Last week, negotiations began in Geneva between the P5+1 powers- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – and Iran over its nuclear programme. Since the election of a more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, other countries and specifically the US have shown an increased interest in negotiating with Iran. As the week wore on, momentum was building for the P5+1 and Iran to come to a deal that could have temporarily curbed Iran’s nuclear program and offered relief from sanctions.
Although no deal was signed, many remain optimistic about the negotiations that are set to resume. One country that is far from optimistic, however, is Israel. According to CBC News, a proposed deal and the discussion of easing sanctions on Wednesday, caused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn that a “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program could lead to war. Furthermore, Netanyahu has openly encouraged American Jews to speak out against the proposed deal.
Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat, has made it clear that it would not support uranium enrichment in Iran, even for peaceful purposes, and wants the removal of all enriched uranium from Iran. Nevertheless, this stands in stark contrast to the current position being taken by the Obama Administration. From the American perspective, discussion of stopping uranium enrichment in Iran would destroy any hopes of negotiations, as Iran has made it clear that it believes it has the right to do so.
It makes sense for the US to take a stance towards negotiations with Iran. After decades of involvement in the Middle East, the Obama Administration has made it clear both in actions and in words that it wants to lessen its influence there and avoid getting drawn into any conflicts. With the American public and budget set firmly against military intervention in that region, encouraging talks with Iran through the forum of the UN is a step in the right direction.
On the other hand, it stands in stark contrast to the interest of one of America’s biggest allies. From an Israeli perspective, they have the right to take a more hardline approach to dealing with Iran, primarily because they have a lot more at stake. Simply put, proximity and past history with Iran means that Israel faces a more serious threat from a nuclear Iran than the US or the rest the P5+1. This threat has sparked some very aggressive rhetoric from Netanyahu. Although irritating to the P5+1, this stance and willingness to pursue a hard line towards Iran is popular with the Israeli public, who view Iran as a genuine threat to their country’s existence. In fact, in 2006, Netanyahu even went so far as to say, “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany.”
For this reason, the Israeli government is taking all means necessary to torpedo any deal before it is tabled, and is even going so far as threatening war should a deal be signed that goes contrary to Israeli interests. Although these threats may be nothing more than rhetoric, as Uri Sadot stated in an article for Foreign Policy, the Israelis have acted on many of the threats against countries such as Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s. Although the US condemned such actions, these events took place during the Cold War, a time when the US was far more willing to put up with aggressive action to appease allies.
The reality of the situation today is that Israel needs the US far more than US needs Israel. As Israel’s biggest provider of foreign assistance, it is reliant on the US for its long-term security in a region where enemies surround it. Yet, Israel’s actions in a wide variety of areas are more likely to bring harm to itself. To begin with, relations between the two heads of state have been frosty at best, especially since Netanyahu endorsed Mitt Romney over Obama in the last election. Furthermore, the threat of war goes contrary to what the US is aiming for in the Middle East, and many of the steps taken by the Obama Administration have shown a complete unwillingness to get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict, even for an ally such as Israel.
In the end, this all begs the question as to whether the US-Israel relationship can be sustained in an era where the US is no longer willing to be a major security provider in the Middle East. In many respects, Israel has proven unwilling to compromise in fear that it would present a national security risk. Nonetheless, Israel’s insistence on a provocative stance risks the US viewing the relationship with Israel as a liability. In the end, Israel needs to realize that it will need to be flexible, or the incompatibility of its stance with that of the US may turn into its biggest long-term security risk.