Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Yair Golan is the former deputy chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces and is currently a member of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) for the Meretz Party.
I know. I was there.
As a major general with the IDF who was serving as deputy chief of the general staff, I can attest that the general sentiment in the senior ranks was one of satisfaction. As our nuclear, security and diplomatic experts delved into the complex details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it became clear just how well-designed the deal was, and just how vital a tool it would become in preventing the existential threat of a nuclear Iran.
To be clear, it was not a perfect agreement — but it was good enough. (In the military, you quickly learn there’s no such thing as a perfect solution.) It was an agreement that forced Iran to surrender 98 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile, filled its heavy water reactor with concrete, severely limited its operating centrifuge inventory and blocked any path to producing plutonium for weapons. It was an agreement that set back Iran’s nuclear program significantly and did so in a verifiable manner, which is precisely what we wanted.
What was true then remains true today, and I continue to believe that it is in Israel’s urgent national security interest for the United States to return to compliance with the deal, and to then use it as a basis for follow-on negotiations. Then-President Donald Trump tried a policy of “maximum pressure” in which the administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated sanctions and piled on new ones, repeatedly threatened Iran with military attack, and provocatively assassinated one of the most senior Iranian commanders. Trump’s administration argued that by backing Iran further and further into a corner, they could extract major new concessions from the regime.
Yet, that policy’s stark lack of results shows that Obama’s Iran deal remains the only proven method for halting Iran’s nuclear capabilities, dismantling its facilities and reducing its stockpiles.
But while that was the original opinion of most in the Israeli security establishment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t see it that way.
Having long sought to present himself to voters as an uncompromising security hard-liner — and having long used the threat of Iranian aggression to strengthen defense relationships with the United States and Persian Gulf countries, as well as to deflect criticism over the Palestinian conflict — Netanyahu saw the Iran deal as a threat to his legitimacy. He launched an all-out assault on the deal, breaking diplomatic norms by coordinating with U.S. Republicans, who opposed it and muddying the waters around Iran’s compliance.
A close political ally of Trump, Netanyahu pushed for the incoming president to backtrack on an agreement the United States itself had authored. And while Netanyahu celebrated a triumph when Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, we can state with certainty that the move has not made Israel safer.
Since the withdrawal, there’s been a cascade of spiraling consequences — and none of them has moved Iran closer to renegotiation, strengthened the United States’ strategic position or deterred Iran from destabilizing acts. After upholding its end of the agreement while the United States was complying with the deal, Iran is now once again stockpiling material, rebuilding nuclear facilities and warning that international inspectors may no longer be given full access.
None of this makes Israel safer. None of this makes the United States safer. None of this blocks Iran’s path to a bomb.
President Biden has made restoring the Iran deal a top priority for his administration, and there are many in Israel’s security establishment who are quietly willing him on. Although it has been disregarded by Netanyahu, there remains strong support for the JCPOA in the Israeli defense community.
Instead of undermining Biden’s efforts — as Netanyahu did to Obama before him — the Israeli government should strive to be a strategic and influential supporter of the deal — and, importantly, it should work to shape and support tangible, effective follow-on agreements. The window for action is narrow and urgent. With Iranian elections looming and diplomatic patience running thin, there’s a real risk that Iran’s pro-engagement President Hassan Rouhani will be replaced by an anti-deal hard-liner.
If the Biden administration does not succeed in negotiating a full U.S. and Iranian return to the nuclear deal, Israel will be one of the biggest losers. Without diplomatic paths to resolving its economic and security interests, Iran will double down on its strategy of keeping its adversaries busy with proxy conflicts, strengthening support for allies including Hamas and Hezbollah, and building strategic deterrence through its nuclear capabilities. The result could be a full-scale war — one with extremely dangerous consequences for Israel and the region.
Cooler, more strategic heads must prevail, and we must use diplomacy to meet this challenge.