March 23, 2017 § 3 Comments
Israel’s relationship with Russia is in some ways its most important and also its most dangerous. While the U.S.-Israel relationship is the only one that is vital to guaranteeing Israel’s fundamental security, the relationship with Russia has a larger impact on the daily threats that Israel faces given the Russian role in the Syrian civil war. Prime Minister Netanyahu has ably managed ties with Moscow, with his trip to Russia to meet with President Putin two weeks ago the fifth in the past year, but the reality is that despite Israel’s best efforts, tension with Russia is bound to escalate. Israel and Russia’s redlines with regard to the outcome in Syria are in fundamental conflict, and papering over the differences is becoming increasingly harder to do.
Russia-Israel ties under Netanyahu and Putin have reached a historical apex for the two countries, partly because of the rapport between the two men and partly because of larger structural factors. From Israel’s perspective, closer ties with Russia make for good domestic politics. Over 10% of Israel’s population hails from the former Soviet Union, and Russian Jews maintain cultural and economic links to their former homeland. Soviet Jews have risen to the top of the government, with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein the most recent examples. Russia is also seen as a strong ally in Israel’s battle against terrorism as Russia has its own homegrown terrorist threat, and the Kremlin has also historically been inclined not to harshly criticize Israeli settlement policies despite its support of a Palestinian state.
But it is due to defense concerns on both sides that the relationship has deepened and become more important. One of the few advantages that Georgia had in its five-day war with Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia was its Israeli drones, which were far superior to the domestically-produced models flown by Russia and a fact that did not escape Moscow’s attention. It led Russia to subsequently make four purchases of Israeli drones, a seemingly ordinary transaction made remarkable by the fact that it was the first time Russia had ever bought arms from a foreign country. As Russia has increased its military activity in Syria and its near-abroad, its desire for Israeli military technology has only grown, and thus its relationship with Israel has become more important.
On the Israeli side, Russia’s involvement in Syria directly impacts Israel and makes closer relations a necessity. For the Israeli government, Russia’s heavy presence in Syria has been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that Israel has been able to repeatedly strike Iranian arms convoys destined for Hizballah without Russian interference despite flying hundreds of sorties through Russian-controlled territory, since Jerusalem and Moscow have worked out a deal preserving Israel’s ability to strike these targets and have coordinated to a near-perfect level. Were Israel trying to operate in Iranian-controlled territory rather than Russian, things would be far messier. The fact that Russia purposely turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on these weapons shipments – despite the extraordinary fact that Israel is oftentimes blowing up weapons that Russia itself has supplied to Iran – also limits the fallout, as it makes it difficult for Iran to retaliate against Israel in response. The curse, however, is that in having to rely on Russia’s good graces, the Israeli military is operating at the mercy of a larger power and must also limit itself to the parameters of what it has agreed upon with Moscow, rather than being able to target Iranian fighters in Syria to whatever larger extent it wishes. Russia’s ownership of the Syrian civil war provides Israel with a greater degree of freedom but also a greater degree of restriction.
While the relationship has remained on track up until now, it has been destined to unravel from the day that Russia entered Syria, and indeed the first loose threads are now beginning to show. No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Israeli government and military opinion was split as to whether it would be better for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power or better for him to be toppled. That debate has decisively shifted toward the latter as Assad has solidified his rule over western Syria with a serious assist from Iran, leading not only to a more robust Hizballah presence in Syria but Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers as well. As the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment came to a near-consensus on the dangers of Assad’s continued tenure given his ever larger reliance on Iran and his further cementing as an Iranian proxy, Russia made it clear that it will not abandon Assad and that its own core interest in Syria is keeping him – and the Iranian influence that is bound up with him as a necessary byproduct – right where he is. Israel cannot abide Assad staying and Russia cannot abide him going.
This situation was manageable so long as Israel was content to confine its actions in Syria to striking Hizballah and breaking up any efforts to supply it with advanced game-changing weaponry, such as S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. But with intelligence that Iran is now beginning to establish permanent bases in Syria, the Israeli calculus has understandably changed. Russia’s, however, has not. It was notable that in the aftermath of the Netanyahu-Putin summit two weeks ago where Netanyahu raised his concerns about preventing an Iranian military presence on Israel’s northern border, neither side indicated that it was particularly satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. Furthermore, one week later the Israeli ambassador to Russia was summoned to explain an Israeli strike that hit close to a Russian military position, introducing a new level of tension into the relationship, and Israel had to bat down the Assad government’s claim that Russia had informed Israel that it could no longer fly missions in Russian-controlled Syrian airspace.
