WASHINGTON-It is one of the great ironies of history that the nation of Israel–and likely, the religion of Judaism as we know it–would not exist if it weren’t for an ancient king from the land that is now Iran. More than 25 centuries ago, it was Cyrus the Great, the founder and first ruler of the Persian Empire, who rose from his roots in present-day southwestern Iran to overthrow the Babylonian Empire, free 40,000 Jews held in captivity and facilitate their return to Judea, the site of present-day Israel.
Of course, this is not a history that you will read in any Iranian textbook. Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution was launched 34 years ago last week by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, two generations of his disciples, in the words of Islamic scholar Andrew Bostom, “have embraced jihad as a central pillar of faith and action” featuring “an unending campaign of vilification and proxy violence against the ‘Zionist entity,’ Israel.” But with Western and Iranian diplomats coming close to an agreement that would provide Iran with limited relief from crippling economic sanctions in exchange for a temporary freeze on some of its nuclear activities, Israel has been cast as the skunk at the garden party.
While last-minute disagreements between France and negotiators from the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany, and China temporarily scuffled the deal–they reportedly pledged to return to the bargaining table next week–Westerners have hailed a possible agreement as an “historic warming of relations” and “a potential American rapprochement with Iran.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has called the negotiations a “grievous historic error.” While he continues to lobby the U.S. to intensify sanctions instead of relaxing them, a backlash over Israel’s hardline stance has already begun.
At the heart of the disagreement is uranium. In its original form, it is a harmless mineral. But it is turned into a powerful “fissile” material capable of setting off a nuclear reaction by rapidly-spinning metal tubes, called centrifuges. These centrifuges work by creating a force thousands of times more powerful than gravity, which separate the dangerous parts of uranium from the not-dangerous parts. This process is known as “enrichment.”
Iran is believed to have at least 19,000 of these centrifuges. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not expressly forbid Iran’s right to use centrifuges to enrich uranium to create power. While Iran insists that it only wishes to use its nuclear facilities to create electricity, uranium only needs to be enriched to 6 percent to create electricity–and not the 20 percent that Iran’s uranium has reportedly reached, making it near bomb-ready.
Iran’s position is complicated by the fact that it is also building a heavy-water nuclear reactor to produce plutonium, which can be swapped for uranium to create a nuclear weapon. As the New York Times has pointed out, Iran’s many explanations for why it is building the reactor “have left most Western nations and nuclear experts skeptical” since “the country has no need for the fuel for civilian uses right now and the reactor’s design renders it highly efficient for producing the makings of a nuclear weapon.”
It’s clear to me that for any deal to be worth suspending sanctions, Iran must do three things. First, it must immediately stop construction of the heavy-water reactor. Second, it must dispose of the uranium it has already enriched to 20 percent. And third, it must do away with many of its centrifuges, leaving only enough to enable enrichment to 6% for electricity.
But Israel goes one step further and insists that sanctions remain in place until Iran fully dismantles all of its centrifuges–arguing that if you leave any centrifuges in place, you leave in place Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and build a nuclear weapon. Given global politics, it is much easier for Iran to return to enrichment than for Western nations to reapply sanctions. Which means that any deal short of dismantling centrifuges is an act of trust in the goodwill and peaceful desires of the Iranian regime–and, Israel argues, we’d be credulous waifs to trust a regime with Iran’s record.
While much of the world seems convinced that recently inaugurated Iranian President Hassan Rohani is a moderate and take him at his word–as he declared to the United Nations in September–that Iran is ready “to discard any extreme approach in the conduct of our relations with other states,” Israel believes otherwise. And as much as many people, including me, would like to see an agreement, it’s easy to understand Israel’s strong opposition.
Maybe if Rohani hadn’t taken part in a military parade in Tehran just a few days before that UN speech that again called for the destruction of Israel, including a truck carrying Shihab missiles capable of reaching Israel sporting a banner in Persian that read, “Israel must stop existing”–it would be easier for Israel to trust Rohani.
Maybe if Rohani hadn’t called Israel “an occupier” and “a usurper government,” with “war-mongering policies” in an op-ed in September; or called Israel “a wound” in August–it would be easier for Israel to believe Rohani was different.
Maybe if Rohani hadn’t bragged on Iranian state IRIB TV in May that he, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-5, worked with the regime to utterly ignore a 2003 agreement he had negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which required Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities–it would be easier for Israel to believe that Rohani is a man who lives up to agreements now.
Maybe if the world hadn’t witnessed millions take to the streets in cities across Iran last week in one the largest protests in its history–with demonstrators chanting “death to Israel,” burning the Israeli flag and hanging Netanyahu in effigy–it would be easier for Israel to believe that Iran was ready to “discard any extreme approach in the conduct of its relations.”
Maybe if Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, universally understood to be “the dominant figure in Iranian politics,” hadn’t called Israel an “illegitimate and bastard regime” last weekend; or said that “the opportunity must not be lost…to kill all the Jews and annihilate Israel” in 2012; or said that “the foundation of the Islamic regime is opposition to Israel and the perpetual subject of Iran is the elimination of Israel from the region” in 2001–it would be easier for Israel to believe that Iran has had a change of heart.
Maybe if the entirety of Iran’s government and military hadn’t applauded when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned just three months ago of “an impending
regional storm that would uproot Israel;” or said Israel was “on its way to annihilation” in 2008; or said that the Holocaust was “made up” in 2006; or said that Israel “must be wiped off the map” in 2005–it would be easier for Israel to believe that Rohani speaks for a changed Iran.
Maybe if former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani hadn’t warned that “the application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel” in 2001; or former President Mohammad Khatami hadn’t called on the Islamic world to “mobilize to kill” Israel in 2000;–it would be easier for Israel to believe Iran didn’t plan to build a nuclear bomb.
Maybe if the commander of Iran’s Navy hadn’t threatened to “dispatch destroyers and submarines until we kill (Israel)” in 2011; or the commander of Iran’s Aerospace Force hadn’t said, “our missiles are aimed at U.S. forces and Israel” in 2011; or the co-founder of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard hadn’t said “the time has come for the Zionist regime’s death sentence” in 2008–it would be easier for Israel to believe that Iran’s nuclear program would be safe in the hands of its military.
And maybe if Iran hadn’t spent the past decade providing financial support and arms to every organization that has called for Israel’s destruction, from Hezbollah to Hamas to Syria–it would be easier for Israel to believe that Iran had only peaceful purposes at heart.
But with such an unbroken string of death threats the past 34 years, in a region where Tehran is as close to Jerusalem as St. Louis is to New York, why shouldn’t Israel hold out for the complete dismantling of Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons?
Are sanctions crippling Iran’s economy? Yes. Are negotiations with the West an act of desperation on the part of Rohani? Yes. But does that mean that Iran renounces the destruction of Israel? Well, that would take a deathbed conversion–and as we all know, Muslims don’t believe in deathbed conversions. If you were an Israeli, would you?