Cross-Border Conversations: Discussing #Irantalks in Israel

Given regional tensions, much of the discourse surrounding Iran’s nuclear capacity centers not on the countries negotiating, but on the security needs of Israel. The vital and diverse discourse around this subject was on display last week at a Jerusalem conference on regional security and foreign policy hosted by Ploughshares Fund grantees The Center for American Progress and Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy. Designed to cultivate discussion among Israeli and American progressive thinkers, the conference served to highlight the alignment of the countries’ interests and to break past assumptions about Israeli perspectives on nuclear negotiations. As Herzog told Think Progress reporter Benjamin Armbruster: “I think the P5+1 are on top of it.”

The two organizations have much in common: CAP is a well-regarded left-leaning US think tank that has done a great deal to organize support for diplomatic solutions on Iran; Molad is newer, but serves a similar role in Israel as a left-leaning think tank  with a comprehensive vision of an equitable Israel and a diplomatic resolution of the Middle East conflict.

The event’s featured speaker was Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog; CAP senior policy analyst Matt Duss was on hand to moderate the conference’s Iran panel: “A Nuclear Deal with Iran: Identifying Areas of Agreement and Tension.” Panelists included Helit Barel, board member of the Council for Peace and Security in Israel; Heather Hurlburt, senior national security fellow with Human Rights First; Meir Javedanfar, Iranian politics lecturer at IDC Herzliya in Israel; and Shlomo Brom, retired Israeli Defense Forces Brigadier General and a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Skepticism and change

Acknowledging his own skepticism regarding the Iranian leadership, Herzog pointed to the “internal conflict” between regime hardliners and moderates, and the apparent shift toward international engagement. “I for one believe that there is a sublime change,” he said. Brom went farther, calling earlier Israeli criticism of the November interim deal a “big mistake.” Conference participants were in broad agreement that the difference of opinion between the Israeli and American leaderships is political; the US and Israeli security establishments have a largely shared vision concerning the future of talks.

A major factor in their agreement is the IAEA report of Iran’s full compliance with the November deal’s terms, “halting [uranium] enrichment to 20 percent… freezing the number of centrifuges available for enrichment,” and enabling closer inspection by the agency at its nuclear facilities; Javedanfar told attendees that “Iran is going beyond its responsibilities” as put forward in that deal, repeating himself to drive the point home.

Regional concerns

Barel noted, however, that Israel isn’t the only country in the region with concerns about Iranian nuclear capacity, saying that negotiations must also “account for for the security needs of the Gulf states,” and furthermore suggesting that the leadership of Saudi Arabia is possibly even more worried about Iran’s nuclear future than Israel’s leaders. And, she noted: “What will stop them from seeking a nuke if Iran has one?”

Recent tensions in Europe were also a centerpiece of discussion. Hurlburt circled back to the P5+1 negotiators, noting that “Russia could have pulled out of the negotiating team by now but they didn't.” As former Ambassador Steven Pifer, Director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, recently told Ploughshares: “Russia does not have an interest in seeing Iran with nuclear weapons.”

 “Deluding themselves”

Hurlburt and Brom both made clear that a final deal with Iran will almost certainly include a limited level of enrichment capacity for peaceful, civil ends. Though any resolution is bound to also include rigorous inspection mechanisms, Brom was blunt in his assessment that anyone who hopes to see all nuclear development off the table “is deluding themselves.”

In meeting and discussing a range of issues much wider than what is usually found in media reports, American and Israeli progressives are able to support and amplify each others’ efforts to advance society-wide support for a durable agreement with Iran. International concerns require an international approach, and the left in both countries has much to gain from such cooperative efforts.