It is an enormous accomplishment of Netanyahu’s diplomacy that the situation with Russia has proceeded so smoothly until now, particularly when juxtaposed against the backdrop of downed planes and economic sanctions that have marked the Russia-Turkey relationship over Syria. But Israel is now entering an untenable situation, in which it will have to choose between risking open conflict with Russia – something that both sides will be desperate to avoid – or sitting on its hands as Iran digs in across from IDF positions on the Golan and plants missile batteries on Syrian territory for the purposes of targeting Israeli cities and towns. Israel was right to worry about Iranian ambitions in the region, but it is the Russian relationship with Iran over Syria rather than the American relationship with Iran over the nuclear deal that will prove to be the thornier dilemma to navigate.
October 13, 2016 § 4 Comments
When your work centers on Israel, you spend a lot of time contemplating existential threats. Whether it is Iran’s nuclear program, Hizballah and Hamas terrorism, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the specter of Israel ending its presence in the West Bank, the monopoly of the Orthodox on Israel’s religious and family institutions, the threat of allowing the non-Orthodox a say in Israel’s religious and family institutions – everyone has their favorite doomsday scenario for what will bring the end of Israel. I don’t want to debate whose alarmist tendencies are most on point, but there is one clear and present danger looming on the horizon that nobody should casually dismiss, and that is the potential presidency of Donald Trump.
Let’s begin with the easy stuff. American Jews often like to talk about whether or not a candidate feels Israel in his or her kishkes, and for many it can be a quick and easy litmus test for pro-Israel voters. If this is the standard that you employ, there is no conceivable argument that Trump meets it. Trump seems to know nothing about Israel other than that it has built a wall. He has suggested cutting all U.S. foreign aid – which would include the military assistance to Israel – and then embraced making Israel reimburse the U.S. for the defense aid it receives. He then switched course yet again and defended the annual military assistance and missile defense cooperation not on the grounds of Israel being an important ally or because its safety is an American interest or because Israel doesn’t exactly live in a friendly neighborhood, but because it is an “excellent investment.” Given Trump’s history of bailing on investments that have turned sour and leaving his creditors high and dry, I don’t know why anyone would assume that he would treat Israel otherwise were his views of its investment worthiness – whatever that even means – to change.
But let’s leave aside Trump’s emotional attachment to Israel or lack thereof. The actual policy agenda that he has embraced would be disastrous for Israel as well. Trump has made his disdain for allies and alliances clear, treating every relationship that the U.S. has as a transactional one. For a country that relies on the U.S. for weapons, security guarantees, diplomatic assistance in the United Nations and other international forums, and intelligence sharing, to list only a short part of a long menu of items, it would be four or eight years of constant walking on eggshells, hoping that a President Trump views Israel as pulling its perceived weight.
Trump does not actually understand Israel’s specific policy concerns. The major area of disagreement between the U.S. and Israel during the Obama administration has been Iranian power, and yet at the debate this past Sunday night, Trump repeatedly expressed his preference for farming out responsibility and influence in Syria to Iran and Russia so that they could assist Bashar al-Assad. In short, Trump actively wants to further empower Iran in establishing a permanent and dominant presence in Syria, creating the biggest threat on Israel’s immediate border in decades and ensuring that Hizballah has even freer reign than it ever has to stockpile missiles and menace Israel. He has called for Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear weapons, which would permanently eliminate Israel’s qualitative military edge. Does this sound like someone who even understands what Israeli security concerns are, let alone a great and glorious friend?
Trump does not understand Israel itself. He has stated that if he is not elected president, the Iran deal will lead to Israel’s elimination. We can debate the merits of the Iran deal from now until Election Day – and Trump is correct that Israeli officials, including those in the security establishment and not just politicians, are not exactly fans – but the notion that only Trump can save Israel runs counter to anything and everything for which Israel stands. It betrays an utter ignorance of the very essence of Zionism, of Jewish power and survival embodied in the Jewish state. It betrays an utter contempt for the Israeli ethos of self-reliance and making “Never Again” more than just a hollow slogan. It betrays an utter incomprehension of Israeli military power, intelligence, and capabilities. It betrays an insulting narcissism that pays lip service to Israel without bothering to learn the first thing about it.
