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What the U.S.-Israel Dispute Is Really About

Usually when the source of U.S.-Israel tensions is revealed to be a simple misunderstanding, the two sides can again breathe easy. But this week’s argument over Iran sanctions relief may have the opposite effect. Commentators on both sides appear to be missing the real significance of the tiff over the dollar value of the sanctions relief sought by President Obama. In yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, a story on sanctions relief contained this:

For his part, Mr. Kerry has questioned publicly whether Mr. Netanyahu is aware of all the details in the agreement. And in some cases, Israeli officials appear to have distorted what Iran would get in return.

At a briefing with international journalists on Wednesday, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, said the deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what he estimated was the $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually, and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects. The State Department immediately debunked those numbers, noting the sanctions relief would be for only six months, not a year. And the Americans put the figure at under $10 billion. But Israeli leaders have continued to cite the higher estimates.

The media watchdog CAMERA called attention to the editorialized nature of the reporting–accusations that Israelis “appear to have distorted” the deal instead of simply disagreeing with the estimates. They also note that the reporters say the State Department “debunked” Israel’s numbers, which is manifestly untrue. The State Department denied the Israelis were correct, but Steinitz simply appears to be correctly calculating the sanctions relief were it to be extended to a year, instead of the six months the Obama administration claims. And that’s why this disagreement is more than just a math problem.

As the Times notes, American officials are alarmed by the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has often raised the specter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities even if a deal is signed,” yet they fail to make the connection. American officials are pushing back because they think Israel is moving up the date at which a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be prudent. The Israelis are wary of this deal because they think it does the exact same thing. That is, the Israelis aren’t seeking to move up the timing of a strike; they worry that the Americans are in the process of doing that.

The Times mentions the divergence of opinion between the U.S. and Israel on what would constitute Iran crossing a red line. (Though, it must be said, Obama has squandered any credibility on “red lines” anyway.) Neither side appears to believe Iran is at that point right now, so the American side is wondering what’s wrong with this proposed nuclear deal. Later in the article, we get something of an answer:

The reason appears to be that Iran would agree to convert some of its medium-enriched uranium — fuel enriched to 20 percent purity, or near bomb grade — into an oxide form that is on the way to becoming reactor fuel. But that process can be easily reversed, notes Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr. Netanyahu’s camp and some Israeli analysts say the Israeli leader’s unstinting opposition is both substantive and political. He truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges is a terrible mistake. But he has also staked his premiership on fighting the Iranian nuclear threat, and the change in approach by his closest allies leaves him a bit rudderless.

If the process can be “easily reversed,” then the deal would enable Iran to play for time while enjoying the billions of dollars in sanctions relief they would get for something they want anyway: diplomatic delay. So the deal would need real teeth, which it doesn’t appear to have. What’s more, Steinitz’s estimates show the credibility gap the Obama administration is dealing with after its Syria fiasco.

As Jonathan wrote two weeks ago, Iran sanctions don’t have a simple power switch. It takes time to get sanctions in place, often over the opposition of our European allies and usually over the objections of President Obama himself. Obama, in fact, has been a consistent obstacle to sanctions during his presidency. It is reasonable to doubt not only that Obama could crank the sanctions back to where they need to be after a six-month interlude, but that he would even want to. Ramping sanctions back up would also mean the deal failed; it’s reasonable to doubt, as well, that Obama would ever admit it.

So Steinitz’s gripe is not with the dollar figures, but the overall process. It’s an indication that the Israelis don’t believe the Obama administration would hold Iran to account if they didn’t abide by the terms of the deal. That, in turn, would make this the beginning of the end of the non-military effort to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Whether Steinitz is right about that remains to be seen, but those who focus on whether he’s right about the exact dollar figure are missing the point.


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