insider and no rebel—will accept greater transparency (short of complete transparency, of course, which would reveal the covert weapons program the regime has long denied), sign an additional protocol, maybe accept 24/7 remote monitoring, but keep the Fordow facility and its enrichment capacity. He will also try to keep alive the plutonium option—an alternative nuclear path that Iran is also pursuing, centered at a facility in Arak.
Rouhani is, to quote Michael Herzog, “the flesh and blood of an Iranian system which has heavily invested in its nuclear program and is unlikely to give up on it.” He will not accept zero enrichment. As for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, he does not trust the West. His reading of the lesson from Libya was that the West made Muammar Qaddafi give up his nuclear program then, a few years later, removed him from power. So Iran seeks a gray area in which to work, staying just the right side of the red lines set by Israel (a bomb’s worth of uranium enriched to 20 percent) and the US (a decision to build the bomb), while increasing enrichment capability, immunizing facilities from attack, and shortening the time necessary for breakout (or weaponizing) after a decision to do so is taken. As former Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak used to say, the international community’s position may end up being a case of “too early, too early, to early … too late.”
Third, America is blowing an uncertain trumpet. There is widespread concern—in Israel, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, and beyond—that President Obama did not enforce his own red lines on Syria, and thus can’t be trusted on Iran. One day Obama was ready to move against Syria, with Secretary of State John Kerry touring Europe in anticipation of a strike, the next he was deferring to a mistrustful Congress. Even those in Washington who previously believed Obama would be willing to attack the nuclear sites in Iran are now unsure.
The Syrian example has heightened fears that the US will accept a bad deal—one that leaves Iran in control of critical nuclear production capabilities and does not set them far enough back from breakout capacity. The key question not being asked is this: what happens if Iran breaks any deal they enter into—what capabilities are they left with?
Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, predicts the worst: “Some of the sites will be open for inspection. Everything will be partial. This is convenient for the Iranian and the American presidents [but is] a certified recipe for creating a nuclear Iran in the intermediate future,”
The “bad deal” is a nightmare scenario for the Arab Gulf states, and even more so for Israel. There is a dialogue between US and Israel but no apparent consensus on what is an acceptable deal. The US is not ready yet to define the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to keep. Most people, even in Israel, recognize a deal for zero enrichment is unlikely. But Israel does not trust Obama and fears that if it makes any public concessions on enrichment, those concessions will become the new baseline for negotiations—hence the hard line in public on no enrichment.
In reality, Israel would probably be able to live with a deal that leaves a small enrichment capacity, but which sets the breakout clock back to one or two years, as opposed to one or two months, as it reportedly is now. Israel will not accept Iran keeping a large number of centrifuges and the capacity to quickly complete Arak. There is currently no meeting point between this and the Iranian position.
If talks continue without resolution while Iran continues to develop its program, or if a “bad deal” makes for essentially the same result, it would seem that Israel would be left with only one choice regarding unilateral military action. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not bluffing about his willingness to act. Israel was very close to a decision in summer of 2012, in run-up to the US elections, but Netanyahu could not rally a political consensus in the Cabinet or the support of the security chiefs. There is no “containment school” in Israel, but not enough decisionmakers were convinced that this was really the last opportunity to strike. If diplomacy does not succeed now, that decision will be reconsidered.