Trump does not understand the U.S.-Israel relationship. He thinks that it is based upon the shared darkness of struggling with terrorism rather than the shared values of democracy. He seizes upon suboptimal choices that Israel has reluctantly made out of necessity – the separation barrier, profiling at Ben Gurion Airport – to bind himself to Israel, never for one second comprehending that Israel does not take these measures with the glee that Trump evinces when discussing them. Every time he unfairly tarnishes Israel by using it as his justification for pushing a set of noxious policy prescriptions that are completely devoid of the Israeli context, Israel’s standing in the U.S. suffers. When naysayers doubt the values aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they tend to focus on Israel’s democratic deficit, warning that Israel is in danger of losing its appeal in the eyes of Americans. Not only do Trump’s words of damning praise threaten support for Israel by continually shining a spotlight on Israel’s least attractive side, a Trump presidency will take this dynamic and turn it on its head, making Israel diplomatically captive to an America whose moral leadership is eroded and tarnishing Israel with a guilt-by-association. It is difficult to have a robust alliance that is based primarily on shared values when one side of that alliance is run by an imperious megalomaniac obsessed with punishing his political enemies and eviscerating the rule of law.
During Sunday night’s debate, I tweeted that Trump is an authoritarian. Over the next 24 hours on Twitter, I was called an oven dodger, a dumb kike, a hook-nosed Jew, a Jewish subversive, a traitor, told to “get your ass back to Tel Aviv” and to go back to “your country Israel,” among other pleasantries. My characterization of Trump did not even hint at anything having to do with Jews or Israel, yet the putrescent sleaze emanating from his fans was quite narrowly tailored. I do not hold Trump responsible for what his supporters do and say, and thankfully none of these mental midgets will be responsible for his Israel policy. But think about the political persuasions of Trump’s most ardent fans and remember that this is a man with no real policy ideas that do not involve sound bites and who is captive to whatever crazy idea is the latest to penetrate his skull. And then ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the most powerful leader in the world being someone who lies awake at night retweeting the kind of people who think that an American Jew whose family has been here for over a century should “pack your bags for your walled ethnostate.” There is a wide universe of policies that can be deemed pro-Israel, but I don’t trust that any of them will be reliably implemented by an unapologetically oblivious and proudly uninformed cretin whose policies and statements present a danger to the long term health and interests of his own country’s democracy, let alone one six thousand miles away.
May 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
It’s been a pretty terrible run recently for British politicians who like to wear their opposition to Israel as a badge of honor. The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, paved the way for the deluge in the course of defending his colleague Naz Shah – herself suspended for anti-Semitic ravings – with his fever dream conspiracy theory that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad.” This opened the floodgates, and now it turns out that fifty Labour Party members have been suspended for anti-Semitism and racism (although dollars to donuts the racism part of the Venn diagram that does not overlap with anti-Semitism is nearly non-existent), with surely more to come. This is before one even begins to mention Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who himself has a dodgy history of giving cover to Hamas and Hizballah, defending 9/11 conspiracy theorists who blame the attacks on the Mossad, and cavorting with Holocaust deniers.
The vitriolic rot is not limited to the other side of the pond. Right here at home, there has been Harvard Law student Husam El-Qoulaq asking Israeli MK and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni why she is “so smelly;” the questioner at the Bernie Sanders rally who asserted that “Zionist Jews” run the U.S. economy and control American political campaigns; the UCLA student who was initially barred from joining the student judicial board because her Jewish heritage would allegedly prevent her from fairly considering cases related to Israel activism and BDS; and countless others. All of this has naturally reinvigorated a long-running debate on whether anti-Semitism can be distinct from anti-Zionism – a topic I briefly weighed in on years ago – and how to oppose Zionism without it bleeding over into opposing Jews writ large.
The question is important both intellectually and practically, but it is the wrong question. The question of the moment shouldn’t be whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, but why anti-Zionism as it is being practiced is considered to be within the bounds of acceptability at all, irrespective of the anti-Semitism angle. Whenever someone draws an unwarranted spotlight these days for traversing the thin red line between denouncing Israel versus denouncing Jews, there is an immediate race to say that the offending comments or actions are not anti-Semitic, only anti-Zionist. The unsaid implication is that wholesale delegitimization of Israel is fine so long as it does not extend to Jews as a group, but it is unclear to me why this is somehow seen as a legitimate way of distinguishing cases; the virulence of many of these instances of anti-Zionism is just as ugly as straight anti-Semitism.
Go back and take another look at the various recent examples at the top of this piece. With the exception of the UCLA incident, one can pretty easily make a cogent argument that none of these are anti-Semitic. That doesn’t make them alright. We have arrived at a place where committed anti-Zionists must ask themselves not whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic or not, but whether anti-Zionism itself can be sustained in any real way that is not violently and offensively bigoted. Bigotry is the hatred and refusal to accept members of a particular group based on nothing but their inclusion in that group. The most widespread form of anti-Zionism, that seeks to boycott and hound Israelis no matter who they are or where they are, is bigotry, plain and simple. That it is directed at Israelis rather than Jews makes no difference. The laughable refrain that “Israel is the most brutal country on Earth and does not have a right to exist, but hey, I love Jews and have many Jewish friends, and by the way the best Jews are not Zionists” doesn’t send the message that you’re not anti-Semitic. It sends the message that you are a callous bigot, ignorant of history and any sense of factual proportion, who for some reason believes that hating Jews as a group is ok as long as you only hate the group of Jews who live in one particular place.
