Israel's Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has made no secret of his feelings about the apparent détente between Iran and the US. In a speech to the UN earlier this month he warned that Hassan Rouhani, Iran's new president, was a "wolf in sheep's clothing" whose reformist words were a cover for a more sinister agenda.
Netanyahu's warnings to his western allies not to be "duped" into allowing Iran to use talks as a cover while continuing its nuclear programme have thus far gone unheeded. The latest round of talks went ahead in Geneva this week, and the diplomats involved have been broadly positive about the progress made. US officials said that Iranian negotiators had shown more "seriousness and substance" in this week's talks than ever before. The Iranian team said that there had been a "breakthrough" and that they were hopeful of a "new phase" in Iran's relations with the world. Officials said they had outlined a three-step plan, including spot checks on nuclear facilities, to ease anxiety about their intentions. Iran said it hoped an agreement could be reached "within a year." The exact proposals remained unclear, but European diplomats welcomed the plan for a level of detail not previously seen.
After decade of stalemate and stand-off, most observers are reluctant to celebrate too hastily – but most agree that the resumption of dialogue is a step in the right direction. The message from Israel, however, has remained the same. "Iran will be judged by its actions and not its presentations," said an Israeli official responding to the latest talks. "Until significant steps are carried out on the ground which prove that Iran is breaking up its military nuclear programme, the international community must continue to impose sanctions upon it. The pressure of sanctions brought Iran to this point and must continue until Iran is stripped of its nuclear military programme."
The energy minister, Silvan Shalom, went so far as to accuse the European Union and the United States of placing a higher priority on restoring Iranian oil exports than on addressing the threat the country poses to Israel. "The world is currently going through a financial crisis," he told public radio. "The Iran issue needs to be resolved to broaden supply and bring prices down. All the rest is just empty words."
Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its very existence. In an interview with US television, Rouhani condemned the Holocaust as "reprehensible," a notable shift from his Holocaust denying predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At a press conference, Iran's lead negotiator Abbas Araghchi took a question from an Israeli journalist, a highly unusual move for an Iranian official. He told the reporter that "any agreement will open new horizons in relations with all states." But none of this has convinced Israeli politicians. The two countries have been adversaries for years; it will take more than words to heal the rift, and neither is particularly keen to become allies any time soon.
For at least a year before Rouhani's election, Israel was agitating for military intervention in Iran to halt its nuclear programme, and repeatedly threatened unilateral action. While officials in Israel have insisted that the military option must remain on the table ("Israel will stand alone if it needs to," Netanyahu told the UN), it is notable that their attention has suddenly shifted towards retaining sanctions. The lifting of these sanctions, which are crippling Iran's economy and causing widespread discontent in the country, is undoubtedly one of Rouhani's key diplomatic aims. Many analysts attribute his electoral victory to the public's desire to see a shift in international policy and an easy of sanctions. That Israel is so anxious he might be successful demonstrates that that there has been a significant movement in relations between Iran and the west.
Part of Israel's anxiety comes from the speed with which things are progressing. Western powers have repeatedly described this diplomatic softening as a unique opportunity. There is a sense of momentum from Europe and the US, and a desire to reach an agreement quickly, before the window of opportunity closes. Yet this is exactly Israel's concern: the government believes that a speedy deal, softening sanctions in return for a concession on the nuclear programme, will only end up benefiting Iran. The argument is that Iran is currently under pressure from sanctions, and easing them will give Tehran the upper hand. Netanyahu and his ministers worry that the west's obvious eagerness to reach a deal will encourage Iran to toughen their negotiating position.
Yet, if it comes to it, their position may not be as hard line as it seems. Writing in the Ha'aretz newspaper the columnist Amos Harel suggests that "unofficially, Israel is ready for compromise." He says that if the west reached a deal with Iran whereby Iran kept a minimal amount of enrichment capacity, Israel would also agree.
Whether this is true or not, it is clear that unilateral military action would be virtually impossible when the entire international community is currently on the side of talks. Israel's official line has certainly remained consistent, but it does run the risk of looking isolated.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.