The Iran Deal Through Israeli Eyes

by Marsha B. Cohen

Hawkish Israeli politicians and analysts have done their best to thwart any agreement between Iran and the P5+1. Their mantra has been consistent: No deal is better than a bad deal, and there is no such thing as a good deal with Iran (certainly not one to which Iran would ever acquiesce).

The image of Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, as smiling broadly, and Iranians cheering in the streets, is therefore regarded as bad news for Israel. That the agreement might in any way serve Iranian interests, with Iran deriving any benefit whatsoever from it, is proof of the perfidy of the P5+1. “A bad deal can only yield bad results,” according to Major Gen. Yaakov Amidror. “Iran is likely to focus on promoting its regional interests, supposedly with U.S. backing.”

Declaring that the world is now a “much more dangerous place,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned Tuesday’s agreement as a “stunning historic mistake.” He added that Israel is not bound by the international nuclear agreement with Iran and reserves the right to defend itself. No longer speaking of an “existential threat” posed by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb that could wipe the Jewish state off the map, Netanyahu argues that lifting the sanctions will make the Iranian regime “far richer” and give it more power and influence in the region.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has also lambasted the deal. “History will remember the Iran deal just like the Munich Agreement (with Nazi Germany) and the agreement with North Korea,” Lieberman said. In the Sheldon Adelson-owned daily Israel Today, Boaz Bismuth, writing in the Sheldon Adelson-owned news daily Israel Todaycalled Tuesday “a day that will live in infamy,” comparing the signing of the Iran deal with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.   

Personalizing Politics: Bibi vs. Barack

For many Israeli commentators, the Iran deal is the outcome of the clash of personalities and two divergent worldviews. Not surprisingly, the Israeli far right places all of the blame on Obama, while the more centrist media faults both leaders. The rabid right accuses the American president (who they didn’t want to see elected in the first place) as violating decades of unspoken understandings because of his naiveté, insensitivity, and/or hostility. In Israel Today, Limor Samimian-Darash sniffs that the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany made more sense than the deal with Iran, since the major European countries had capitulated to an “economic powerhouse,” which Iran is not. “Obama is not capitulating; he is rescuing Iran for the sake of his own hidden agenda and personal interests.” (The notion that Obama came into office with a covert agenda of diplomatically resolving the standoff with Iran, and a “secret strategy” for achieving it, is one of the the latest conspiracy theory right-wing pundits in both Israel and the U.S. are pushing.)

But some members of the Israeli opposition fault Netanyahu for failing to prevent the deal from going through. One of the ways he has done this, according to at least some of his critics, was by his belligerent intervention into American politics and his machinations on behalf of Obama’s political foes. In response to these criticisms, Netanyahu denied that personal animus had anything to do with his failure to prevent the Iran deal from being signed.”The political claims being made that my personal relationship with President Obama had any bearings on the nuclear agreement are baseless,” Netanyahu said defensively. “Even before I entered my job as prime minister, there were intentions in the American administration to normalize relations with Iran. After that, the US launched secret negotiations with Iran that later became public,” he added. (Bibi’s claim conveniently overlooks the quiet negotiations and cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan after 9/11, and the near-deal between U.S. and Iran in 2003, successfully thwarted by many of the same people trying to sabotage the current one.)

Haaretz commentator Chemi Shalev foresees an impending apocalyptic political war between Netanyahu and Obama because of their differing perspectives with regard to Iran. “Benjamin Netanyahu views Iran as an incorrigible Great Satan hell-bent on regional hegemony and the destruction of Israel. President Barack Obama sees Tehran as a malevolent Little Satan, but one that can still be redeemed.”

The critics are not just talking about political war. Y-Net’s Ben-Yishai claims that, from Israel’s point of view, “the agreement puts the military option back on the table and increases its urgency. The Israeli government will now have to decide whether or not to attack Iran if and when the ayatollahs decide to make a break for a nuclear weapon.” Efraim Inbar, of Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, opined  to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that an Israeli military strike against Iran is now more likely than before the deal was signed. Since Iran is still capable of enriching uranium, which he equates with being able to produce a bomb, “It obligates us to a path of military attack.” Inbar complains that “The Americans don’t care about our interests. There’s no choice. We can’t wait.” Inbar, who has been calling for Israeli military action against Iran for years, was a vocal proponent of forcibly removing Saddam Hussein from power back in 2002.

 After the Sanctions, How Will Iran Spend Its Money?

Some Israeli opponents of the Iran deal have shifted their emphasis from the “existential threat” to Israel posed by the dropping of an “Iranian bomb” to hand-wringing over the danger posed by the normalization of trade relations between Iran and other countries. The widespread presumption among Israelis is that Iranian leaders have no higher priority for frozen funds made available to them, or better use for the national wealth generated by a revitalized economy once the sanctions are lifted, than stirring up trouble for Israelis. Netanyahu claims that “Iran will receive hundreds of billions of dollars, with which it can fuel its terror machine, and pursue its aggression and terror in the region and the world.” Speaking to Al-Monitor‘s Ben Caspit, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon frets that Iran “will feel more confident because its diplomatic isolation has been lifted. Its economy will recover and grow stronger, with $150 billion being released immediately.

Add to this all the various economic interests, be they European, Russian, Chinese, Indian and even American, who will rush to Iran to invest in oil, gas, the automobile industry, electricity and electronics. They will all rush to do business there. What this means is that the regime will not only avoid changing its very nature, with its anti-Western and anti-Sunni ideology. It will actually work harder at promoting that ideology. It will be more confident in itself and more daring. Unfortunately, there are those in the West who see the Iranian regime as part of the solution, and not as the crux of the problem.