I will defend anyone’s right to criticize the Israeli government, and I exercise that right myself all the time (almost certainly too much for some readers’ tastes). The notion that some hold of supporting everything Israel does, right or wrong, is not one with which I identify. If the litmus test of what it means to be pro-Israel were applied to talking about the U.S., then literally every American I know would be classified as anti-American. I can understand – although I neither condone it nor agree with it – those who go further than mere criticism and boycott Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appearances because of their harsh disagreement with the Israeli government. But if you think that comparing Netanyahu to Hitler and Israelis to Nazis, or referring to Israeli politicians as olfactory nightmares, or barring Israelis from academic conferences around the world, is simply “criticism” that doesn’t cross a line of what should be acceptable in civilized company, you are badly in need of a history lesson, if not a lobotomy.
For the purposes of this exercise, lets give anti-Zionism the largest possible benefit of the doubt. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that claims to reject nationalism and decries Israel’s right to exist but at the same time endlessly shouts Free Palestine is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that lauds Hamas as anti-colonial freedom fighters while whitewashing its annihilationist rhetoric against Jews – not Israelis, but Jews – is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that has nothing to say about countries that forbid non-Muslims from entering entire cities or enact legislation based on religious law but that harps on Israeli immigration preferences for Jews is not anti-Semitic. Even if you grant all of that, it doesn’t make this anti-Zionism any less noxious, less offensive, less bigoted, or less dangerous. Anti-Semitism is a black scourge upon the face of human history, but the fact that it is singularly terrible does not make other forms of vile hatred any less worse than they actually are.
December 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. In March 2013, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile, and here I am again nearly three years later explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile. That the two countries have had a number of false starts is instructive and provides the first lesson of the day, which is that despite yesterday’s announcement, expectations should be tempered until there is an actual signed agreement. That is not to say that this is a feint, but that there are still a lot of obstacles ahead, including President Erdoğan’s desire to use this as a domestic political win bumping against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire not to be used for Erdoğan’s political gain; a recent history of extremely difficult relations between the two governments that cannot be papered over at the drop of a hat; the Gaza blockade remaining as an extra large sticking point; and the big elephant – or more accurately, bear – in the room that is looming over this entire thing and that I’ll get to in a minute. In other words, this won’t be entirely easy so no champagne corks should be popping yet.
But assuming that this does indeed go through, it’s not terribly difficult to see why. What I wrote in March 2013 was that the two sides were being pushed together by energy needs and Syria, and that remains true today but even more acutely. Dan Arbell on Monday (exhibiting impeccable timing!) wrote about thawing relations between Turkey and Israel focusing on Turkey’s ongoing quest for energy security and Israel’s complementary ongoing quest to find an export destination for its natural gas, with the Syria situation being a factor as well. Turkey is in a serious bind now that its relationship with Russia has deteriorated in such a big way, and Israeli gas provides a way out. If Russia cancels the Turkish Stream project or even takes things one step further and halts natural gas shipments to Turkey entirely, Israeli gas won’t solve things in the short term but will provide a long term hedge against relying on Russia as a primary energy supplier. On the Israeli side, the simple truth is that no energy company is going to invest the resources to develop the Leviathan field without a viable export destination, and the two best large market options were always Egypt and Turkey. The first one is far less attractive now due to the recent Egyptian gas discoveries mitigating how much Israeli gas Egypt will want to buy over the long haul, leaving Turkey as the best destination remaining. There are still political hurdles to be overcome on both sides, and the technical hurdle of constructing a deepwater pipeline is nothing to sneeze at either, but the formal approval granted yesterday to Noble to develop Leviathan likely resulted directly from the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
On Syria, Turkey is always desperate for more intelligence and coordination given how much it has been affected by the civil war, and Israel can benefit as well since it does not want spillover across its northern border. The Russian intervention has made this more stark for both sides, since where Israeli opinion has been divided from the start on whether it is better for Assad to stay or go, there has emerged a slightly dominant view that it is better for Assad to be deposed given his role as the linchpin of the Iran-Hizbollah axis, and Russian intervention now makes that harder (if you’re interested in the subject, I participated on a Wilson Center panel yesterday with Tamara Wittes and Yoram Peri on the subject of the Syrian crisis and Israeli security, and you can watch it here). For Turkey, which has set Assad’s downfall as its top foreign policy priority for over four years, Russia’s involvement in Syria is a disaster and so to the extent that Israeli priorities are slowly lining up on the same side, any joint cooperation is a net positive.
