Former Israeli minister calls removal of Iran sanctions a 'black day'

Former Minister Ephraim Sneh argues that the US administration was so keen to sign the nuclear deal that it ignored Iran's true nature and global aspirations.

al-monitor Ephraim Sneh (R) gives a joint press conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2006. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

us-israeli relations, nuclear deal, iranian threat, iran deal, benjamin netanyahu, barack obama

Jan 18, 2016

For more than two decades, Ephraim Sneh, a former minister from the Labor Party, has been following Iran’s nuclear project with great concern. As a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in 1992, he drew the attention of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to Iran’s aspirations to develop a nuclear bomb. Since then and in every capacity he has served, including as deputy defense minister, he has not let up on this subject, delving deep into it. In an interview with Al-Monitor on the day the sanctions were lifted, he depicted a grim picture of what the “Iranian victory” means to world peace, calling it a "black day" not only for Israel but for humanity in general.

The full text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  The economic sanctions on Iran were lifted after it was established that it had complied with its part of the agreement, so why are you still concerned?

Sneh:  Because when you induct one of the darkest and most benighted regimes on earth into the family of nations and give it a red-carpet treatment, that is a black day for humanity. What it means is that the international community — indeed, the most important democracies — has lost its moral bearings. Those countries did not have the courage to confront this regime. Instead, they opted for a compromise that has satisfied most of Tehran’s demands.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that having a nuclear weapon is not Iran’s end goal. Rather, it is one of its means toward becoming a global power. As soon as the Iranians got what they wanted and the sanctions were lifted, they simply put their nuclear program on a back burner. As far as they’re concerned, acquiring a [nuclear bomb] is only being delayed on their rout toward their strategic objective.

Now that the sanctions have been lifted, Iran  in addition to being inducted into the family of nations — will also become richer. It will have much more money to buy modern weaponry and fund its regional expansion. This will make it easier for Tehran to apply pressure on the Western countries. For example, as soon as the sanctions were lifted, Tehran announced that it was poised to purchase more than 100 European-made Airbus aircraft. Given this state of affairs, I can’t envision the European partnership in Airbus acting against Iran if the latter were to breach the nuclear deal.

In addition, the other serious aspect of this deal is that it pronounces Iran as a legitimate hegemonic player in the Middle East. Not only is the international community lifting the sanctions and prepared to buy Iranian oil and let this evil country develop economically, but [it also enables] Iran to become a dominant factor in strategic affairs. It was already three months ago that the Iranians were invited as equal partners to the talks on Syria. They are also deviously playing the Islamic State card, saying, "We’ll help you [fight] against them." It’s convenient to believe the Iranians, but what exactly is the big difference between the two? It’s just a different version of the same barbaric Muslim fascism.

Al-Monitor:  What do you think about President Barack Obama’s promise that Iran will not have a nuclear bomb?

Sneh:  For his promise to be serious, he also needs to make sure that if Iran violates the agreement, he will act vigorously against it, including the use of military force. I am not sure that he is resolved to do that during the last year of his presidency. From that perspective, he is a man of his word. He will complete his term with Iran not having acquired a nuclear bomb. But it would be a mistake to look at Iran’s danger only through the nuclear prism rather than having a broader perspective that looks at its aggression and endeavors to become a global force.

Obviously we also need to bear in mind that it was the Obama administration that pushed for this agreement, so his statements on this issue are understandable. That’s his legacy. Two things drove him to broker the nuclear agreement: His tendency to avoid confrontations — any confrontation, for that matter — and his failure to see the Iranian regime’s real intentions. He failed to draw a distinction between the means and the end. What he did was to temporarily take away Iran’s ability to advance its nuclear program — that is to say, the means — but he did advance the regime toward its end. It was easy for the Europeans to toe the line with Obama, because Europe, barring a few occasions, has always balked at confrontations. And it is also a captive of its own economic interests. 

