Rightwing Israeli politicians like Binyamin Netanyahu are squawking furiously about the prospect that Sec. of State John Kerry might reach an agreement with Iran over its civilian nuclear enrichment program.
The US is trying to convince Iran to scale back its program to the point where it cannot be used to produce a weapon in a short time period, and is solely a fuel-producing program. Nuclear fuel is typically enriched to 3.5-5%, whereas a bomb typically requires over 90% enrichment. Any gas centrifuge enrichment program theoretically could be ramped up to produce a bomb, but limitations on the number and kind of centrifuges used could make such a project time-consuming (at least a couple of months) and more easily detected by inspectors.
Why is the Israeli Right really apoplectic about such a deal? Here is my analysis of the faux and hypocritical outrage (Iran has no nuclear weapons program, but Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads).
1. Since they broke their word to President John F. Kennedy and went for broke to produce their own bomb, the Israeli leadership can’t imagine that Iran won’t cheat on any deal. This is an example of mirror thinking. But Iran is being inspected, unlike Israel, and no country under active UN inspection has ever developed a bomb.
2. A US-Iran deal that involves the UN Security Council would make it impossible for Israel unilaterally to attack Iran. It would therefore reduce Israel’s range of options and detract from its position as Middle East regional hegemon.
3. A remaining Iranian nuclear program would always imply a “break-out” capacity for Tehran. Being known to be able to make a nuclear weapon has some of the same deterrent effects as actually having one, increasing Iranian clout in the region. (This is on analogy to Japan in East Asia).
4. Israel’s Likud Party still has designs on annexing southern Lebanon, deeply regretting Ehud Barak’s 2000 withdrawal, but is blocked by Hizbullah backed by Iran. An Iran with a break-out capacity would permanently end Israeli expansionist ambitions to the north and permanently deny Israel the waters of the Litani River, which its leaders covet.
5. Much of the Israeli public isn’t that wedded to being in Israel, a big problem for hawks like PM Binyamin Netanyahu. Probably a million or so first and second generation Israeli immigrants live in Europe and North America; it is not even clear that some of them aren’t being counted in the 5.5 million Israeli Jews claimed by Israel. Around 20,000 Israelis now live in Berlin! Nearly a third of Jewish Israelis have said in polling that they would consider emigrating if Iran developed a nuclear weapon. Keeping Iran weak is key to winning the hardliners’ psychological war in the Middle East.
6. Netanyahu uses the supposed threat of Iran, a poor weak global South country ( 78th by GDP per capita) with a military budget somewhere between that of Norway and Singapore, to distract attention from Israeli colonization of Palestinian territory. A Western deal with Iran would throw the spotlight on the Palestinian West Bank, where Netanyahu is engaged in grand larceny on a cosmic scale.
7. If Iran is widely viewed by the international community to have stepped back from nuclear ambitions, Israel’s own nuclear arsenal will come to the fore as a focus, since it is the only Middle Eastern country with an arsenal of warheads, and that arsenal clearly drives a regional arms race (starting with Iraq in the 1980s).