All of this is why the timing of rapprochement makes sense, maybe even urgently so on the Turkish side. So why do I think that in some ways it is odd? The same way that the Russia variable is driving Turkey to find alternative solutions to some of its problems and reestablish close links with its Western allies – and certainly making up with Israel is a factor in pulling the U.S. closer – the mirror image is true for Israel. Whereas in the past Israel could reconcile with Turkey and it would be cost-free in the larger geopolitical context, now it’s not quite so simple. Israel and Russia have gotten along remarkably well despite Israeli and Russian military planes both flying along the same corridor in southern Syria, and up until now Russia has respected and tolerated Israeli freedom of action to attack weapons convoys on their way to Hizballah in Lebanon. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, however, and a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey has the potential to alter this equation. Russia is undoubtedly annoyed by yesterday’s news as it has been trying to isolate Turkey as best it can, and that in itself may lead to frostier relations with Israel. But even if you take Russian pettiness out of the equation, closer coordination between the Israeli and Turkish militaries has real potential to encroach on Russian priorities in Syria, which mainly consist of ensuring Assad’s rule over at least part of the country. Should Israel be drawn into Turkey’s fight and end up striking Syrian army positions that do not directly impact Hizballah advanced weaponry, Israeli leeway in Syria will be quickly narrowed by Russia.
Furthermore, Israel has now dramatically reduced Russian leverage over Turkey by mitigating Russia’s energy blackmail strategy. This is not only a matter of economics but geopolitics as well, since Russia uses Gazprom and its energy policy as a tool for foreign policy outcomes, and in the case of Turkey, that has now been significantly undermined. I’m no Russia expert, and I don’t know that there is a Russia expert alive who can predict what Putin will or won’t do, but my casual observation of Russian behavior leads me to believe that it is not outlandish to assume that Putin won’t retaliate against Israel in some manner or another for throwing Turkey a gas lifeline. With relations with Russia as terrible as they are for Turkey, it makes sense for Ankara to risk even more Russian wrath if it means solving the energy security problem. What mystifies me a bit is why Israel, which has so far gotten along with Russia remarkably well despite working somewhat at cross purposes against Russia in Syria, would risk a downturn in relations with Russia in order to make up with Turkey, a country that cannot threaten Israel in any real way and upon whose favor Israel does not depend in order to keep on going after Hizballah in Syria. Helping Turkey out of its morass in order to realize some economic benefits while risking the chance of limiting your range of action in Syria and provoking a much stronger power is penny wise and pound foolish. On top of this, there is also the lesser but not irrelevant factor that Israel has been frantically trying to establish better ties with the “moderate” Sunni bloc that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and there is no love lost for Turkey in that group of countries. When you look at the regional chess board, partnering in a closer way with Turkey brings with it some significant potential downside for Israel.
I’ll reiterate that nothing is done until it’s done, and so this post may prove to be as irrelevant as my last deep dive into this subject. From where I am sitting, this deal is a no-brainer for Turkey, but I don’t think the same can be definitively said for Israel. It will be fascinating to see where all of this leads and whether the benefits of reconciliation that both sides fantasize about end up fully materializing.
July 14, 2015 § 7 Comments
There are two huge pieces of news today that interest me, and while the one I really want to write about is the New Horizons spacecraft reaching Pluto and sending back amazing pictures and data on Pluto and Charon (which everyone refers to as one of Pluto’s moons but isn’t technically an accurate description since Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto and the system’s center of gravity lies in between them, but don’t get me started), for some reason people seem to want to know what I think about the Iran deal rather than what I think about the Plutonian atmosphere. So after spending some time reading through all 159 pages (except for the lists of companies and individuals on which sanctions will be lifted, which I skimmed), here is my initial take on where I think this deal works and the myriad ways in which I fear it won’t.
