The Strange Bedfellows of the Iran Nuclear Agreement: Israel and Saudi-Arabia

What the Israel-Saudi-Arabia dissent to the agreement shows more than anything is that it’s no longer just about nuclear weapons but about regional politics.

Netanyahu is doing everything in his power to scuttle the nuclear deal painstakingly worked out in Vienna between Iran and the P5+ partners. Most recently, he welcomed a delegation of 22 Democratic freshman congressional members to Israel, some of whom were on their first trip to the country. This was an all-expense paid trip, one of many that is coordinated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where US legislators are brought to Israel to tour the country and meet with important members of the foreign and defense establishment.

In an almost two-hour long meeting with the visiting members, Netanyahu—who apparently spoke for most of that time himself—expressed a strong opposition to the agreement, while refraining form explicitly telling the members how to vote in next month’s ballot. According to Steny Hoyer, the most senior member of the delegation, Netanyahu “feels strongly about it, so he argues strongly.” However, he did so in a logical fashion, outlining the various sections of the deal one by one, explaining his disapproval.

As House and Senate members are lining up for or against the agreement, it is interesting to note that a similar process is going on in Iran, where President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are being challenged by hardliners, who have recently lambasted the deal on various Iranian TV channels. Apparently, according to one report, when Javad Zarif together with head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, submitted the full text of the deal to the Iranian parliament and proceeded to answer questions, some of its most hardline members pretended to be sleeping. But perhaps even more interestingly, a leading Teheran Ayatollah, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, proclaimed in his Friday sermon (on July 16) that, “The Zionist regime (Israeli) and Saudi Arabia are angry about the nuclear deal, and this is the best proof of the value of the deal.”

Thus, we have come full circle, and it has to be asked: has it occurred to Netanyahu that he may have been one of the main driving forces behind his now much-hated agreement? Did Bibi not consider that openly addressing congress to convince US lawmakers to oppose the deal was the most effective road to more substantial Iranian concessions? If these things did indeed occur to him, then why would he still want to try to scuttle the deal and why is he risking a new all-time low in US-Israeli relations?

We have all heard the arguments for and against. While convincingly explained by Joe Lieberman in a congressional hearing, simply explaining to Iran that US domestic legislators were “not sold” on the deal and that we now have to go back to the negotiation table is not likely to be very effective. In fact, as this report claims—and as Zarif himself has pointed out earlier—Iranians are well aware of how US domestic politics works, and most likely, a rejection of the deal in congress would mean a retaliatory rejection by the Iranian Parliament. Just about the opposite of an approval to go back to the negotiation table. Indeed, most of those critical to the deal seem to understand that the alternatives, short of using force, are not going to produce an ideal outcome given the circumstances and the progress that has already been made in the negotiations. That should also be obvious to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In fact, such an outcome may even be preferable to Netanyahu. Because he has probably decided that it was not all about nuclear weapons after all. In fact, it was more about regional politics. Looking at Saudi Arabia’s reaction makes this point clear. According to former IAEA director Hans Blix (and I paraphrase from a conversation that I had with him in 2005), “most Middle Eastern politics could be explained through the lens of Iranian behavior.” When asked why Saddam Hussein had presided over the destruction of his country’s nascent WMD stockpile but then refused to admit to it to the IAEA, he explained, “because Saddam wanted Iran to believe they still had them.” Thus, similarly, Saudi-Arabia is more afraid of a denuclearized Iran that has the money to influence the region’s politics, than a defiant and rogue, but poor, Iran that acts as the world’s favorite Pariah, and that can legitimately be “squashed” and checked at only a moment’s notice.

