The United States, its allies, and Iran have returned to negotiations this week in Vienna aimed at restoring the JCPOA. All parties are expressing pessimism regarding the current round of talks. President Joe Biden is feeling pressure from Congress and from Israel to find ways to “improve” the deal, while the new, more hardline Iranian leadership is holding firm to its demands that Washington lift all sanctions imposed since 2018 immediately and offer a guarantee that it will not renege on its commitment to the deal, as President Donald Trump did.
Both sides are pointing fingers at the other and it may seem like there is no viable path forward. But one is suddenly presenting itself to the United States from a most unlikely source: Israel.
Earlier this week, an interview in the Israeli press appeared with Danny Cintrinowicz, who headed the Iran branch of the Israeli Military Intelligence’s Research and Analysis Division from 2013 to 2016. This was the period during which the moderate Hassan Rouhani took over the Iranian presidency from the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and spearheaded Iran’s effort to engage the West.
Cintrinowicz called Israel’s policy on Iran a “failure,” explaining that “[Israel] pushed the US side to leave the agreement when there are no other options.”
Cintrinowicz speaks from years of studying Iranian politics and policymaking regarding its military and security affairs. His view of Iran is far more nuanced and informed than most of what we hear from Israeli officials — or American and European ones for that matter.
“Iran is not a monolith,” Cintrinowicz told The Times of Israel. “And I’m sorry, but they don’t wake up in the morning and think about how to destroy Israel. It doesn’t work like that in Iran… It’s a basic misunderstanding of the Iranian system.”
Cintrinowicz laid out the reason the current impasse is so tricky. “Everything started going haywire when Trump left the agreement. Initially, Rouhani tried not to violate the deal. He took only very limited steps. But when he became so weakened and understood that nothing would change, he decided to break every restriction that had been placed on the regime.”
Cintrinowicz was not alone in bemoaning Trump’s arbitrary and dangerous decision to abandon the JCPOA. Other Israeli leaders, and prominent pro-Israel Americans, also voiced their consternation.
The same day Cintrinowicz’s interview appeared, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared that “President Donald Trump’s decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 …was one of the dumbest, most poorly thought out and counterproductive U.S. national security decisions of the post-Cold War era.”
Friedman had been a tepid supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. In 2015, as the deal was being consummated, Friedman called the JCPOA a “good bad deal” and praised Iran for how well its leaders “played a weak hand,” while insinuating that President Barack Obama had negotiated from weakness because he didn’t want to risk starting a new war in the Middle East.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because these are key elements of the arguments that opponents of the JCPOA have made. The idea that a “better deal” was possible was repeatedly flown, despite the fact that proposals for such a deal were clearly non-starters that would have harmed or even completely destroyed negotiations.
Friedman’s newfound clarity is made in Israel. He makes no secret of that, citing at the very beginning of his piece the former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s and former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s despair at Trump’s disastrous decision.
Ya’alon told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Looking at the policy on Iran in the last decade, the main mistake was the withdrawal from the agreement. The agreement itself was a historic mistake, but withdrawing from it gave them an excuse to go ahead [with enrichment].”
Haaretz also paraphrased Eisenkot saying, “The American withdrawal from the deal…was a net negative for Israel: It released Iran from all restrictions, and brought its nuclear program to a much more advanced position.”
After these two revelations, an anonymous Israeli military source told Israel’s Channel 12 News that the assassination last year of leading Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, “…did not brake Iran’s progress as was hoped. The current situation is the most advanced that Iran has ever reached.” As a result, the Israeli official said, “There is a huge global Israeli effort — both publicly and behind the scenes — to push for an upgraded agreement as well as simultaneously building a large and significant attack plan.” The assassination was another failure in a long line of bad decisions, all to undo a deal with Iran that no one disputes was working.
Taken together, these comments represent a stunning indictment of Israel’s approach to Iran, an approach that, at its very core, featured an all-out effort to press the United States into a more hawkish stance. While Donald Trump may not have needed much prodding to destroy Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment, Israel’s pressure certainly had a notable effect on him as well as on Obama and, now, on Joe Biden.
Cintrinowicz described his views at the time of the agreement. “The agreement — with all of its flaws — rolled back the Iran nuclear program significantly … When you’re in the army though, you can make your voice heard but at the end of the day it’s a political decision, and the political decision was no JCPOA, no acceptance of the agreement.”
Describing current conditions, Cintrinowicz said, “[Biden is] facing a problem from the domestic side because he’s invested so much to push his economic plans through that he’s using up all of his political capital. Assuming that he’s able to get some sort of deal, even if it’s not a treaty, he needs to get some sort of approval from his own party and because the deal will … not be the ‘longer and stronger’ one that many are calling for, he might find that even on the Democratic side, there will be those who will be reluctant to support it.”
As hawkish as some Democrats in Congress are, much of their anti-Iran hostility and rhetoric is rooted in defending Israel. While Naftali Bennett is somewhat more diplomatic than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, his policy when it comes to Iran is virtually the same.
If Biden wants to be able to strike the deal he needs to strike with Iran, he needs to put these Israeli voices front and center. The White House and the State Department should be holding press conferences quoting Ya’alon, Eizenkot, and Cintrinowicz. Would Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is currently enjoying the fruits of warmer relations with the United Arab Emirates and the continued distancing of the question of Israel’s occupation from the diplomatic arena, risk the sort of open hostility with Joe Biden that Netanyahu welcomed with Barack Obama?
That seems unlikely, but it’s what Bennett would need to do if Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a strong case that Israel’s own military intelligentsia understands that a return to the JCPOA, as it was when Trump left it, is in the best interests of the United States, Iran, the Gulf region and, yes, Israel too.