The ‘New Normal’? Parsing Iran policy in the U.S. and Israel

Dennis Ross
Dennis Ross

Israel views the Iranian nuclear issue in tandem with Tehran’s activism in the region. It also believes that overlooking said activism could lead Tehran to miscalculate.

Israel and many Arab countries have expressed great concern that the United States’ current administration is giving Iran a pass and seems ready to treat the Islamic Republic as a future regional partner. In the meantime, Tehran is actively trying to change the regional balance of power while transferring increasingly accurate missiles to Hezbollah.

The United States and Israel hold conceptually different perspectives on the nuclear issue.
While Israel has officially said it will not accept any agreement that allows Iran to enrich uranium, this stance is more tactical than strategic — Israelis would likely tolerate a limited degree of enrichment if an agreement emerges that they deem acceptable. What they fear is not so much a small enrichment program, but rather an agreement that eventually permits Iran to have an industrial-size nuclear program. In such a circumstance, they believe Iran would be left as a threshold nuclear state at some point in the future — one capable of breaking out to a nuclear weapons capability at a time of its choosing.

The U.S. position seems to hold that Iran would technically be permitted to have an industrial-size program down the road; in the meantime, the international community would be assured that Tehran will remain at least a year away from being able to break out. With appropriate transparency, Washington believes that such an arrangement would allow it to detect Iranian cheating and give it sufficient time to do something about it. The key difference, then, is not over what happens in the next year or two, but over what Iran would be permitted to do when the term of a potential agreement is up — say 10 to 15 years from now. The United States seems to believe it has no better alternative, and that deferring the Iranians for that long could produce favorable changes in the interim.

Interestingly, this basic conceptual difference with Israel may be moot because Tehran is unwilling to concede much at the moment, greatly diluting the prospects of a comprehensive deal. On this, the two allies seem to agree — though Israel fears that Washington and its P5+1 partners might continue making concessions to Iran. Another difference could emerge if the United States does not achieve a comprehensive agreement, but instead settles for the Joint Plan of Action as the “new normal.” Although this arrangement may be preferable in the near term, it could leave Iran three months away from achieving a nuclear weapons capability and putting Israel in an untenable situation.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the growing disbelief between the two sides is one of the most alarming developments in recent years because it makes any deal unlikely, much less a comprehensive two-state agreement. The Palestinians openly admit that their international efforts do not represent an answer or tangible progress, but rather a default position that can pressure and perhaps delegitimize Israel. For their part, many Israelis regard talk of “peace” or “two states” as no longer credible; instead, politicians make the case for advancing the peace process to avoid international isolation.

Undoubtedly, this emerging trend must be reversed.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow, recently returned from a regional trip that included meetings with high-level Israeli and Palestinian officials. The following is a summary of his remarks given Jan. 29 at a Washington Institute Policy Forum.

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