Israel Pulse

Israeli defense minister says Iran deal will set off nuclear arms race in region

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Article Summary
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon warns that the imminent agreement with Iran will strengthen it diplomatically and economically.

By the afternoon of July 13, Jerusalem had come to terms with the fact that Iran and the superpowers had apparently reached an agreement. As far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz are concerned, this is the moment of truth. The public debate will heat up intensely over the next few days, culminating in Netanyahu’s anticipated visit to the United States in September to attend the UN General Assembly meeting. He is planning a bitter battle on Capitol Hill as he treks from senator to senator in an immense, unprecedented effort to prevent Congress from approving the agreement and to override the president’s veto with a 67-senator majority.

Netanyahu has already made it clear that he will not give up, no matter what it costs. Many in Israel believe that Netanyahu has chosen a kamikaze strategy, but they also concede that it seems unlikely that he will change his mind. The person closest to Netanyahu is Ya’alon, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Some even go so far as to call him Netanyahu’s security mentor.

Ya’alon describes the deal being formulated with Iran as “a very bad agreement.” On the afternoon of July 13, he gave a special interview on the issue to Al-Monitor. A few hours after the interview, the negotiating parties encountered a last-minute crisis.

Al-Monitor:  Try to describe the impact that the agreement between Iran and the superpowers will have on the region. Could it lead to an easing of Iranian activity on the various fronts and transform Iran into a stabilizing factor, or will it have the opposite effect?

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Ya’alon:  Unfortunately, it will have the opposite effect. Iran was and will remain a player driven by goals of domination. It wants to export its revolution as quickly as possible to as many places as possible. It funds terrorism and is politically subversive against rival regimes, such as Sunni governments with ties to the West. The agreement will not change Iran, but it will elevate it to the status of a country “on the cusp of having nuclear weapons.” This means that countries that consider Iran a threat, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, will want to catch up to it, and a nuclear arms race will ensue in the Middle East.

Iran will be stronger economically, too. If until now it could offer only limited resources to fund terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Houthis in Yemen or factions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will now have more money to fund terrorism and other politically subversive activities. It 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.

Al-Monitor:  There is some basis for that. The Iranians are practically the only ones to have any success in fighting the Islamic State.

Ya’alon:  They certainly are a force that can deal with the Islamic State, but what about all the rest of the issues? The fact is that Iran is the source behind all the instability in the Middle East. It plays a key role in what is happening in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, etc., and now it might be treated perhaps like a stabilizing factor. Iran will not abandon its ideology, or its goals of domination and shaping a new Middle East in its image. That is all very problematic.

Al-Monitor:  Why not step out of the box and try to believe that the Iranians can change their spots? Maybe becoming closer to the West through the current agreement could dull some of their sting and make them more like the responsible adult?

Ya’alon:  All anyone has to do is listen to the Iranians themselves. Did you hear [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei two days ago? That’s the situation, and it’s not about to change. Khamenei admitted that he was forced to enter into these negotiations. He called it “drinking from this cup of poison,” and said that it showed heroic flexibility. He said that he had no choice but to go speak to the Great Satan, Kerry and the United States, but never once did he abandon the path, the revolution or the ideology. Anyone expecting McDonald’s to open a branch in Tehran tomorrow is sadly mistaken.

Al-Monitor:  Some of the harshest criticism voiced in Israel focuses on the new agreement’s inspection regimen and the fact that the Iranians have refused to allow intrusive inspections at any place and any time. Nevertheless, this ignores the fact that Iran is a signatory to the “Additional Protocol” of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], which means that it is subject to intrusive inspections for an unlimited time.

Ya’alon:  Ostensibly, Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which means that it should have allowed the IAEA to conduct inspections ever since it started its nuclear project, 20 years ago. In practice, it acted deceptively throughout. It did not disclose that it had a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. Western intelligence did that. It did not disclose the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom. The intelligence community discovered that, too. They have yet to disclose the military dimensions of the [nuclear] project, and they have not allowed the IAEA to enter a suspicious site called Parchin to this very day. The fact that they signed the protocols means nothing, because they are known for their skills in deception and fraud. Based on what we are hearing about the emerging agreement, the issue of inspections in these complexes will be subject to their discretion. They will determine where they will be inspected and where inspectors will be granted access. Furthermore, they are unwilling to make any advance commitment to grant inspectors entry to military installations. In order for the inspections to be effective, they should be unlimited spot inspections, without any lengthy warning in advance.

