Republicans should listen to Israel’s spies on the Iran nuclear deal
But for a political party that claims an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, the GOP would be wise to consider how Israel’s top spies – men who have dedicated their lives to defending Israel from foreign threats – view the deal.
Indeed, of the six living former directors of Israel’s storied foreign intelligence agency, four have publicly praised the Iran nuclear agreement. None have echoed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extraordinary criticism of the deal.
These former high-level intelligence officials are not alone. Israel’s military leadership, high-profile Israeli nuclear experts, former directors of Israel’s internal security agency and a former Israeli prime minister have all echoed Mossad’s former chiefs in praising the Iran nuclear deal.
Shabtai Shavit, Mossad’s director from 1989 to 1996, hailed the agreement as an opportunity for Israel to join “a new Middle Eastern order.” According to Shavit, the “agreement bought us 15 years, in which all kinds of things could happen. Now, with Trump having withdrawn from the agreement, the Iranians have enough enriched uranium for at least one bomb.”
Danny Yatom, Mossad’s chief from 1996 to 1998, called President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal “a mistake,” arguing that remaining in the deal made it easier “to persuade Iran to make much more concessions.”
Efraim Halevy, who led Mossad from 1998 to 2002, declared that the Obama administration “scored a great success” with the Iran nuclear deal, applauding the agreement’s “rigorous monitoring system.” In Halevy’s words, the deal “blocks the road to Iranian nuclear military capabilities for at least a decade.”
While Republicans continue to demand that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program expand to include Tehran’s “malign behavior,” Halevy flatly rejected such a maximalist approach. According to Halevy, “the Iranians would … have built a nuclear arsenal” by the time non-nuclear issues – such as Iran’s support for regional militant groups and its missile program – were hashed out.
A fourth former Mossad director, Tamir Pardo, signed a letter in support of President Biden’s approach to Iran. Pardo, along with several high-profile Israeli security experts, “welcomes the American initiative to get Iran to again transparently follow the guidelines in the [nuclear agreement].”
Pro-deal sentiment among Israel’s spies is not limited to Mossad directors. In an explosive interview, the agency’s recently-retired deputy director – an apolitical and widely respected intelligence official whose identity remains concealed for security reasons – blasted Netanyahu’s relentless efforts to undermine the agreement.
According to this former senior official, Israel’s “situation today is worse than it was at the time of the nuclear deal. We have a situation in which there is uranium enrichment in Fordow, there is activity in Kashan, there is work at Natanz, [Iran has] accumulated 2.5 tons of enriched uranium, and now advanced centrifuges.”
Echoing former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, the unnamed official slammed Netanyahu’s demands – parroted by congressional Republicans – that negotiations with Tehran should expand to include non-nuclear issues. Such a maximalist approach, Mossad’s former deputy chief argues, endangers Israel by muddying the waters and distracting from what he views as the one true existential threat to Israel: an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The former spy also blasted Netanyahu’s “complete opposition” to the Obama administration’s efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. In his telling, Netanyahu’s relentless obstruction obliterated Israel’s capacity to shape the agreement.
Ami Ayalon, a former director of Shin Bet – Israel’s internal intelligence and security agency – agrees with his Mossad counterparts. According to Ayalon, “when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capability, this [deal] is the best option. When negotiations began, Iran was two months away from acquiring enough material for a [nuclear] bomb. [With the agreement in place,] it will be 12 months.”
Another former Shin Bet chief, Carmi Gillon, penned one of the more impassioned defenses of the Iran nuclear agreement. Writing in 2017, Gillon urged then-President Trump not to withdraw from the deal, calling it “a blessing for Israel” and a “clear success.”
According to Gillon, “two years on from the signing of the agreement to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program, Israel and the region are safer than ever” because “the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is more remote than it has been in decades. Thanks to the agreement, Iran’s nuclear program has been defanged and all its pathways to a bomb blocked.”
Perhaps most importantly, Gillon wrote that “the majority of my colleagues in the Israeli military and intelligence communities supported the deal once it was reached.”
Gillon’s claim of broad support for the agreement among Israel’s national security experts is echoed by Uzi Arad, a former high-ranking Mossad official who served as Netanyahu’s national security adviser from 2009 to 2011. According to Arad, “the majority” of Israel’s national security community favors the deal.
Indeed, support for the agreement extends to Israel’s military leadership. Asked whether senior military officers viewed the Iran nuclear deal as good for Israel, Yair Golan, Israel’s second highest ranking military officer from 2014 to 2017, responded with a simple answer: “Unequivocally.”
According to Golan, “the general sentiment in the senior ranks [of the Israeli military] was one of satisfaction [with the Iran nuclear agreement].” In Golan’s telling, “it is in Israel’s urgent national security interest for the United States to return to compliance with the deal.”
Ultimately, Netanyahu’s hard-line approach to Iran is at stark odds with the consensus of Israel’s intelligence, foreign policy and military experts. Indeed, in a scathing op-ed, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert labeled Netanyahu’s maximalist campaign Israel’s “greatest failure.”
Of course, this is not the first time Netanyahu finds himself on the wrong side of a critical security issue. Testifying before Congress in 2002, Netanyahu made a bold personal “guarantee” that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would “have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”
Israel’s spies surely disagreed with Netanyahu’s catastrophically wrong judgment then, as they do now. Republicans should take note.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.