Although Israel’s certainly has not dropped its concern over Iran’s nuclear capabilities and breakout time (nor should they), Netanyahu’s posture shows that he prefers deterring Iran’s nuclear capabilities over a more complex verification and monitoring regime that promises an enhancement in US-Iranian cooperation and Iranian conventional capabilities. For Iran, this agreement does indeed give them the tools to regain their economic strength and dominate the region, a prospect feared by Saudi-Arabia, with a large Shia minority. For Israel, while an economically strong Iran is not necessarily a threat, an economically strong Iran with strengthening commercial relations with both the US and Europe, is. Under such circumstances, a strengthening of ties with Saudi-Arabia may be Israel’s best bet. And it’s indeed what is happening: Iran and Israel recently officially admitted that they have held secret talks—no less than five times over the past 17 months according to this report. According to Shimon Shapira, a retired Israeli general and an expert on Hezbollah, the Israelis and Saudis have discovered they share the same problems and challenges, as well as answers.

However, there is one slight problem, Saudi-Arabia does not recognize Israel and does not plan to do so in the near future. Full cooperation, say the Saudis, would only be possible if Israel accepts and implements Saudi-Arabia’s proposal for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Arab Peace Initiative. So Netanyahu is effectively stuck between a rock and a hard place. But one can always dream…wouldn’t it be nice (and a bit ironic) if a peace with the Palestinians would be the side-effect of Israel’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal?


Then life happened…

Screenshot 2015-08-12 16.27.13Dear friends, colleagues, “followers” and other readers,

I have been on a two-year hiatus from writing and updating this Blog as “life happened” around me, but I am beginning to restart the machines on a small scale again. Look here for new posts appearing shortly.

As they do appear, please let me know what you think: Be generous…be responsive…be understanding…but do not spare the critique!

All comments are greatly appreciated! Please enjoy reading!

Thank you,

Tova Norlen

It’s the Balance of Power Stupid!

Israel may be afraid that Iran is acquiring a nuclear bomb, but what its leadership is even more afraid of is the changing Balance of Power in the Middle East.

When the Middle East erupted into chaos in the Spring of 2011, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu warned the world to curb its enthusiasm, predicting that the Arab revolutions would most likely turn out to mirror the one in Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would be Islamic, anti-Western and most importantly, anti-Israel. Since that time, Netanyahu continues to remind the world that he was right and that his warnings have been fulfilled. The Arab transitions, he claims, are neither democratic nor peaceful and the Arab spring has turned into an “Arab winter.” While the recent anti-Western violence across the Arab and Muslim world may have partially confirmed Netanyahu’s gravest predictions, it is far from clear what kind of long-run impact the possible failure of Arab democracies would have on the region in general, and on Israel in particular.

I would like to argue that neither the rogue violence coming from the Arab world, nor Iran’s possible acquiring of nuclear weapons present much of a threat to Israel’s ability to defend itself.  Even if Israel has a lot to lose if Islamic regimes that are openly hostile to Israel continue replace the “stable” dictators, what really threatens Israel’s long-term security is the changing balance of power in the region and the possible decline of U.S. power. Such a decline and subsequent retreat would reduce Israel’s maneuverability and hurt its ability to project a credible deterrence capacity in its neighborhood. Much of Israel’s foreign policy at the moment could in fact be explained by a desperate attempt to halt or even reverse such a U.S.  decline.

To read the entire article please go to the Times of Israel

U.S. interests in the Middle East (Map by Laura Canali/Eurasian Review of Geopolitics)

The Election Update: What’s Next – An Arab Spring or Egyptian Winter?

Photo: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

The Constitutional court met on Thursday to determine the constitutionality of the presidential exclusionary law, a parliamentary law that bars members of the former Mubarak regime from participating in the presidential elections. If the constitutionality had been upheld on Thursday, Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister under the Mubarak regime, would not have been allowed to remain as a candidate in this weekend’s run-off against the Freedom and Justice party’s (MB) candidate Mohammed Mursi.

While allowing Shafiq to stay in the race, the supreme court also reviewed laws concerning the election of the Egyptian parliament, in effect invalidating about 1/3rd of the seats in the lower house, and as a result, dissolving parliament. With no parliament, the SAC will again takes on broad legislative powers, to the detriment of Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is widely expected to win the presidency.

To read the full analysis, see my article in the Times of Israel.

Photo: Nasser Nasser/Associated Press

Le Grand Spectacle: What to Expect from the French

The Foreign Flags at the Bastille, Photo: France 24

Hot off the JP press!

