Why Israeli Nuclear Experts Disagree With Netanyahu About The Iran Deal

He had had “misgivings” about the Iran nuclear deal, and had voted against it, Senator Chuck Schumer told WCBS, last Sunday, “but now we ought to see, give it time to work.” This, for Donald Trump, was tweet-bait: “Dem Senator Schumer hated the Iran deal made by President Obama, but now that I am involved, he is OK with it. Tell that to Israel, Chuck!”

By “Israel,” Trump presumably meant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who greeted with predictable satisfaction the Administration’s unwillingness to certify Iran’s compliance. (“The President has said, correctly, ‘Either fix it or nix it,’ he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”) And Trump’s remarks likely reinforced his soaring popularity with the Likud’s supporters, who know an uncommon gesture of Presidential affinity when they see one. But if by “Israel” Trump meant Israeli nuclear experts—people who’ve mastered the deal’s details and have led the institutions responsible for the country’s security policy—then Schumer need not bother telling them that the deal should be given time. This is precisely what they are telling him.

Earlier this month, Robin Wright interviewed Uzi Arad, the former head of research at the Mossad and the head of Netanyahu’s own National Security Council from 2009 to 2011. Arad had also launched, in 2000, Israel’s preëminent conference on national security, at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (where we were colleagues from 2002 to 2004). Arad makes it his business to consult with people who are, as he put it, “conversant with the issues”: old intelligence hands (though, he cautioned, nuclear strategy is often not their expertise); civilian-defense officials involved in the procurement and production of relevant weapons systems; arms-control experts, scientists, and engineers who understand the issues of proliferation; and members of the “political class” who have made themselves expert on both the nuclear issue and on foreign leaders’ positions on it. When Wright spoke with him, Arad had been lobbying congressional Republicans to help save the deal; in light of Trump’s announcement, and Netanyahu’s praise for it, I thought I might check back with him.

Arad remains convinced that the agreement served Israel’s interest, because it convincingly stalled the Iranians’ drive to acquire a bomb while providing a diplomatic process within which to address new issues or to refine approaches to old ones. “The J.C.P.O.A.”—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran agreement is officially known—“is our only written framework stipulating exactly what constitutes violations, an anchor, a regulatory mechanism for pursuing negotiations or sanctions to manage these threats,” Arad said. And he remains skeptical of Netanyahu’s campaign against it, recalling the conversation he had had with one very senior official, a veteran of the science and defense-policy community, who was in despair about Netanyahu’s call to abrogate the J.C.P.O.A. “I asked him what he thought of the Prime Minister’s policy. ‘Shigaon!’ he told me.” (“Shigaon” is normally translated as “lunacy.”)

Arad is no dove. He supposes that, hovering over the negotiations leading to the J.C.P.O.A., and critical to its limited success, was the Obama Administration’s refusal to renounce the “military option”—a last resort, President Obama said, but consistent with his vow that Iran would never acquire a nuclear weapon on his watch. (Arad told me that he wonders why the Trump Administration has not “referenced the prospect of military force in the same way,” especially because the life span of the J.C.P.O.A. is just ten years, and the clock has been ticking for two.) Indeed, the pragmatism embodied in the J.C.P.O.A. explains why, Arad believes, so many Israeli security professionals favor preserving it.

The roster is long—it includes not just Arad but Uzi Eilam, the former director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission; Isaac Ben-Israel, the chairman of the Israeli Space Agency and the National Council for Research and Development; Ariel Levite, the former deputy director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission; Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad; Amos Yadlin, the former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate; Ehud Barak, the former Chief of General Staff (and Prime Minister); Gadi Eizenkot, the Chief of General Staff of the I.D.F.; and many others.

Read on at The New Yorker