Starting with the good, there are some really good elements in this deal when it comes to keeping the wraps on Iran’s nuclear activity that we currently know about. The sections dealing with preventing a break out are pretty strong in terms of absolutely limiting Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium beyond a 3.67% level for fifteen years and turning Fordow into what is essentially a centrifuge museum. The only centrifuges that will actually be spinning uranium for the first ten years are 5,060 first generation centrifuges, and despite what sounds like a high number, nobody is actually worried about these. Any uranium in excess of 300 kilograms gets down blended and all spent fuel from reactors gets shipped out of the country The IAEA monitoring system in place for these centrifuges and the more advanced ones that Iran has developed also seems very strong to me, with full IAEA access, control, or electronic monitoring in various ways. Iran also has to address IAEA questions about its past activities, which should provide some additional clarity for preventing illicit Iranian activity going forward. Based on the provisions of this deal, I think it very unlikely that Iran will produce a nuclear weapon at any of its known facilities or with any of its current centrifuges in the next decade.
But even giving credit to the P5+1 negotiators for doing a good job on knocking out the break out option in the short term, this deal is indicative of the absurdly short attention span we Americans seem to have, where we think that ten years is a long time when in the context of international relations it is the blink of an eye. While it is true that Iran cannot enrich uranium in a worrisome manner over the first ten years of the deal, the agreement basically lets Iran do all the prep work during this ten year period to accomplish the higher uranium enrichment later on in advanced centrifuges without actually doing so during this initial decade. Once the ten year limit expires, Iran is in a position to break out really quickly if it so chooses, since while it commits to 3.67% enrichment for fifteen years, after ten years it can enrich uranium in more advanced centrifuges and install the advanced IR-8 centrifuge infrastructure in Natanz and manufacture new complete advanced centrifuges. So while it will still only be enriching uranium at low levels for fifteen years, it will have five years of testing and manufacturing more advanced machinery before the deal’s restrictions on enrichment levels expire. Despite the fact that the NPT and the Additional Protocol will still apply in perpetuity, Iran has quite clearly violated the NPT in the past and I see no reason to assume that it won’t do so again, so I do not assume that the break out provisions are going to operative past fifteen years.
When it comes to sneak out, I am less satisfied. The agreement provides for only 150 IAEA inspectors to monitor the entire country, which frankly is a joke in a country the size of Iran. The prevention of a sneak out path to a bomb is predicated on Iran having to declare all of its existing facilities before the deal is implemented and having to inform inspectors ahead of time if it decides to build any new facilities, since otherwise detecting secret centrifuge facilities – as opposed to plutonium facilities – is not easy (see Fordow for a relevant and recent example). Furthermore, if inspectors request access to a suspected undeclared location, Iran has two weeks from the time that access is requested to think about it, and if it decides to keep inspectors out, a majority of the Joint Commission (P5+1, EU representative, and Iran) has to vote to force Iran to resolve the situation, at which point Iran has another ten days to negotiate and implement whatever solution the Joint Commission ultimately imposes. This is certainly not the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that were going to make deal skeptics comfortable and that would be required for true, absolute verification of Iranian compliance. Aaron Stein, who is my guru on the technical issues, is far more sanguine on the arms control provisions of the deal, and I am told by those who know these issues much better than I that three and a half weeks is not nearly enough time to dismantle a covert enrichment facility and scrub all evidence of the centrifuges, tubing, etc. so perhaps the two weeks plus ten days is not as disastrous as it seems to my admittedly amateur eyes. But ultimately, your comfort level here has to rest on trust. If you assume that Iran is not going to hold anything back or try to cheat the system, then you’re probably ok with the measures that this deal puts in place. But as President Obama himself said earlier today, the deal is predicated verification rather than trust, and assuming that Iran has nothing that they won’t tell us about appears to me to be a big hole in the deal when you don’t really have a good way of detecting secret facilities. Given that much sanctions relief and embargo relief can expire earlier than the designated eight year period if the IAEA certifies that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities, and that the additional requirements on top of this deal imposed by the NPT and the Additional Protocol rely on eternal Iranian compliance, I wouldn’t bet very much money that Iran is going to remain in its nuclear box in perpetuity.
The other big element that I have an issue with is the question of Iran’s conventional weapons and lifting the current arms embargo. It was widely reported in the last couple of days that the deal was stuck on this point, and Obama’s statement today portrayed this as a win since the weapons embargo will last another five year and the ballistic missile ban another eight years. Why this wasn’t set as an absolute red line related to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior is mystifying to me, since it is Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism worldwide, rather than its nuclear program, that create an impetus for a general arms embargo. I understand why the compromises on Arak and Fordow are smart, since they hand Iran a pyrrhic victory by allowing it to save face and claim that it keeps all of its facilities while at the same time rendering those two facilities more or less harmless given the monitoring regime that has been set up for known nuclear sites. The conventional arms and ballistic missiles would have been a red line for me, and that we are essentially denying Iran nuclear weapons – which it would have been highly unlikely to actually use anyway and which are historically defensive weapons – and in return allowing it to arm to the teeth with stuff that it will use to create trouble around the Middle East is worrisome to say the least.
