Iran deal update: Is any deal better than no deal?

Israeli public opinion is divided into two broad camps. The first maintains the agreement is bad for Israel, and the second thinks it would buy more time for Israel.
A meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, in the seventh round of the Iran nuclear talks, on December 17, 2021. (Photo: EU Delegation in Vienna/Handout via Xinhua)

We’re curious…

As the U.S. and Iran move closer to reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, Israeli officials are publicly campaigning against the deal and urging the Biden administration not to sign it. 

Last week, Mossad director David Barnea told Israeli reporters that the deal was “very bad for Israel” and that it is “based on lies,” citing Iran’s ongoing claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yair Lapid underscored that Israel will not be bound by any deal that is reached. “We’re not a party to it, and it won’t limit our activities. The IDF and the Mossad have been instructed by us to prepare themselves for any scenario,” Lapid said on Sunday. 

Israeli officials are also traveling to Washington to discuss the proposed agreement with their American counterparts and make their case against it.

Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the White House. Gantz stressed the need for the U.S. to put a “credible military threat” on the table to push Iran to agree to a better deal. And this week, Barnea (the Mossad director) will visit Washington for further talks on the deal. 

Gantz received “hints” from Sullivan that the U.S. is developing such an option, Axios reported. (In an interview last month with Israel’s Channel 12 News, Biden said that the U.S. would only use military force against Iran “as a last resort” to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.)

With all of the news on Iran, Israel and the U.S., we wanted to break down everything that is happening. What is in the current deal? If the U.S. signs it, what would that mean for Israel? What do Israelis think about this deal?

What’s in the current deal?

According to Haaretz, in the current proposal, “Iran will be required to freeze all its violations of the agreement [of uranium enrichment] until now, but will be able to retain the inventory of uranium it has accumulated thus far.”

The draft proposal has four stages that are “designed to establish trust between the parties,” with the full deal taking effect 165 days after it is signed, Haaretz reported.

Before signing, the sides will “finalize a deal to release [Western] prisoners from Iran.” In return, the Western nations will unfreeze Iranian money that is “trapped in various international bank accounts, and [provide] an initial easing of the sanctions.”

In the first stage, taking effect on the day of the signing, Iran will freeze its current uranium enrichment. In the second stage, President Joe Biden will bring the deal to Congress for approval.

“In the third stage, 60 days after Congress approves the agreement, [Washington] will inform the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency about the decision to return to the treaty,” Haaretz reported.

After another 60 days, the fourth and final stage will take effect. The U.S. will formally return to the deal and “will lift the harsh remaining sanctions and allow trade with Iran. On the same occasion, Iran will remove surplus enrichment infrastructure.”

Additionally, an unnamed U.S. official told Reuters that, in the current proposal, “Iran would not be permitted to have any of the 20% and 60% enriched uranium that it is stockpiling today; advanced centrifuges Iran is operating would be stopped and removed.”

How did we get here?

First, here’s a brief overview of how we got here. In 2015, the Obama administration signed the nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or “JCPOA”) with Iran. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union also signed.

Supporters hoped the deal would limit Iran’s nuclear program and prevent it from developing a weapon. However, the agreement was overwhelmingly unpopular with both Israeli politicians and citizens.

A few months before the deal was announced, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a controversial speech before the U.S. Congress (it was controversial because the speech was arranged without consulting the White House, which some argued was a violation of protocol).

In his speech, Netanyahu argued that the deal “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

In May 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, arguing that Iran continued to pose a threat to the U.S. and that the deal would enable Iran to develop nuclear weapons in the future. Trump’s decision to pull out of the pact was met mostly with praise in Israel.

The Trump administration implemented a strategy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, primarily in the form of economic sanctions.

But this did not stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Instead, Iran began breaching the deal. It started producing advanced centrifuges and enriching uranium at levels far beyond what the agreement permitted.

On the campaign trail, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would rejoin the JCPOA if Iran returned to strict compliance.

Between April and June 2021, the U.S. engaged in six rounds of indirect talks with Iran to try and revive the deal. Then, following the election of its current hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, in June 2021, Iran suspended the talks and continued progressing with its nuclear program.

President Biden attempted to restart the talks but they mostly stalled. There has been significant movement in recent weeks, however, as the White House said Iran has made significant concessions.

A few key Iranian demands remain unresolved, three Israeli officials told Axios. “The Israeli side has been concerned the U.S. might soften its own positions to get the deal across the line.” But “the U.S. has toughened its positions on those demands,” according to the Israeli officials.

