How Australia can prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons

June 5, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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In the latest webinar held by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) Israeli expert on foreign relations and the Middle East, Col. (res.) Dr Eran Lerman, the Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, explained how Australia can help prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

Dr Erman Lerman

Dr Lerman, formerly deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, was asked, “What would you like to see a middle power country like Australia do to pressure Iran to end or limit its rogue state activities?”

He replied, “Australia should stick to the straight and narrow. The sanctions should be applied…the international community has spoken.

“Now it’s not only the Americans. Even the three European custodians of the JCPOA [nuclear agreement] have confirmed that Iran is in breach of its commitments, and basically what Australia should do is lend moral and diplomatic support for the efforts to force the Iranians to the table to renegotiate what was I think a catastrophic deal back in 2015, and if there’s one specific issue that must be renegotiated, it is what they call the sunset clauses. The time and moment at which the Iranians would be free from their obligations and would run their centrifuges at will.

“This was coming anyway. They are now hastening the day by a few years…so the pressure should be consistent, clear and unified from all like-minded nations that Iran can regain its place in world affairs only if it consents to renegotiate this highly problematic aspect of the deal and basically signal that it has truly given up on its military nuclear ambitions.”

Speaking on the topic,” Israel’s decision time: The Trump Plan, Iran and regional power struggles”, Dr Lerman outlined three issues confronting Israeli decision-makers: the stability of its neighbours due to the impact of COVID-19, especially with regard to their economies; the challenge of Turkish expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean; and most dangerously, the continuing conflict with Iran.

On Turkey, he explained that its President Recep Erdogan, despite domestic political setbacks, has intensified efforts to dominate the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is backing the Libyan government in the ongoing civil war, including by sending troops, and has agreed with that government to partition the eastern Mediterranean between them in a way that blocks Israel, Egypt and Cyprus accessing Europe. Israel has formed the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum with Egypt, Cyprus and Greece to exploit gas fields in the seafloor.

He said that it is in the interest of all the relevant players, including the US, the Europeans, Russia and even China to persuade Erdogan to abandon his division of the Mediterranean and compromise in Libya. Otherwise, Turkey should be isolated.

Iran, he said, is in dire straits and is suffering blow after blow, including US sanctions, the killing of General Soleimani, the coronavirus, the drop in oil prices, losing its grip over its proxies and allies in Syria and tensions there with Russia, an uprising against Hezbollah in Lebanon which is now a broke country, and the installation of a new Iraqi PM who is no supporter of Iranian control there.

In response, it has just become more audacious and provocative. For example, the recent cyber-attack on Israeli water infrastructure, which Israel fought off, was intended to cause massive chlorine poisoning. This is just one of many provocative actions Iran has taken to try to force the international community to let it back into the global economy, but the most serious have been its breaches of the JCPOA, including by starting to stockpile nuclear material. This, Lerman says, may require a serious decision within a year.

On the Trump Peace Plan, he says it is complex, at 182 pages, but is premised on improving lives and no-one being driven from their homes. Lerman says it breaks what he calls the EKP – the “everybody knows paradigm” – that Israel must withdraw basically to the pre-1967 lines, uproot settlers, divide Jerusalem and make more than a symbolic response to the Palestinian refugee situation.

This paradigm has generated Palestinian expectations which have hampered steps for peace, and, while most Israelis favour a two-state peace, the vast majority oppose the EKP as they have been weaned away from assumptions it is safe by the second Intifada. The Trump Plan generates the possibility of a compromise Israelis can support.

He feels that the application of Israeli law to parts of the West Bank as a first step and in the context of negotiation with the Palestinians is a good thing. It is better for everyone, including the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Jordan for there to be an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. He feels that if Israel sticks to what is needed for security rather than ideology, it should be able to get neutral observers to agree.

He doubted the PA was serious about its threat to break all ties including security co-operation as this would be suicidal for it, and if Israel is resolute enough to go forward in a way that leaves the Palestinians a horizon to a state, much of the opposition will fall away.

Jordan will make outraged noises, but it really doesn’t want a Palestinian state as its immediate neighbour, as this would destabilise Jordan, and external actors such as Iran and Daesh would look to use Jordan as a terror base to connect with the Palestinians and threaten Israel.

He expects PM Netanyahu to start the process in July or August, but it will require political, diplomatic and security preparations and should be done carefully and in phases, beginning with the Jordan Valley and the area around Jerusalem.

On Hezbollah, he said that all of its wings are connected to its head, so the whole group should be banned. Banning just one wing, he said, is “an absurdity”, adding, “This is a terrorist organisation…which has carried out terror attacks worldwide against Israeli and other targets, and the sooner that most countries follow the lead of Britain, Germany and others and of course the United States in this respect, the better for the future of Lebanon and the Lebanese people. They need to hear from people who think about their future that they will not forever be under the boot of an organisation which is quite openly the agent of a foreign power, namely Iran…Hezbollah has become an instrument of enslavement, and many, many Lebanese have come to recognise this and actually came out into the streets to say so.”

On Russia’s position in the region, he said that Russia and Turkey are at loggerheads, in Syria and Libya, while Russia’s relationship with Iran is more delicate. They worked together to save Syria’s Assad regime, and Russia wants the achievement of being able to say it saved an ally, and doesn’t want to risk its investment by having Assad clash with Israel. Iran, on the other hand, wants to use Syria as part of its strategy to encircle Israel with hostile forces, so Israel is constantly talking to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to remind him that Iran’s plans will ruin Syria, and waste Russia’s investment.

Finally, asked about the prospect of an Israel/Iran war, and what the election of a Biden administration would mean for Israel, he answered that Israel may ultimately need to act alone to prevent Iran becoming nuclear-armed.

The current exchange of cyber-attacks may be the early stages of what can become a major confrontation. Israel has been training for it, but it can become serious for Israel because of Hezbollah’s vast arsenal of sophisticated missiles. The confrontation is more likely to come if the US under a Biden administration releases its pressure on Iran.

Israel needs to make the world understand that the choice is either maximum pressure on Iran or war. There may not be such a difference between a Trump and Biden administration if they understand that if the US doesn’t act, Israel will.

Colonel (res.) Dr. Lerman is the Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and an expert on Israel’s foreign relations and the Middle East. He spoke directly from Israel to an AIJAC webinar on 3 June 2020.

A former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, Dr Lerman held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years and served for eight years as Director of the Israel and Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee.


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