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Dec 2, 2013
6 Min read time
If the burdens placed on Iran are small, so are the benefits it receives.
Interior of a a Titan missile silo. Photograph: Eddie Codel
No one yet knows what will come of the six-month agreement just signed by Iran and a handful of world powers. Will the deal provide the breathing room needed to reach a comprehensive deal on nuclear weapons? Will it turn out to be, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserts, a “historic mistake”? We’ll have to wait and see.
But some things are clear even now.
We know that the modesty of the agreement is little reflected in the criticism it has received. The chant from the first moment has been apocalypse. Only the total, verifiable cessation of Iran’s nuclear development program will satisfy, while anything less is grease in the gears of the Iranian war machine, a step toward the weapon that would “end Zionism’s promise to create a safe refuge for the Jewish people.”
It is true that the deal delivers far less than total, verifiable cessation. American diplomats’ major on-the-ground achievement here is the opportunity to inspect nuclear facilities, a significant benefit if nonproliferation is our goal.
But if the burdens placed on Iran are small, so are the benefits it receives.
Disregard Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s patriotic invocations of his country’s nuclear rights, supposedly enshrined in the agreement. He can believe what he likes, but rights, for better or worse, seldom go far in the power game of war and peace.
What the deal actually provides Iran is, at the high end, about $7 billion in sanctions relief. This amounts to 0.7 percent of the country’s GDP, a stimulus that will do little to rejuvenate Iran’s struggling economy, as some fear it might. And it equals 7 percent of the nuclear program’s $100 billion cost. You may believe Iran’s ruling clerics are evil, or simply wrong, but do you believe they are stupid? The kind of stupid that takes seven cents on the dollar?
And both sides buy time in which to build trust and institutions of cooperation, verification, and control, which may form the basis of long-term plan. Pretty much all of the good in this agreement lies in its potential.
We also know that the United States negotiated this deal on behalf of its global partners, one on one with Iran—and that it did so against Israel’s will.
This new Geneva Accord is a new declaration of independence—American independence from Israeli policy and Israeli independence from America’s coddling arms. It is the brightest sign yet that Israel cannot rely on dutiful America.
As Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it, “Responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people and for the state of Israel lies with the Israeli government alone.” More than half of the world’s Jews do not live in Israel, and so might question the first part of Lieberman’s claim, but on the state of Israel, he is undoubtedly right.
The conditions that once brought the United States and Israel so tightly together are no longer with us. In fact, they have not prevailed in decades, but, you know how it is—some break-ups go on and on.
As newly declassified CIA documents from the 1978 negotiations between Egypt and Israel at Camp David remind us, the alliance between the United States and Israel was a product of the era in which it was born: the Cold War. Those negotiations not only strengthened U.S.-Israeli cooperation and produced lasting peace between Israel and what had been its most intractable enemy but also eased a persistent problem—the tendency of Middle East allies to drag the great powers toward conflict.
The Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 (known in Israel and the United States as, respectively, the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War) all embroiled the United States and Soviet Union in their allies’ quarrels. In the last instance, the superpowers came especially close to confrontation.
Before and during the conflict of October 1973, the Soviets supplied arms and equipment to the Egyptian and Syrian aggressors. As the tide turned against Israel, the United States airlifted supplies. With the nuclear rivals now materially enmeshed in the war, Israel fought back to the brink of victory, leading to a ceasefire brokered by the United States and the Soviets. But the ceasefire was soon breached—by whom has never been clear—and, in response, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev demanded that Soviet and American forces enter the battlefield to enforce it. When the Nixon administration refused, the Soviets threatened to impose the ceasefire unilaterally. Soviet air and naval power were placed on high alert; troops stationed on landing craft in the Eastern Mediterranean were a few hours from Israeli and Egyptian shores. Secretary of State Kissinger, under Nixon’s imprimatur, contacted Brezhnev directly, informing him that putting Soviet troops on the ground would violate the June 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War. The United States then elevated its own states of military readiness, a response that conveyed what the international relations scholar William B. Quandt, in his diplomatic history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, calls “American determination to act if necessary.”
Given how flair ups such as these could elevate the possibility of great-power conflict, the United States had good reason to ensure that Israel could handle its own security. To that effect, Congress plowed financial and material aid—more than $100 billion to date—into the Israeli military and economy and guarded the country from opponents at the United Nations.
While the United States was cultivating Israeli power, the Soviet Union was floundering. Without a patron, the Arabs withered. From the American perspective, asymmetry between Israel and the Arabs brought calm to the Levantine arena of the Cold War.
Today that asymmetry is more pronounced than ever. Israel’s military technology is on par with the world’s most advanced—much of it came from the United States, after all, and Israeli engineers are equal to any—and its troops may be the best-trained fighters in history. As a final recourse and powerful deterrent, it possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, nearly all of its once-sworn enemies—Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia—are either in shambles, at peace with it, or reduced to mere rhetorical opponents. The Israelis know the weakness of the Arabs, as well as their own strength, which has been on frequent, and rarely defensive, display for the past four decades.
So what now? The exceptional post–Cold War alliance of America and Israel is growing less exceptional. Lacking a strategic basis for their partnership, Americans and Israelis have instead bent to abstractions. Both sides have promoted the lofty notion of a “brotherhood of democracies,” a perverse term in the context, considering that Israel governs millions of Arabs who have neither political nor civil rights. (One might argue that it is becoming inappropriate in the United States as well thanks to burgeoning state-level restrictions on ballot access, the corrupting effect of nearly unbridled campaign financing on the legislative process, and felon disenfranchisement laws that block one in eight black men from voting.)
But abstractions, like rights, yield little in global politics. The facts are not in Israel’s favor. Today America’s greatest security threat comes not from the Soviet Union but from terrorism. Federal outlays and political haymaking notwithstanding, the new threat is miniscule compared to the old, but it intensifies amid nuclear proliferation. And its agents are mostly Muslim extremists who count unreserved devotion to Israel among America’s gravest crimes.
That devotion is not going to reduce the ranks of anti-American millitants. Nonproliferation, though, is an open question. Perhaps Netanyahu is right; perhaps his solution—turn over everything, or hang—is superior to Obama’s. Thanks to America’s newfound independence, we will have a chance to find out.
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