Which brings me to my next point, which is that it is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory.
That does not mean that everything on the regional front will be doom and gloom. Think about Iran before sanctions were imposed in 2006. Was Iran considered to be an existential threat to U.S. security? To work security? In a position to be a regional hegemon that was going to imminently dominate the Middle East? Certainly Iran was a real foreign policy problem, but nobody worried that the era of Iranian domination was nigh. This deal basically restores the status quo ante in that regard – with the one very large exception that Iran’s reliable Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad is in a much worse position than he was – and so the question is whether Iran has been so successful under sanctions that the lifting of sanctions is now going to automatically mean a regional apocalypse. My bet is that the answer to this question is that it has not. Israel has obviously been the country most concerned about Iran, and Bibi Netanyahu has not in any way tried to hide his anger over the deal since its conclusion was announced, but in some ways I think this deal actually benefits Israel more than it does the U.S. As I have emphasized, the pure nuclear component is the strongest element here, and so I truly believe that Israel can breathe more easily about a nuclear Iran for at least a decade, which is more than it would be able to do were there no deal at all. If Iran is spending its energies and new conventional capabilities and wealth on propping up Bashar al-Assad, fighting ISIS, reinforcing the Houthis in Yemen, providing security for the government in Iraq, and all of the other things it is doing around the region, then Israel is better off than it would otherwise be. Iranian backing for Hizballah is still an enormous problem that should not be underemphasized, and once the Syrian civil war is over it will primarily be a problem for Israel, but faced with a choice between a nuclear Iran vs. an Iran that can better arm and train Hizballah, most Israeli leaders would choose the latter option, even if it is a terrible one. A nuclear Iran was always a bigger problem for Israel than for the U.S., whereas an Iran that has more conventional capabilities to cause trouble for American allies and harass shipping in the Gulf is a bigger problem for the U.S. than Israel. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive, but to the extent that this deal makes the nuclear aspect less problematic and the regional adventurism more problematic, Israel benefits more. As one might guess, I do not think Israel’s initial reaction to the deal was particularly smart, but I’ll save that for another post later in the week.
The bottom line for me is that there are elements of this deal to like and elements of this deal to detest. Ceteris paribus on the sole question of nuclear weapons in the short term, this is certainly better than no deal, but the problem is that the deal cannot be judged solely on the nuclear question given everything else involved. It is tough for me to see how this agreement permanently prevents proliferation in the region in the long term and I certainly do not think it will transform the Middle East in a markedly good way. Ultimately, the whole thing really hinges on Obama’s bet on the future direction of Iran as opposed to Iranian compliance with the deal’s provisions, and as I have elaborated upon before at some length, I am on the opposite side of the president’s bet.
May 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
Israel’s massive strike on military targets near Damascus early Sunday morning paired with its earlier strike on surface-to-surface missiles at the airport on Friday that were presumably destined for transfer to Hizballah has reopened a furious debate in Washington over U.S. intervention in Syria. Proponents of intervention, such as Senator John McCain, are pointing to the seeming ease with which Israel has been able to hit Syrian targets as an argument that the U.S. should be intervening in Syria and at minimum setting up a no-fly zone. The logic employed is that if Israel can use American-made weapons to penetrate Syrian air defenses seemingly at will, it shows the ineptitude of Syrian air defenses and eliminates the argument that setting up a no-fly zone will be dangerous or stretch U.S. capabilities. I am certainly no expert on the relative efficacy of Syrian military capabilities so I will not deign to wade into the argument over whether or not the Syrian army would present a legitimate military threat to setting up a no-fly zone, although I am as confident as I can be that any Syrian air defenses, no matter how robust, aren’t anything that the U.S. military can’t handle. We are talking about the most formidable fighting force with the best technology in the history of mankind, and as Steven Cook has pointed out, the difference in U.S. military resources vs. Syrian military resources is laughable, so I don’t think anyone serious is making an argument about U.S. military capabilities in warning against setting up a no-fly zone. Rather, the opposition to a no-fly zone that centers on the dangers of maintaining one is concerned with the costs of doing so and not arguing that setting one up is an impossibility. In this vein, I’d like to make a few points on why what Israel has just done over the past few days holds very few lessons for a hypothetical U.S. intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
First, the types of strikes are different. Israel has now conducted three one-off strikes in Syria since the conflict between Assad and the rebels began, and each has been an independent operation aimed at keeping what Israel terms “game changing” conventional weaponry out of Hizballah’s hands. A no-fly zone, in contrast, would consist of constant daily sorties along a predictable schedule and route. Dan Trombly this morning has done a much better job than I could ever hope to do of laying out exactly what a sustained no-fly zone would entail so rather than attempting to get into the specifics of it, just go and read his post instead. That is not to say that the U.S. cannot do so; we maintained a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade. My point is that holding up three Israeli strikes, one of which happened in January and two of which happened two days apart last week, as definitive proof that a Syrian no-fly zone would present absolutely no logistical quandaries seems premature to me.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether Israel even penetrated Syrian airspace. The strike on the airport on Friday apparently took place from Lebanese territory with guided missiles that can skim along the ground for miles after being fired before reaching their intended to target, so the question of whether Syrian air defenses presented a challenge or not is moot. As of this writing, I have not seen any definitive statement as to whether the much larger strike in the wee hours of Sunday morning also came from Lebanese airspace or not. Even if it did not, I would surmise that it took the Syrian regime by surprise given that Israel has not been conducting constant strikes in Syria by any means and that Israel had already struck targets two days before. In any event, assuming that Israeli planes flew over Syria for the second strike, a solitary sortie again does not provide the evidence needed to draw any firm conclusions about Syrian air defenses against a long-term no-fly zone.
