By: Anna Rosa Schlechter (Guest Writer)

More than a year ago, on May 8, 2018, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Israel warmly welcomed the Washington’s decision, which followed shortly after Israeli intelligence agents uncovered a nuclear archive with 55,000 pages of documents and CDs in a warehouse in Tehran that revealed Iran’s past nuclear weapon development efforts. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is in the process of diligently reviewing the voluminous documents, according to an article published earlier this year by Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow and former director on the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Diplomatic efforts to reach a comprehensive, long-term and proper solution to the Iranian nuclear issue culminated in the JCPOA in July 2015 by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union and Iran (UN Resolution 2231). Israel’s criticism of the JCPOA stems from how it does not block Iran’s nuclear activity; it merely delays it and paves a way to more advanced research and development, explained Ambassador Zafary Odiz, Israeli representative to the IAEA and Comprehensive Nuclear- Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CBTBO). By the time the agreement expires, no limitation of enrichment is stipulated and Iran could produce weapon-grade uranium in a matter of weeks, Zafary Odiz added.

Israel and the U.S. share the mutual aim to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. What is at stake for Israel, which finds itself in the midst of the unraveling of the JCPOA? Simply put, “Israel finds itself in a tough neighbourhood,” Zafary Odiz said. The Society of International Security at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna hosted Zafary Odiz last month, where she shared Israel’s cautious stance toward regional nuclear non-proliferation.

On top of the list of regional challenges are “Iran’s persistent aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons, and this is coupled with a missile program, terror support, and destabilizing regional behavior,” Zafary Odiz said. The statement that Iran did not economically abide to the JCPOA is fueled by the threatening presence and engagement of non-state actors in the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. She explained Israel’s non-proliferation policy by outlining four principles:

  • Israel is subject to multiple regional threats. As a result, Israel sees these issues closely linked to the regional context rather than the global context.
  • Israel’s longstanding policy (since 1963) supported by all consecutive governments–left or right–pledges “not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.”
  • Israel has very narrow security margins, both physical and strategic, and therefore, the decision to join an arms control treaty has to consider whether a treaty, such as the CTBT, actually enhances national security.
  • Israel is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but did support its adoption in 1968 in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Israel’s pledge to not be the first one to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East is frequently interpreted to mean that Israel will not test or publicly declare the existence of its nuclear weapons. Israel signed the CTBT but has not ratified the treaty and is the only non-NPT nuclear possessing state to sign the CTBT. Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Dr. Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of the CTBT Preparatory Organization, in June 2016 and indicated that Israel would ratify the treaty. However, despite Israel’s participation in the development  of the CTBT in the mid-1990s in Geneva and its signature in 1996, Israel sees itself unable to ratify the agreement.

In the national context, Zafary Odiz explained, three countries in the region still have not complied with building monitoring stations for verifications: Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Israel has been placed into the regional group of Middle East and South Asia (MESA), which consists of 24 states. Yet they have never met as a group; only Iran can call the group together and uses this power to pressure other countries to render the main policy organ non-operational. Thus, according to Zafary Odiz, Israel sees itself as a groupless country within this framework.

German-Israeli Policy Advisor Melody Sucharewitz claimed in a talk on German TV-channel “Das Erste” last month that the possibility to sit down and negotiate with all players about the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is a European illusion. She elaborated that therein lies the assumption that everyone in the Middle East is acting rationally, which they are not.

This reality needs to be accepted. Zafary Odiz and Sucharewitz echoed the same sentiment of a lack of recognition by some of the countries in the region, resulting in difficulties to establish a dialogue. Israel finds its factual recognition by Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran a prerequisite to launch talks about arms control in the region.

Contrary to Israel’s claims, the IAEA has stated that “Iran is implementing its nuclear-related commitments.” In March 2019, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said, “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement. Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran continue.”

The unraveling of the JCPOA certainly does not make the world a safer place. Despite Israel’s manifold security threats in the region, Washington’s withdrawal out of a historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is by no means favourable. Israel envisioned a comprehensive agreement that would not only cover nuclear issues as in the JCPOA, but also satisfy Israel’s need for regional stability. “Hopes did not materialise,” Zafary Odiz said.

In response to Iran’s quadruplication of enrichment activities, the European Union called upon the IAEA to undertake the necessary verification and monitoring when it comes to Iran’s nuclear-related commitments. While the EU should more effectively try to preserve the nuclear agreement at stake, Zafary Odiz explained, pressure and sanctions will only be effective if the EU coordinates with Washington.