“The question is whether the West is in decline or just withdrawal,” a high-ranking Israeli security official told me in a closed meeting on March 2, as Russian troops were heading out to Crimea, elevating the crisis in Ukraine to global dimensions. My interlocutor was one of Israel’s top decision-makers. “The whole world is talking about this,” he related.
“This is being broached at every meeting of foreign ministers or defense ministers and at every forum where issues of global balance of power, world order and global crises are being addressed. And there are many such examples. Look at what’s happening with the Chinese. They deliberately ratchet up tension with Japan, taking control over the South China Sea, behaving as if the United States doesn’t exist. North Korea for a long time has been slighting Washington, doing whatever it wants. In connection with the Syrian crisis, US President Barack Obama let Russian President Vladimir Putin take center stage. An agreement was signed, but now it turns out that its implementation is faltering, yet there’s nobody to talk to. The negotiations with Iran are stymied. They won’t lead to an agreement but will give the West three years of quiet. Meanwhile, Iran cements itself as a nuclear threshold state, continuing to develop cutting-edge centrifuges and ballistic missiles and pursuing weaponization. To me,” the source added, “it seems not a withdrawal but rather a rapid decline.”
Israel is monitoring these developments with concern. “Obama was elected president after two terms by George W. Bush, who turned the use of US force into a kind of a regular occurrence. The United States was entangled in two abortive wars, went broke and grew weary,” said an Israeli defense official. “Obama pledged to fix that. The problem is that he took the country from one extreme to the other. The fact remains that throughout his entire presidency, Obama has not showed once a sign of true resolve; there was not a single event in which he showed that he could and that he was ready and able to use force when there was no other choice. This makes him the weakest American president, as far as we can remember.”
“Even in Libya — the only place where the West intervened in recent years and succeeded in removing a ruling tyrant — Obama kept a low profile, coming up with the concept of ‘leading from behind.’ Well, if you lead from behind you also stay behind,” Israeli officials remark.
Israel’s defense and political establishments believe that the events in Ukraine prove the overall thesis, namely that the world is a jungle. If you show signs of weakness, you end up being eaten up. There is no vacuum. When Putin understands that the West is tired, beleaguered and inert, he acts accordingly. “Unlike Western leaders,” says a high-ranking Israeli defense official, “Putin is determined. He has a goal and he goes after it. He is willing to pay a price and is ready to use force. Once you show readiness, half the job is done.”
A seasoned senior Israeli officer compared the current situation in Europe and the West’s weakness vis-a-vis Iran to when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in the wake of the elections in the Palestinian Authority in the last decade (2007).
“Even though [former Fatah official] Mohammed Dahlan had security mechanisms in Gaza with ostensibly thousands of trained and armed troops, the Hamas movement easily took control over the Gaza Strip for one simple reason: It had thousands of people ready to die for the cause. The Palestinian Authority did not have people who were ready to fight, sacrifice their lives and be killed for the cause. Thus, what needs to be measured is the degree of resolve. If you are resolved enough and willing to pay the price, you end up winning, sometimes even without a fight,” the officer said.
A high-ranking Israeli defense official applies the above to the Iranian affair. “The sanctions,” he noted, “brought Iran to the verge of collapse. The ayatollahs were brought to their knees. Disgruntlement on the street grew to the point of imperiling the regime. At that point, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decided to 'drink from the cup of sorrow' — which is the term Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used upon signing the cease-fire agreement with Iraq — and start negotiations with the West. At the same time, he came to terms with the election of the relative reformist Hassan Rouhani as president. The situation in Iran was almost desperate. Diplomatically isolated, its economy was collapsing. International pressure was brought to bear and unrest was seen in the streets. Unfortunately, however, when the negotiations started, the tables turned. At the outset, this was a negotiation between unequal parties. The Iranians sat at the negotiation table as the party that had to have an agreement, whereas the West needed it but could have done without it while resorting to other options. Then, as noted, it became apparent that everything was turned around. The West behaved as if it had to have an agreement while the Iranians conducted the negotiations as if they could do without it. So that’s why with regard to the issue of resolve, it was all upside down too.”
It is for a reason that Israeli senior officials — from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon and many others — view the conduct vis-a-vis Iran as a “missed historical opportunity” and “regret that it will last for generations to come.”
“Presently, Iran has totally emerged out of its diplomatic isolation,” Israel’s defense establishment asserts. “Foreign Minister [Mohammad] Javad Zarif is doing his victory rounds across the capitals of the Middle East and Europe. Apart from Jerusalem, Cairo and Riyadh, he has been everywhere, even in Amman, Munich and Davos. Although the sanctions have not been officially lifted, the truth of the matter is that they are no longer in effect. The Russians are conducting advanced negotiations with Iran for a large petrol deal, worth billions of dollars a year. The Chinese have long skirted the sanctions. The same goes for Turkish banks. Though showing resolve in the negotiations in Geneva, the French have already dispatched a large delegation of businessmen to Tehran. The Germans hesitated, so the Iranians sent a large delegation of businessmen to Berlin. The Iranian stock market rises. Iran’s citizens have yet to feel the upshot of this, but soon they will. The pressure on the regime has waned.”
“And this happened without Iran having paid a significant price,” Israeli officials note. “Willing to sacrifice the facility in Arak, they were not, however, required to do so. They pursue their research and development. They no longer need 20%-grade enrichment because the quantity and quality of the centrifuges have rendered this unnecessary. Within a matter of weeks they can switch from minimal enrichment to military grade, which is why the red line Netanyahu drew at the UN is less relevant.”
So what’s next? Based on assessments of the defense establishment and conclusions of recent cabinet discussions, the following is Israel’s working premise: We are headed toward three years of “quiet.” The West and Iran will not reach an agreement. The Iranians will neither concede uranium enrichment nor make do with a token number of centrifuges (1,000) nor agree to completely shut down the enrichment installations and the reactor in Arak.
Starting to realize the problem, the West will be unable to sign a “bad deal.” What will happen therefore is that the negotiations will be extended over and over again, lasting for at least the next two years. Israel is talking about the possibility of Washington and Tehran reaching a tacit understanding. Don’t defy us for the next three years — the Americans are telling Iran on the basis of this understanding — so that the president will be able to stand by his word that Iran will not become nuclear “on his watch.”
The problem, Israel says, is that the president’s watch will be over in three years’ time and by then Iran will be at the point where it could break toward a bomb within a matter of weeks while having an arsenal of ballistic missiles that could reach the US mainland — it is developing a missile with a 10,000-kilometer (6,200-mile) range. Pursuing weaponization, Tehran is working on miniaturizing nuclear warheads so that they could be mounted on ballistic missiles.
It is possible, Israeli officials are saying cautiously, that Iran has won. It is important that Obama realizes that even if Iran’s nuclear military capability is materialized a few years after his presidency is over, it could not have happened if he had not given away the store to Iran, for almost nothing, on his "watch."