None of this — perish the thought — stems from any hostility from Obama toward Israel. Rather, it has to do with his fundamental approach. He preferred to respond to the national mindset that shuns confrontations. In other words, he put political considerations ahead. That was further compounded by a naive view of what the ayatollah regime’s true colors are.

It was just last week that we got a reminder that even after the agreement and shortly before the sanctions were lifted, Iran’s hatred of America has not waned. Tehran simply could not pass up the opportunity to publicly humiliate the United States after taking the American sailors prisoner. The reason for this is its contempt for American values, and no leniency in the sanctions will ever change that.

Al-Monitor:  Doesn’t your pessimistic outlook border on paranoia? There is an agreement; the nuke project has been checked and the nuclear facilities are being supervised. Some senior Israeli defense experts, the likes of Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel, even see some advantages in the deal. Shouldn't Israel feel calmer?

Sneh:  No one who has been bombarded by thousands of Iranian-made missiles during the past decade can be deemed paranoid. The missiles that Hezbollah fired at Israel from Lebanon and the rockets that Hamas fired from the Gaza Strip all originated from Iran, which was also the one pulling the strings. Let me make it clear: Israel’s main enemy is Iran. Its supreme spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, even wrote a book that was published just a few months ago, in which he explains how Israel will be annihilated: It will be surrounded by areas for launching missiles. So this isn’t paranoia.

What this means is that Israel ought to prepare militarily for this. It needs to prepare its defense arrays such as the Magic Wand system and procure missile defense batteries. It must also enhance its capabilities to operate against Hezbollah and Iran. The recent development — the lifting of the sanctions — emboldens Iran, and whatever emboldens Iran poses a danger to the State of Israel. I’m not sure we won’t need to resort to the military strike option in the future. Truth be told, Iran has been distanced from the bomb 10 to 15 years, according to the signatories of the deal  depending on whether it cheats or not. In reality, all Iran is doing is putting its nuclear clear program on a back burner. It’s not pulling the plug on it. That’s why the issue of intelligence oversight is very important. Such collaboration between Israel and the US is essential and still possible. This will enable us to find whether or not the Iranians are violating the agreement.

Al-Monitor:  According to your view, Israel got the short end of the stick in the nuclear deal. Could it even have had any input?

Sneh:  [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s approach and fears are justified, yet the actions he took were miscalculated. The rift he has caused with the Obama administration has hurt Israel’s interests. A different Israeli government with a more constructive and intimate dialogue with the American administration might have averted this disaster or at least been able to have important changes made to the wording of the agreement. Yet Netanyahu chose to follow the interests of the Republican Party rather than Israel’s own security interests.

From the very start of Obama’s first term, I had called for a deal by which the government of Israel would adopt a more lenient approach toward the Palestinian issue in return for a tougher American posture on Iran. I said it seven years ago. They even called it “Itamar for Natanz.” Bibi would not hear any of it. Had we taken that approach, Obama would have had a foreign policy achievement to show for it and the entire picture would have been different. It took a long time for the sanctions to be crippling, during which Iran made headway, building more centrifuges and enriching more uranium. They constantly took advantage of the delays.

Al-Monitor:  So who’s to blame?

Sneh:  I don’t want to point fingers. All I’m saying is that a different Israeli policy might have prevented ahead of time this detrimental development. Had Netanyahu not unilaterally identified with Obama’s domestic rivals and had he adopted a different stance on the Palestinian issue, he could have demanded a tougher American policy in return.

Al-Monitor:  Aren’t you also concerned by Pakistan’s nuclear capability, another radical Islamic state?

Sneh:  Pakistan does not have aspirations to become a global force and take over the region. Pakistan doesn’t want to impose a radical interpretation of Islam on other countries, nor is it seeking the State of Israel’s annihilation. India and China also have nuclear weapons. The main worry is when a nuclear bomb falls in the hands of an irresponsible regime. I’ve been following Iran since 1992, and for many years I was the only one who warned of its danger.

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