Third, even if Israel did launch the second strike from Syria itself, keep in mind that Syria has a long history of not responding to Israeli incursions while not extending the same courtesy to other countries. Israel flew eight planes in and out of Syria to destroy its nuclear reactor and extract its commandos on the ground in September 2007 without a shot being fired. Israel also conducted a strike in Syria through Syrian airspace in January, as noted above, and possibly again this past weekend, all without running into any resistance at all. In contrast, Turkey had its F-4 downed over Syria last summer, and whether it was brought down by Syria or – as has been widely rumored – by a Russian anti-aircraft battery, the fact remains that Syria generally keeps its head down when Israel is involved. In fact, a former Syrian air force major now with the rebels has claimed that Syrian air defenses were actively ordered to stand down during the Israeli raid on the al-Kibbar reactor once the planes were detected and it became clear that it was an Israeli operation. The reason might be that Israel has a carefully cultivated reputation for responding to provocations with overwhelming and even disproportionate force, which smartly deters retaliatory action. If Syria thinks that Israel will bomb it back to the Stone Age if it shoots at Israeli planes, it has every reason to stand down. Indeed, if the reports of the massive explosions in Damascus on Sunday are to be believed, Israel is still making sure to employ its own version of shock and awe. I am not sure that the U.S. reputation in the region is quite the same as Israel’s, and so extrapolating from Syria’s turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions that it will also ignore sustained U.S. incursions is, in my view, a bridge too far.
Finally, and most importantly, Israel has a clearly defined and limited goal in mind when it strikes Syrian targets. As Brent Sasley emphasized today, Israel is engaging in finite operations specifically designed to avoid reprisals by only targeting a specific category of weaponry that is in danger of being transferred to outside parties. The U.S., on the other hand, is dealing with a very different kettle of fish. If the U.S. sets up a no-fly zone, what is the objective? Is it to remove Assad? Even the playing field to give the rebels a better chance? Protect civilians without putting our thumb on the scale on behalf of one side? Israel can more easily carry out its objectives in Syria because they are simple – prevent chemical weapons or new missile technology being given to Hizballah. The U.S.’s objectives will be murkier, particularly since President Obama’s “red line” comment was apparently unplanned. When you don’t have a sense of what exactly you hope to accomplish, nor how long it will actually take to accomplish this hazy objective, taking lessons from a country that has an actually clear red line and knows that it does not have to commit many resources to enforce it may not be the best idea. If we have learned anything from our excursion in Iraq, surely it should be that predictions of a cakewalk should be cast aside in favor of a strategy that hopes for the best and plans for the worst.
Again, none of this is to say that the U.S. is not up to the job, or that the Syrian military is an awesomely fearsome fighting force, or that our capabilities are anything short of allowing us to do pretty much whatever we set out to do. What I am saying is that pointing to what Israel has just done and using that as definitive proof of anything related to a potential U.S. no-fly zone is taking the wrong frame of reference as a lesson.
One last related note: to those who incessantly insist that Israel is of absolutely no strategic worth to American interests and is nothing but an albatross around the neck of the U.S., I’d submit that having the Israeli military around to prevent transfers of Iranian-furnished weapons to Hizballah and to make sure that Assad’s delivery systems for chemical weapons also stay right where they are, all while battlefield-testing American weapons in the process, is pretty useful right about now. Just sayin’…