5/1/18 Netanyahu Drives the Country Crazy in a PR Stunt

Monday was one of the tensest days in recent Israeli history. Israelis woke up to the news that Iranian bases in Syria had been bombed overnight. While no one took responsibility for the attack, and the Syrians blamed both the British and the Americans for the strike, it became clear it was most likely Israel that carried out the attack. Reportedly, whoever attacked the Iranian base destroyed 200 missiles. If it was an Israeli operation, it constituted the largest recently implemented. Although Russian warnings against further Israeli actions in Syria did not deter the attack, Russia did not react afterward, in any way.

By noon, the word was out that there was going to be an emergency security cabinet meeting.  Cabinet members were given one-hour notice. At first, everyone thought the meeting had been convened about the situation in Syria. However, soon the word was out that the session was called concerning the Iran nuclear agreement, known as JCPOA. The country became a little more nervous when someone faked a tweet from Channel 10 News alleging the Israeli government had intelligence the Iranians were going to start a war within the next 48 hours.  

Finally, an announcement came that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was going to give a dramatic address to the nation about Iran at 8 PM. What Netanyahu was going to say was a closely guarded secret — the public was only told that what the Prime Minister would reveal would be dramatic, a game changer. People on the streets of Tel Aviv were truly concerned that a war was about to break out. 

Strangely, during the day I had interviewed the President of Pluristem Therapeutics, a company that had just been granted FDA approval for use of their newly developed treatment for acute radiation exposure — the type of medicine one would receive in the event of a nuclear attack. Given that I live ‘a stone's throw’ from Israel’s Military Headquarters, I joked with the CEO and asked whether I could get a dose of his injection if needed.  

As the eight o’clock speech approached, every Israeli network had cut to special news broadcasts, where everyone speculated on what the Prime Minister would say. Word had already gone out to calm a nervous public that Netanyahu was not going to declare war. The pundits wondered out loud whether Netanyahu would produce a smoking gun to prove Iran has violated the nuclear agreement … Is there a secret reactor? Probably not; Does Iran possess security centrifuges it is not supposed to have? That is a possibility; or is this evening’s pressing proclamation all a big public relations stunt, in an attempt to push President Trump over the finishing line with his decision to withdraw from of the Iranian accord?

Netanyahu began his presentation at 8:10 PM. After speaking for just two minutes in Hebrew, the Prime Minister made his remaining remarks in English. He announced he was about to disclose one the greatest intelligence success in Israel’s history. And sure enough, Netanyahu produced a tremendous trove of documents stolen from a warehouse in Teheran, which included a complete historic description of the Iranian nuclear program, from 1999-2003.  The documents prove — without a shadow of a doubt — that the Iranians were and are lying when they say they have never wanted to develop nuclear weapons. They clearly had a nuclear weapons programs. Everyone was then waiting for next part — i.e. the dramatic proof that the Iranians are currently violating  JCPOA— but no such evidence was produced. 

So, what did Netanyahu bring the Israeli public and the rest of the world in his “dramatic” and excellently delivered presentation? Netanyahu conveyed nothing new. The world has been aware the Iranians wanted nuclear weapons and everyone knew they had lied about their previous activities. The question remains — What is happening in Iran now? IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisencot stated in an interview during Passover that “for right now, the agreement, with all its flaws, is working and is putting-off Iran’s realization of its nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.”  That is also essentially what Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in a recent interview. Nevertheless, Netanyahu ended his English remarks by asserting his certainty that President Donald J. Trump — his real audience — would “do the right thing and end the agreement”. After speaking in English for 15 minutes Netanyahu, spent less than two minutes speaking to the Israeli public in Hebrew. 

Netanyahu’s speech fell on receptive ears. Trump relayed he had listened to part of the presentation and it confirmed that what he was doing was 100% right vis-a-vis Iran. US Secretary of State Michael “Mike” Pompeo had made a whirlwind stop in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Following his meeting with Netanyahu regarding the Iran deal, Pompeo said: “This deal is very flawed. He’s [President Trump] directed the administration to try and fix it and if we can’t fix it, he’s going to withdraw from the deal. It’s pretty straightforward…”

The  JCPOA negotiated under President Barack Obama forced the Iranians to halt their nuclear program. That agreement, however, has three main weaknesses. First, the Iranians received much of what they wanted up front (i.e., the release of nearly $100 billion in Iranian assets and the lifting of other sanctions). Second, some the stronger safeguards in the accord sunset after 10 years. Third, the understanding does nothing to limit other Iranian actions, such as the development of ballistic missiles.  

To people who understand the Iranian agreement, the first and second weaknesses are by far the strongest reasons for the United States not to walk away. Before the agreement was signed, The main leverage the United States and its partners had over Iran was control over all of their money that was being withheld, as well as the fact the rest of the world was united in opposition to the Iranian program. The Iranians have their money now and the United States and Israel stand nearly alone in the opinion that  JCPOA should be scrapped at this time. 

By all accounts, the Iranians have been keeping their side of JCPOA, despite Netanyahu’s insinuations that they have not. So to many, it seems ludicrous for the US to withdraw from the agreement and give the Iranians a reason to walk away from their commitments. In our current world, where Iran and Russia are allies, placing any sort of pressure on the Iranians is going to be almost impossible. The flaw with aspects of the accord sunsetting at the 10-year mark is very real. However, there is no logic in tearing up a decade-long agreement that is being honored — during year 3.

Some believe American threats to withdraw from the agreement are evidence of the brilliant negotiating skills of President Trump, maneuvering to force the Europeans to agree to pressure Iran to further limit their missile program, or to curb their other aggressive activities. This approach may indeed bear fruit. It is similar to the tactic of threatening to pull to of NAFTA in order to renegotiate the agreement. Threatening to withdraw from the Iran deal could be a well-calculated move to improve the terms. However, the problem with that strategy is — what if it does not work? What then? What is “Plan B”? 

Israel and Iran are on a path toward a collision in Syria. Israel has made it clear it will not allow the Iranians to set up permanent bases in Syria and has backed up those threats with actions.  In the midst of this dispute, is it in Israel or America’s interest to end the Iranian nuclear agreement? It is hard to see how. Netanyahu and Trump, like most people, like to prove that they were right. Both were critics of the agreement everyone agrees has flaws. Nevertheless, no one has explained how putting an end to that agreement now makes sense. To date, nobody has outlined what happens the day after the US chooses to withdraw. Hopefully, someone is devising a plan, since it is becoming clear that Trump will most likely announce the US will be withdrawing from JCPOA later this month. What happens the day after what is on the minds of most Israelis.