Al-Monitor:  The agreement also has some obvious advantages. Even in Israel, some experts note that apparently, the plutonium track will be eliminated; the heavy water reactor in Arak will be demolished, nuclear fuel will be kept separate and a facility to separate plutonium will not be installed. This resolves concerns about the plutonium track, which is a significant achievement in itself.

Ya’alon:  In my opinion, they were prepared to sacrifice the plutonium track from the very beginning, since it was not their main program. They invested their efforts in defending their uranium enrichment program and in getting the sanctions lifted. Ostensibly, they are a year away from accumulating enough fissionable material to establish a single nuclear facility. How much is a year? Even during the inspection period, if they feel confident enough, economically and diplomatically, they can break out and build a bomb in one fell swoop. If they are not worried about being attacked or having sanctions imposed on them, they can stop the inspections and have their breakthrough. That is why they can already consider themselves to be on the threshold sphere of becoming a nuclear state. In retrospect, all their violations for more than 20 years were legitimized and whitewashed. We are now in a situation in which all of the neighboring states — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt — as well as various other states, feel threatened and are coming to the conclusion that they need nuclear weapons, too. What this means is that we will have a nuclear arms race.

Al-Monitor:  Apart from the inspection regimen, what are the major disadvantages of this agreement, at least as far as Israel is concerned?

Ya’alon:  One of the most serious problems is that in the agreement, the Iranians were in no way asked to make concessions regarding their ballistic missiles. Over the past few days, they have even had the nerve to enter into fierce negotiations in which they tried to demand that the embargo on the trade and acquisition of weaponry be lifted — this same embargo was initially enforced because of their violations in the field of ballistic missiles. It was imposed by Security Council resolution because Iran violates international agreements related to the manufacture of ballistic missiles, but also because they export weaponry to various third parties. This Iranian demand was an act of defiance that went nowhere. Unfortunately, the issue of ballistic missiles was never raised by the superpowers in the current round of negotiations, and Israel protested against this. Nor was the issue of Iranian involvement in terrorism and subversive political activity throughout the region. That means that they can now continue developing ballistic missiles and rockets. Their missiles can already reach most of Europe, and in the very near future, they will even be able to reach the eastern seaboard of the United States. Meanwhile, their terrorist activities continue apace as usual, with no one taking any action against them or even trying to prevent them.

Al-Monitor:  How will history judge this agreement?

Ya’alon:  As a kind of Munich Agreement.

Al-Monitor:  You are ignoring the fact that this agreement could offer 10 to 15 years of quiet and breathing space.

Ya’alon:  I want to believe that too, but all of that depends on the situation of the Iranians and on the regional and global balance of forces. If they are confronted with powerful forces from the West, and from the Arab world as well, then they will not have their breakout during the term of the agreement. However, if they feel that the powers facing them are weak, while they feel strong economically and military, they can certainly have a breakout that will result in a bomb, even during the term of the agreement. They came into these negotiations because they had to rehabilitate their economy. The country’s economic situation led to fears of an economic uprising. The regime was faced with the dilemma of whether they should develop their bomb or remain in power. If they feel self-confident enough regarding the global forces surrounding them, they might make their breakthrough within the next 10 years.

Al-Monitor:  What options does Israel have left?

Ya’alon:  In the debate that will begin immediately after the signing of the agreement but before it is approved, we will have to take a stand on behalf of our positions. The other thing is that we must be able to defend ourselves on our own. That is not some new situation that started just now, nor will the situation be over a year from now.

Al-Monitor:  We will have to do that with minimum cooperation from the United States, which regards our actions in opposition to this agreement rather severely.

Ya’alon:  That is not true. On the question of cooperation and everything to do with intelligence, reports and updates, everything is alive and well. The Americans have been busy with the minute details over the past few days, so the updates haven’t been as frequent as they were in the past, but that doesn’t make much of a difference. We have an open debate with the Americans over principles. We think one way. They think the other way. Time will tell who was right.

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Found in: us congress, nuclear deal, moshe 'bogie' ya'alon, missiles, israeli security, iran nuclear file, benjamin netanyahu, ali khamenei

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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