This article in the Jerusalem Post talks about the Sarkozy-Hollande transition and the possible impact on French Middle East policy in general, and Israel policy in particular. As I write in this article, not much is expected to change as a result of the shift. However, judging by the different flags that were waved at the Bastille the evening of Francois Hollande‘s victory, the new French president’s supporters are certainly a more colorful and multi-cultural crowd than those who supported Sarkozy. Although Hollande’s first focus is expected to be on domestic integration and the economy, his supporters may also have expectations on foreign policy, especially with respect to the Middle East.

Hollande Inauguration, Photo: GETTY/Antoine Antoniol

The first test for Hollande is almost certain to be Syria, where the Western powers are now trying to persuade Russia to step up the pressure so that action can be taken through the security council. Will Hollande’s supporters pressure him to be more active to restart the Israeli-Palestinian, or to be tougher on Israel?  Judging the colors of those flags at the Bastille, those options are not unlikely.

The Bastille Crowd, Photo: Tova Norlen

Improving Israel’s Image: Myths, Truths, and Obstacles

On a recent trip to Israel, one question in particular came up over and over again: how can Israel improve its image to the rest of the world? Israeli diplomats, politicians, and academics all complained that Israel is unfairly singled out as a ‘perpetrator’ in the region, especially at a time when there are far worse atrocities being committed by other countries in the Middle East. While this is certainly true, the turmoil in the rest of the Middle East can not give Israel the excuse to ignore its own conflict, especially as it promises to serve as a major irritant in the relationship between Israel and the newly emerging Arab populist regimes. Hence, the biggest service that Israel could do to its own image would be to re-engage in the peace process with the Palestinians regardless of what happens in the rest of the Middle East.
Instead, many Israeli diplomats, including Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, seem to feel a need to explain to the International community that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be prioritized; that the situation in Gaza is not as bad as it seems; that settlements should continue (as if they strengthen the peace process); and that Israel does not need to make an efforts toward peace until all Arabs and Palestinians (including the refugees) have recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
For the whole text of this Blog post see my article in the Times of Israel

Iran and Israel: the Baghdad P5+1 talks fail


I just returned from a very intense three-day visit to Israel with a delegation of researchers from various EU think tanks. We met with researchers from the research unit of the Israeli foreign ministry, with top Israeli academics from the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, as well as with authors, diplomats and politicians. While opinions ranged from left to right on the Israeli political spectrum, allowing us a full perspective of the complexity of the domestic political situation in Israel, there was little disagreement about the most important issue of the day: the Iranian threat.

Most of the experts that we talked to expressed hopes that Iran would come around in the negotiations, that sanctions would work, and that Israel would be spared of acting militarily. However, few—if any—of those we talked to (even the leftists) seemed to believe that an Israeli strike on Iran was very far away. Most even advocated it as a necessary option to neutralize the Iranian threat.

When faced with the possibility that an Israeli strike would have the opposite effect; to only slow down the current Iranian program for a few months while also ensuring that Iran will step up efforts to develop nuclear weapons in the future, most of the analysts seemed unfazed. When faced with a gamble, said one, you have to act; as a politician, he said, you cannot gamble and lose.

One of the experts, a nuclear scientist, clearly explained that if the P5+1 negotiations (the Five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) in Baghdad fail, Israel will have to act sooner rather than later, most likely sometimes in June. He believed that Israel and the US would act together and that much of the Israeli current rhetoric is aimed at convincing the US that there is no choice but to strike Iran.

Thus, if the talks in Baghdad stall, he pointed out, another meeting will likely be scheduled for June, but most likely, Israel cannot wait that long. The parties to the negotiations in Baghdad today walked away with no agreement other than a promise to meet in Moscow on June 18-19. While the West failed to get Iran to agree to a stepped up inspections program, Iran failed to get the West to agree to the easing of sanctions in return for such access.

Lets hope the Israeli experts are wrong.

For more details of these talks see these articles in the New York Times, and the Times of Israel