Saudi normalization should not come at the expense of Israel’s top priority: Preventing a bad Iran deal

Israeli officials should insist on having the US trigger the snapback mechanism in the JCPOA to its fullest extent. This will make it possible to move forward with a Saudi-American-Israeli deal that also addresses Riyadh’s nuclear demands. It will also open the door to joint Israeli-American action against the Iranian program.

 By  Jacob Nagel, ISRAEL HAYOM 1.6.23

A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges placed on display during Iran’s National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran April 10, 2021 | Photo: Iranian Presidency Office/WANA via Reuters

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, and his senior deputy Gil Reich are all in Washington for meetings with senior White House and state officials, ahead of critical decisions regarding Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Israel must not be confused about the priorities of what should be presented during the talks. It is very important to prevent a potential error in judgment (perhaps unintentional) and to make sure the United States understands that preventing a bad agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program has not been relegated to second priority after reaching a deal with Saudi Arabia. The potential for damage is very severe.

The US and the clerical regime in Iran have recently held more talks, which included mediators from Oman, Kuwait, and others. These were aimed at reaching a nuclear deal known as “less for less”, which is actually “much less for much more”. Just reading the recent interviews of Robert Malley, the president’s envoy to the negotiations with Iran, and Ali Vaez, his successor as the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, reveals that the discussions are serious.

Despite these efforts, there is still the risk that the Israeli focus will be on a Saudi-American-Israeli deal, which in itself is very important. This could result in the effort to prevent a faulty temporary agreement with Iran, which will certainly become permanent, dropping to second place.

There is a close connection between some of the components of a Saudi deal and proper handling of the Iranian nuclear program, and the right way is to try and tie them together and reach a deal that will be a win-win for Israel, and also for the United States, despite the latter potentially not viewing it this way.

In the meetings held between the negotiators from the United States and Saudi Arabia, some Saudi demands were raised, most of which were not directly related to Israel, and the decisions regarding them must be made exclusively in Washington, taking into account the indirect effects on Israel and maintaining its qualitative edge. On the other hand, the demands related to independent nuclear capabilities are directly and worryingly related to Israel, Iran, and the entire region. On this sensitive issue, Israel must refrain from making mistakes.

According to open-source assessments and publications coming presumably from Saudi sources, Riyadh’s main demands are as follows: security guarantees; advanced arms deals; getting the same status as a NATO ally; a free trade zone between the countries; reducing pressure on human rights issues; and more. Israel can live with all these demands if its qualitative military edge is maintained by the United States.

Regarding the “civilian” nuclear issues, the Saudis requested fully independent capabilities that would enable them to commercially tap their natural resources, including mining uranium and turning it into a “yellowcake”, converting it to gas (UF6), and enriching it to the level required to produce nuclear fuel rods for power reactors (electricity generation), for domestic use and export purposes. The Saudis apparently demanded that the capabilities be exploited entirely on Saudi soil. They are unlikely to object to any monitoring and inspection required by the United States and the IAEA. It will be very difficult for Israel to accept these demands, as presented.

Saudi demands, of course, are based on the faulty precedent created by the JCPOA, which gave Iran expansive independent enrichment capabilities and advanced centrifuge R&D on Iranian soil. It is therefore possible to understand where Saudi Arabia is coming from in seeing these demands as legitimate, even if one does not agree with them. In their view, the Iranians, who violated every treaty and agreement they signed and deceived the world, received the right to independent enrichment, so why shouldn’t they get the same? Understanding the Saudi argument is key to the solution that I will present to reach a win-win situation.

The rationale behind the alleged nuclear deal the US and Iran are working on is freezing Iran’s progress – i.e. granting Iran de facto approval to enrich uranium to 60% – in exchange for the release of some of Iran’s frozen funds (in Iraq and South Korea) and perhaps also the release of prisoners. Israel must clarify in advance what the dangers in this absurd deal are, and present strong opposition – even if it will harm the potential progress toward the very important Saudi deal.

The absurdity in the emerging Iran deal is even magnified when you add up the time that has elapsed since the idea was first raised by the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and if you take note of the change in the fundamentals since then. America’s overarching goal of having a one-year breakout period is no longer relevant; an agreement will result in that window total perhaps no more than a few weeks while giving the Iranians tens of billions of dollars that would enable the regime to recover economically and to continue financing terrorism.

Since the idea was first raised, Tehran has been massively enriching to 20% (this is the main problem, although everyone emphasizes enrichment to 90%, which is mostly semantic and declarative), and to 60%, and even “dabbled” in 84% enrichment, even though the IAEA is about to close this investigation file. Iran produces uranium metal, prevents the inspectors from accessing suspicious sites, and maintains all paths to the bomb.

The deal would legitimize Iran’s violations and allow it to retain all the assets it has obtained through those violations. At the same time, the IAEA continues to close its investigation files on the Iranian issue. This could undo the agency’s very raison d’être.

The agreement will allow Iran to continue in its development and manufacturing of advanced centrifuges, as well as give it permission to hold on to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. It will also continue weaponization – the only thing that truly separates Tehran from having nuclear capability. Meanwhile, its true status will continue to be largely hidden.

The agreement will stop any activity against Iran’s nuclear program by the United States, certainly in an election year, under the mistaken assumption that the plan is “back in a box”, as Sullivan phrased it, and will prevent, or at least make it very difficult, for Israel to attack alone.

All this – while the Iranians attack American interests in the Gulf and in the Middle East, violate human rights and kill women and girls in Tehran, and continue their massive support for Russia by transferring advanced weapons that help kill Ukrainian women and girls.

Therefore, the correct and practically the only way to advance a Saudi deal that would help bring about normalization with Israel, overcome the issue of Riyadh’s request for an independent fuel cycle, and take the bad deal with Iran off the table, is to have the Israelis – during their meetings in Washington – insist on triggering the snapback mechanism to the fullest extent against Iran, by reinstating all UN Security Council sanctions that were lifted when the agreement was signed, including a total ban on uranium enrichment.

Such an American demand, even if it will not come to be in the end because of an Iranian objection, will pull the rug under the Saudis’ enrichment demands, make it possible to move forward with a Saudi-American-Israeli deal, without the nuclear threat from Saudi Arabia, and open the door to joint Israeli-American action against the Iranian nuclear program.

Any American approval to give Saudi Arabia the right to enrich uranium on its soil – certainly if it will be without strong Israeli opposition and regardless of the level of supervision in Saudi Arabia and who will actually be responsible for the enrichment – will immediately trigger a similar demand from countries that have already received some civilian nuclear capabilities from the United States (the UAE, for example) while complying with the so-called “123 rules” that cover all dangers, and from other countries in the Middle East. A nuclear arms race will then begin.

A bad nuclear deal will once again inflict a heavy toll on Israel, so Israel must act against it in a loud and unified manner, even if the potential for advancing the Saudi deal, which is very important to Israel, is undermined in the process. This critical issue should remain the number one priority and must not be included in any Israeli political controversy. Sources inside Israel, official and unofficial, who express the opinion that even a bad agreement has advantages, such as giving Israel more time to prepare for a future confrontation with Iran, are wrong and misleading, and they also harm Israeli interests.

At the same time, Iran is trying to draw Israel into a multi-front confrontation and to remain, at least for now, out of real physical confrontation. Israel cannot allow Iran to get away with that, and at the same time, Israel must continue to improve its capabilities – military or otherwise. The Israeli message against an agreement with Iran must be crystal clear; any other form of conduct will send the message – especially to the Gulf states – that Israel is weak and cannot be trusted.

Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council (acting).

June 1, 2023 | Comments »

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