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Research Questions

  1. How have Israel's views of Iran evolved as the Iran nuclear agreement was negotiated and implemented?
  2. How have Israeli postures and policy options vis-à-vis Iran developed in the post-deal environment?

For more than a decade, Israel has been at the forefront of efforts to expose and prevent a potential Iranian nuclear weapon capability. It is thus not surprising that Israel was one of the most vocal opponents of the nuclear negotiations with Iran that led to a final agreement in July 2015. Despite some positive assessments in Israel's security community about the value of rolling back the Iranian nuclear program for a number of years, the overwhelming majority of political and security leaders in Israel remained highly skeptical of the deal and Iran's broader regional intentions. Yet, remarkably, after years of Israel making the Iran nuclear file its top national security priority and months of contentious debate that severely tested the U.S.–Israeli relationship, once the agreement became a reality, the nuclear issue quickly moved off the radar in Israel's political and public discourse. To be sure, concerns about Iran did not vanish; they just evolved from a focus on the nuclear issue to Iran's ability to threaten Israel in nonnuclear spheres, particularly through its support for Hizballah and its growing presence in Syria, on Israel's northern border. Israel's views of Iran will no doubt continue to evolve as the Iran nuclear agreement is fully implemented, flounders, or ultimately unravels. But Israel's response following the agreement and preparations for the future already signal likely Israeli postures in the years to come, as well as potential flash points that could threaten regional stability and U.S. national security interests.

Key Findings

The Official Israeli Response to the Final Nuclear Agreement Was Hostile

  • Prime Minister Netanyahu called the agreement a "stunning historic mistake" and noted that Israel was not bound by the agreement.
  • Differences with the prime minister emerged over his handling of the negotiations and the U.S. relationship but not his fundamental views of Iran.
  • The Israeli security establishment is less hostile to the agreement than members of the political elite are, but its broader assessment of Iran is similar.

Israeli Leaders Largely Adapted to the Reality of the Agreement as They Shifted Focus to Nonnuclear Areas of Concern and Began Preparations for the Future

  • Palestinian violence might have contributed to the downgrading of the Iran nuclear issue in Israeli domestic debates, but the conflict in Syria quickly became the predominant concern among Israel's security establishment.
  • The agreement is unlikely to serve as an impetus for more-robust and more-visible cooperation between Israel and the Arab Gulf.
  • A direct military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is largely off the table, but military conflict with Iran is still possible through escalation in the Syrian theater.
  • Israeli efforts are more likely to focus on nonkinetic areas, exposing Iranian violations and sanctioning Iran's nonnuclear activities.
  • Israel is already demonstrating an interest in bolstering its own deterrence capabilities in the post-deal environment.

Recommendations

  • U.S. officials should consider Israeli redlines in future negotiations over a post-conflict settlement in Syria, particularly in discussions with Russia. Although a permanent end to the conflict in Syria unfortunately does not appear imminent, a final agreement that prevents Iran or Hizballah from establishing a permanent Iranian presence on Israel's border could avoid future instability.
  • Enhanced and broader communication channels between the United States and Israel will also be important. The United States and Israel should institute clear understandings about what would constitute a violation of the agreement and what the range of acceptable responses might be.
  • Over the coming decade, the United States could share information about Iran's compliance or offer Israeli officials regular intelligence briefings on the state of Iranian nonnuclear programs that concern Israel (particularly Iran's missile program). The next U.S. president could also create a working group to plan for the agreement's termination, consulting with Israelis early in the process.
  • Increased and regular engagement among political leaders, not just technical experts, could further strengthen Israel's confidence in the agreement and allow U.S. policymakers to convey core U.S. regional interests, preventing misunderstandings about U.S. policy in the region.
  • More-institutionalized and more-frequent channels for U.S.-Israeli communication on the agreement would minimize distrust.

This research was conducted within the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy (CMEPP), part of International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

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