We’ve noted before that the assessments of Israel’s security needs we hear from Israel’s elected leadership, starting with the prime minister, are not always identical — to put in mildly — to the assessments the leadership gets from its own intelligence and security professionals. On the surface, that dissonance appears to be recurring in spades today as Israeli leaders react to the interim Iranian nuclear agreement signed last night in Geneva. But things this time aren’t entirely what they seem.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling the deal a “historic mistake” and promises that Israel “won’t be bound by it.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says the result of the deal is that the regional nuclear arms race has now begun.
By contrast, the word from the intelligence community, both publicly and in private conversations, is that the deal is “a pretty good one as far as it goes,” as several sources told me independently. This isn’t an agreement over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, and doesn’t pretend to be. Rather, it’s an agreement to begin negotiating in earnest over the program, with (mostly) verifiable guarantees that Iran won’t use the interim period to continue galloping toward a bomb.
This is something Tehran has never agreed to before, and it comes at a manageable cost—minor, easily reversible measures relaxing the economic sanctions. The real test, therefore, is what comes out of those negotiations.
One key question Israel’s security establishment is asking itself right now is how wisely Netanyahu is behaving as he protests the agreement.
In the past, you’ll recall, Bibi’s saber rattling had the heads of the security services deeply, unanimously alarmed. This time is different. Israeli pressure on the allies pushed them to apply the sanctions that brought the Iranians to the table. Now the job is to make sure that the negotiations are serious. “We’re with Netanyahu on this,” one official told me. “It’s our job to be the complainer, the dissatisfied party.”
The question, as several sources told me, is tactical. Israeli pressure must be strong enough to keep the allies moving forward and eliminating any temptation to cut the Iranians any avoidable breaks. But it mustn’t be so strident that it ends up discrediting Jerusalem’s genuine concerns and leaving Israel isolated and vulnerable. Will Bibi recognize the danger zone and avoid crossing it? No one is sure.
What the sources emphasize is that the deal has genuinely positive aspects as a basis for serious negotiations. The Iranians agreed to neutralize its stock of 20% enriched uranium. That is, to dilute it, oxidize it or convert it to civilian-use fuel rods. They agreed to hold their stocks of 3.5% enriched uranium to current amounts, neutralizing existing stocks as they enrich new ones. They agreed to hold off installing any new centrifuges and to deactivate half the centrifuges at the Natanz reactor and three-fourths of those at Fordo. And, crucially, they agreed to halt new work at the Arak heavy-water facility.
They also agreed to permit daily IAEA inspections of Natanz and Fordo. Inspections at Arak will be permitted for the first time, but they’ll be more infrequent. If there’s a serious source of concern, it’s the Arak inspection schedule. And, of course, it’s possible that there are other facilities hidden somewhere that the West doesn’t know about.
It’s possible that at the end of the six-month negotiating period it will be clear that Iran truly doesn’t intend to meet its international obligations and take itself off the nuclear arms track for good, as the U.N. Security Council has unequivocally demanded no fewer than six times in the past seven years. If the current agreement works—as Israeli intelligence believes it can—then we’ll be no worse off at that point than we are now. And at that point it will be clear to the rest of the international community that Iran only understands one language.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).