3 Mar 2015

Why Netanyahu wants to scupper a US deal with Iran

Today Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will give a dramatic speech to the US Congress outlining how within months Iran could build a nuclear weapon. It would sound more frightening if he and other Israeli leaders hadn’t been predicting similar time frames for more than 20 years.

Back in 1992, when he was an MP, Mr Netanyahu predicted that Iran would have the bomb “within three to five years”. 1997 came and went with no Iranian bomb but more similar predictions. I have attended numerous briefings with Israel defence ministers who earnestly warn that within six months Iran will be a nuclear power. Six months later they say the same.

Israel's PM Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington

Binyamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC in Washington, 2 March 2015 (Reuters)

Recent leaks of Mossad cables suggest that the intelligence service’s assessment is far less alarmist than that of the politicians.

US-led negotiations appear to have succeeded persuading the Iranians to slow down their nuclear programme as the two sides draw closer to a potential agreement. There’s now a real possibility that by the end of this month the “Great Satan” and the Islamic republic will be on a path of cooperation after 35 years of enmity.

So why is Netanyahu so determined to scupper the deal? The answer lies in geography. A few months back I asked retired Israeli General Michael Herzog which he saw as the bigger threat, Isis or Iran? Iran, he said, explaining that Israel’s most vulnerable border is with Lebanon. Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militia armed and backed by Iran, is just a few hundred yards away across the razor wire, poised to attack the Jewish state, as it did in 2006. Isis is a more distant threat with no easy access to Israel. The greatest fear of the Jewish state is some kind of nuclear weapon falling into the hands of Hezbollah.

The US and Europe would welcome detente with Iran, partly because they’re on the same side in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. They define Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation but these days it doesn’t threaten the US or western Europe – its target is Israel. Isis, with its jihadi recruits from western capitals, is a much more immediate threat. This is a sectarian struggle, and arguably the west’s interests lie with Shia Iran, the Middle Eastern state most actively combatting Sunni jihadis.

So this is an occasion when Israel’s interests do not align with those of the USA, however loud the bluster of the Israeli prime minister in Washington today.

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