Y-Net news analyst Ron Ben-Yishai argues:

…(The) removal of the sanctions will bring Iran billions of dollars in revenue as early as 2016 – a sum big enough not only to stabilize its failing economy, keep the Revolutionary Guards at bay and perpetuate the Islamic regime (against the wishes of the West), but also to fund terror and press on with their aspirations for regional hegemony. This is a grave concern not only for Israel, but for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, too.

Boaz Bismuth of Israel Today, also hyped the hysteria about Iran standing to benefit from its reintegration into the global economy:

Obama admitted that Iran’s joining the family of nations will inject $150 billion into its coffers. And what exactly will it do with this money? Will it promote world peace; or continue exporting the revolution via terrorism and destabilizing the region, as it has been doing in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen?

Reading these tirades, it becomes obvious that any deal with Iran acceptable to Israel would keep current sanctions in place permanently (and make them even more “crippling), regardless of Iranian total compliance with Western demands.

Next stop: Congress

Now that the deal has been signed, Israeli opponents of diplomacy with Iran have launched a massive and vigorous campaign targeting members of Congress. The effort represents the Iran agreement as a partisan political issue that pits Republican supporters of the Israeli prime minister and his cohorts against Democratic allies of the American president, Barack Obama. Akiva Eldar, longtime Israeli diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz who now writes for Al-Monitor, expects that Netanyahu will enlist Republicans in his continuing battle against the deal with Iran, as as well as recruiting Jews to the GOP in the next U.S. presidential election:

Assuming that “we will not accept” does not include a military attack on Iran or the elimination of nuclear scientists on its territory — after it signed an agreement with the six major powers — the only way to carry out such a mission is to line up a large majority in the US Congress to override a presidential veto. There’s no secret which of the two American parties the prime minister favors. In the last US presidential elections he made no attempt to hide his support for President Barack Obama’s rivals. And so far, there is no sign of him changing his position. Despite the attempts by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to toe the right-leaning line of the US Jewish community, it’s safe to assume that Netanyahu will bestow his favors on the Republican candidate.

But Chemi Shalev points out that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, approved by Congress and signed by President Obama in May after months of bitter confrontation, will have no bearing on the legal standing of the nuclear accord: it only applies to Obama’s authority to lift U.S. sanctions, not those imposed or lifted by other countries. Even on the dubious assumption that enough Democrats will defect to the Republican side to form the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, he explains, the rest of the world will not feel itself bound to the decisions of the American legislature. This could create a legal morass for countries that violate the sanctions and make them subject to punitive measure. Nonetheless, once the Security Council sanctions are revoked, the decision to take punitive measure would be up to the administration.

Amir Oren thinks that Netanyahu is fighting a losing battle trying to kill the agreement in Congress. But he doesn’t put it past Bibi to use the next 60 days, as Congress reviews the Iran deal, to try to “‘help” Iran run wild and go crazy—for example, by Israel’s killing some nuclear scientist or officer from the Revolutionary Guard during a visit to Syria or Lebanon. This would give Iran a “casus” that would allow Israel to “pull out the ‘belli.’”

Ironically, Israeli threats against Iran may provide a justification for one of the sticking points about which Israeli and pro-Israel rejectionists in the U.S. are complaining most loudly: that the nuclear agreement does not address Iran’s conventional military capabilities. An “ideal” agreement, from a hawkish Israeli point of view, would strip Iran of any capacity for self-defense, including conventional weapons, with which to defend itself from attack. Ben Yishai avers that “The powers conceded to Iran’s demand to alleviate the UN Security Council prohibition on buying and selling conventional weapons.”

Given Israeli threats of an attack, Iran might be able to sustain the argument that it needs such weapons.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. After this blow Israel is especially worried that more pressure will be applied on its leaders on the Palestinian issue. The Iran bogeyman is now neutralized, who is the next one? .

  2. I have been watching television interviews with Iranian people. They all seem surprisingly normal and moderate in their opinions.
    Israelis tend to come across as paranoid bigots or religious zealots.
    Could media bias explain that?

  3. gas reserves in Israel. Much more in Iran. One significant economic factor behind the former’s opposition to the deal

  4. Netanyahu’s bullying image in the region and its power over the militarily weak Palestinian groups seems to have given him the illusion of having the potential to bully any Middle Eastern country that might dare challenge Israel’s behavior and its violations of the international laws and the UNSC resolutions. Israeli politicians’ statements are strong evidence that many of them wish to be seen as dangerous paranoid politicians unless they have been given the upper hand – on the one hand in an aggressive way command that ‘Iran must recognize Israel!’, on the other hand like a spoiled but again aggressive child threaten to annihilate Iran if she ignored Israel. We are faced with symptoms of a dangerous paranoid group who happen to be fully armed with nuclear weapons and no longer even feel accountable before the international community for their conducts or war crimes.

    For many not only in Iran the question is often raised that who is Israel to dictate what Iran must or must not do?! Netanyahu by addressing the Congress followed with Thomas Friedman’s clever interview with Obama not only demonstrated to the world that Israel has the power to manipulate the US Congress but the US President even if the President tries to avoid the Israeli PM there are ways to nail him down in public! But not even such show of power has satisfied Netanyahu; what he wants is to have the full power of attorney to decide for the US army to back him after he has launched what he calls Israel’s preemptive ‘right to defend itself’ attack. Where is the sanity in the International Community? Where is the UN authority, in the wake of Israel’s increasing promises of imminent nuclear attacks on another country? Are we not witnessing double standards by the International Community? Should we continue to wait for this sickening death threats by Netanyahu and his gang until their genocidal attack has been realized?!

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