As I write this in Jerusalem, there is great angst among Israelis about the possible deal now being negotiated on the Iranian nuclear programme in Geneva.
Why the unease? The Israelis fear that an agreement could let the Iranians off the hook without altering their programme. They believe that once there is a limited easing of sanctions, perhaps including Iranian access to some of their assets in foreign banks, the entire sanctions regime will inevitably erode.
Some countries would see the easing as a sign they can go back into business with oil-rich Iran — and the Iranians will know they can simply play for time, and need not make further concessions as the economic and political squeeze on them dissipates.
Obviously, this is not the scenario that the Obama Administration, the British, French, Germans, Russians and Chinese present of any emerging deal.
For them, an agreement would represent a first step to cap and limit the advance of the Iranian nuclear program without changing the architecture of sanctions.
Certainly, in American and European eyes, they can buy time to negotiate a more far-reaching deal that would then roll back the Iranian nuclear programme and prevent Tehran from achieving the ability to “break out” and make nuclear weapons.
They believe they can reach such a deal with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, but that it will take time — and they don’t want the nuclear programme to continue to advance while they try to achieve it. Unlike the Israelis, they believe that by granting the Iranians some relief from the sanctions, principally by allowing them access to roughly $5 billion of their assets in foreign banks, they will give Mr Rouhani the political space to do such a deal without reducing our leverage.
Indeed, by keeping the main structure of the sanctions regime intact, they believe the Iranians will understand that they will not be able to restore their economy without significantly rolling back their nuclear programme.
And here lies the rub with the Israelis: they fear even limited sanctions relief would take the pressure off Iran and ensure that the first step would become a permanent one. That would leave the nuclear programme intact with over 19,000 centrifuges (including 1,000 advanced models) and enough enriched uranium to make about six nuclear bombs, should Iran choose to process this material into weapons grade.
The Israelis see no roll back of Iran’s nuclear capabilities; instead they envision Tehran being able to “break out” and make nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing. These concerns are, in all likelihood, shared by Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers in the Middle East.
In theory, these worries could be addressed. The key is to show that the pressure on Iran will not be eased. It should be made clear that vigorous enforcement of existing sanctions will continue, regardless of any interim deal – and if there is no final agreement at the end of the process, new restrictions will be added.
It is worth remembering that Mr Rouhani ran against the policies that produced Iran’s isolation when he won the presidential election in June. He pledged to get the sanctions lifted. The price for doing so is to change the character of Iran’s nuclear programme.
The emerging deal would limit the programme, but without changing it. So there is every reason to make clear that sanctions will not go away until the nuclear programme is greatly reduced, with verifiable mechanisms to detect any cheating – and they will actually be increased if there is no final agreement.
Not only is that good policy, but it should also ease the doubts of those who fear a first step would be the last step.
Dennis B. Ross is Counselor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as a Special Assistant to President Barack Obama 2009-2011 and was President Bill Clinton’s envoy to the Middle East.