What are Iran’s current nuclear capabilities? “Iran now enriches uranium up to 60% purity — a level it never reached before that is a short, technical step away from 90%…Experts warn Iran has enough 60%-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb,” the Associated Press reported. 

According to a report on Monday by Reuters, Iran has escalated its uranium enrichment further with the use of new advanced centrifuges at its nuclear site. Using these centrifuges, “Iran could switch more quickly and easily to enriching to higher purity levels,” Reuters reported.

Also on Monday, the Iranian president directly threatened Israel, saying that if Israel decides to carry out its threats to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, “they will see if anything from the Zionist regime will remain or not.”

Diversity of perspectives: Is a bad deal better than no deal?

“Israel is not against any agreement. We are against this agreement, because it is a bad one,” Prime Minister Lapid said.

Lapid said that the proposal “cannot be accepted” as it is currently written, claiming that it would fund Iran’s nuclear program and terror activities with $100 billion per year.

“In our eyes, it does not meet the standards set by President Biden himself: preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state,” Lapid added.

During Biden’s recent visit to Israel, he signed the “Jerusalem Declaration” which states that the U.S. will never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and that the U.S. “is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”

Lapid said that a good deal could only be reached with “a credible military threat so the Iranians see they will have to pay a heavy price for their recalcitrance.” 

Additionally, a good deal “would not have an end date” and would have more stringent oversight of Iran’s nuclear program and terror activities.

Barnea and Gantz have expressed similar messages that the current deal is “bad” and urging the U.S. to put a credible military threat on the table. 

Netanyahu also strongly criticized the current deal. But unlike Lapid, he also seemed to oppose any deal, telling reporters: “Deals don’t stop the nuclear plan. The combination of grinding sanctions and a rich, realistic, credible military threat are the only things that stop [a nuclear weapons program].”

In recent days, Netanyahu and Lapid have criticized each other’s approaches to the Iranian issue. Netanyahu accused Lapid and Gantz of “falling asleep on their watch and allowing the U.S. and Iran to reach a nuclear agreement that jeopardizes our future.”

In response, Lapid said he “invited the opposition leader for a security briefing to be updated on the details, so at least he would have some idea what he is talking about.” 

Following the briefing on Monday, Netanyahu said he was “more worried after the meeting than before” and repeated his accusation that Lapid and Gantz are “falling asleep on duty.”

Meanwhile, according to Haaretz reporter Amos Harel, Israeli public opinion on the current deal is divided into two broad camps.

The first maintains that the agreement is bad for Israel, so Washington needs to be persuaded to strengthen it or at least to delay the signing,” Harel wrote.

The second camp thinks that “it’s better for the U.S. to sign the deal, halt Iran’s progress toward a bomb, and…In the meantime, Israel can renew its offensive capabilities.” 

In other words, for the second camp, a deal is better than no deal because it buys a little more time for Israel.

According to reporting last month by The New York Times, some Israeli military officials are in the second camp — that returning to the deal may be the better option.

Senior IDF officials “are arguing in internal discussions that any deal, even one with major flaws, would be better than the status quo…It would freeze Tehran’s activities at current levels, they say, and give Israel time to rebuild its capacity to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure,” the Times reported.

On the other hand, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren and Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi have made the case against reviving the Iran deal

“Reviving the JCPOA will [ensure] the emergence of a nuclear Iran or a desperate war to stop it. Biden is a proven friend who has shared Israel’s hopes and fears. He must prevent that nightmare,” they wrote in The Atlantic in January 2021.

Israelis aren’t demanding a return to the deal because “The JCPOA didn’t diminish the Iranian nuclear threat; it magnified it,” Oren and Klein Halevi added.

Meanwhile, regardless of whether a deal is reached, “Israel is working to build an independent military option against Iran…and is continuing to monitor and thwart Iranian efforts to advance its nuclear capabilities or to carry out attacks in the region as well as clandestine operations deep inside Iran,” Haaretz reported.

“Coordination with America should remain a high priority but Israel’s determination to define and defend its own national security must remain clear,” former Israeli ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff wrote in a Times of Israel op-ed.

Many experts — like Issacharoff and former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon — are also calling for greater security coordination with Israel’s Abraham Accord partners.

“It is crucial that Israel and its Arab neighbors unite more firmly and robustly than ever before,” Danon wrote. “If signed, the senseless Iran nuclear deal should be used as a platform to create a strong collaborative and operational regional defense network against the imminent threat of Iran.”