On the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, in 1973, Israel’s borders were left largely unguarded. Egypt and Syria attacked, and Israel suffered severe losses. Israel’s minister of defense was openly foretelling the country’s annihilation.
American and Israeli officials discussed an American resupply of the Israeli military, but there was a hold-up.
Some say the Defense Department dragged its feet. Others believe Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was stalling. Kissinger, it seems, did not take the threat against Israel seriously, and thought he could garner influence with the Arabs by restraining Israel. He also thought, as was latter discovered, that Israel needed taking down a peg or two to make it more amenable to concessions.
Then, after a logistically unnecessary delay, the sealed American floodgates suddenly gave way to a major military resupply operation. What influenced the American pivot? According to many reports Israel prepared nuclear options and may have used the prospect of the war going nuclear to push for the conventional resupply operation. Nuclear weapons were not used, but as the resupply operation got under way, Israel, which had been on the cusp of total annihilation, gained the momentum.
Israel has never used nuclear weapons, but at its inception, Israel was completely surrounded by enemies who refused to accept its existence. Subsequent agreements with Egypt and Jordan created what has been called a “cold peace,” and the Abraham Accords further advanced Muslim acceptance of the Jewish state. Regardless, to this day many muslims and muslim countries, like Lebanon and Syria, still do not accept Israel’s existence.
Though Israel has been reported to possess nuclear weapons, it does not openly acknowledge them in order to avoid being seen as a threat to other countries. Iran threatens Israel openly and directly, and it is not just Israel. Iran sponsors terrorism all over the world, especially in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon. It is an undemocratic, fundamentalist, jihadist regime.
Under the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which was signed by the Obama administration, vacated by Trump, and which the Biden administration is trying to revive, restrictions on Iranian centrifuges ease in year ten of the agreement, and in year fifteen restrictions ease on the amount of enriched nuclear material Iran is allowed to stockpile and on the purity level to which they are allowed to enrich.
Ten years is what Benjamin Netanyahu called, “a young man’s idea of a long time,” and Barack Obama himself acknowledged, in a 2015 interview, that under the agreement, at some point between years ten and fifteen, Iran would have everything it needs to instantly build a nuclear weapon, in essentially no time at all, should they choose to breakout and do so.
Immediately after the Obama interview, staffers tried to walk back his comments, but they did not provide any other breakout timetables, and based on publicly available information, a breakout time of practically zero appears likely at some point between years ten and fifteen of the agreement.
One of the most important questions is, “Are we better off without the agreement?”
Breakout timetables are no more comfortable without the agreement than they are with it, and leaving the issue unresolved is not in anyone’s interest, but so long as the breakout time is not substantively longer with the agreement than without it, the agreement worsens the problem.
World powers want to head off a nuclear arms race and war, but the countries most threatened by Iran have not been directly involved in the agreement. You do not mediate a conflict by engaging one side and not the other. Even with a return to the 2015 agreement, the Sunni states and Israel will continue to view themselves as threatened and vulnerable. Unless we arrive at an agreement that permanently engineers a breakout time of at least a year, an eventual confrontation is inevitable.
The 2015 agreement legitimizes and accepts the zero breakout situation, undermining the ability to improve upon it in the future. Once the world accepts a zero breakout situation, why should Iran ever agree to anything any more restrictive, should circumstances and the balance of leverage ever change with future developments?
Lending international legitimacy to the zero breakout situation in Iran will also make it impossible to negotiate anything other than a zero breakout situation with countries like North Korea or any other country that may emerge as a nuclear threshold country.
Now, on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, what is needed is not a return to the 2015 agreement.
What is needed and lacking is a president willing to say that a zero breakout situation is unacceptable. It was unacceptable in 2015. It is unacceptable ten, twenty, or thirty years into an agreement. It will never be acceptable. If Iran will not sign an agreement that permanently extends the breakout time to one year, we should continue sanctions.
And if they never agree, sanctions are better than an agreement that legitimizes and accepts an intolerable situation, and sweeps the problem under the rug, to be more easily ignored and forgotten, while leaving an eventual explosion inevitable.
Baruch Steinis a writer and political analyst from the United States now living in Jerusalem, and an opinion contributor, mainly to English language Israeli and Jewish news outlets, who has also been published in mainstream American newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review/Triblive.com, The Cleveland Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com, and The Greenville News (South Carolina). Articles of his have been picked up for secondarypublication on multiple occasions, and have been translated into Spanish, German, and Italian.