Israel Presses Military Option on Iran, as Nuclear Talks Appear to Crumble
The timing of a pre-emptive strike against Iran would ideally be before it crosses the nuclear threshold
Israel appears to be ratcheting up its preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as it carefully assesses the position of the United States on the matter.
Speaking to reporters over the weekend, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he told American officials during meetings in Washington on Thursday that he has instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for a strike against Iran.
Israeli leaders from all sides of the political map have said repeatedly in recent years that Israel would act unilaterally against Iran should it see that it is necessary.
Gantz was in the US for face-to-face discussions with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Iran and the latest developments in Vienna, where negotiations on a renewed nuclear deal with Iran have been taking place; the latest round broke off on Thursday.
Unnamed senior defense officials told reporters that Israel gave the Americans the timeline of a possible offensive. Some reports also described tension between the White House and Jerusalem over the matter.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke earlier this month with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and warned him of Iranian “nuclear blackmail.” Bennett demanded an immediate halt to US participation in the talks, a possible signal of the pressure felt in Jerusalem.
David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, also was in Washington last week to discuss Iran’s nuclear progress. He reportedly showed American intelligence officials information regarding Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium at higher levels.
In recent weeks, Israeli officials have been increasingly vocal about their consideration of a military option against Iran. They have been pushing the US to increase its pressure on Iran, and warning about the dangers of a return to the 2015 deal signed between Iran and the world powers, under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The deal caused great tension between Israel and the US when it was signed in 2015.
In 2018, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known, which essentially nullified the pact. Israel at the time of the US withdrawal from the deal was led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who saw the US abandonment of the agreement as an achievement.
But Iran has since intensified its uranium enrichment, which has become a major cause of concern on the part of Israel and the international community. Israeli security experts believe Iran is just weeks or months away from the ability to build a nuclear bomb.
Negotiations were resumed earlier this year with the blessing of the US administration led by President Joe Biden. Israel has been eyeing events carefully.
There is no possibility to go back to an agreement. The Iranians are at the threshold of nuclear capability and they have no incentive to negotiate.
European negotiators have voiced their dismay on the progress of the talks and senior American officials also have voiced their concern. An agreement seems distant, as a hard-line Iran leaves little room for compromise.
“There is no possibility to go back to an agreement,” Dr. Emmanuel Navon, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS), told The Media Line. “The Iranians are at the threshold of nuclear capability and they have no incentive to negotiate. The sanctions – only imposed by the US, and their speedy nuclear progress makes for no incentives.”
This leaves Israel with little room to maneuver against its archrival.
“Officially, Israel denounces any agreement with Iran,” said Dr. Or Rabinowitz, a senior lecturer and an expert on nuclear proliferation from the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “But Israel prefers an agreement rather than no agreement at all. We will not hear anyone say this, after years of public condemnation of the JCPOA.”
“The Israeli leadership and political echelon understand the policy was a failure and now Israel finds itself with few options,” she added.
In recent years, Israel has conducted a shadow war against Iran. Israel’s military is believed to be behind hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian targets in the Middle East, in addition to cyberattacks against major infrastructure in the Islamic Republic. As Iran appears to be inching closer and closer to nuclear weapons capability, there is a question as to how effective this war has actually been. Realizing this may also influence Israeli decision-makers when considering whether to act directly against Iran.
Sanctions imposed by the US on Iran in recent years did not receive the desired result, either. The sanctions that were put in place by the entire international community before the American withdrawal from the JCPOA had a more crippling effect on Iran, but still did not hit the mark.
“The sanctions may have hurt the Iranian economy, but it did not change its nuclear policy,” said Rabinowitz.
A military showdown with Iran is not something Israel can carry out easily. Although Israel is believed to possess the capability to attack, the distance to Iran makes airstrikes a significant challenge. In addition, Iranian nuclear facilities are scattered around the country, meaning any Israeli attack would have to be widespread and massive. Such an attack would likely encourage other countries and entities hostile to Israel to get involved, dragging Israel into a multi-front, full-blown military conflict.
Israel will have to tread carefully.
“Israel will likely continue to declare it is preparing a military option,” said Rabinowitz. “And we will likely see more cyberattacks because for Israel this is a way to convey a deterring message to the Iranians. But these attacks didn’t influence Iran’s nuclear behavior until now.”
The sanctions may have hurt the Iranian economy, but it did not change its nuclear policy
For Israel, the timing of a pre-emptive strike against Iran would ideally be before the Islamic Republic crosses the nuclear threshold.
For the US, the Biden administration will want to demonstrate it has exhausted all avenues before choosing a military option. Iran has increasingly become more belligerent in the region, acting by its proxy militias against American targets. A nuclear Iran will not be tolerated by Washington or Jerusalem, even though Israel itself is believed to possess its own large nuclear arsenal.
“Israel is concerned that a nuclear Iran will be more daring in its regional activities,” said Rabinowitz. “While there is a chance nuclear capabilities will not influence Iranian behavior, Israel would rather not test that theory and maintain nuclear hegemony in the region.”
Iran funds and trains the Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthi movements, all destabilizing elements in the volatile neighborhood of the Middle East. Israel’s borders to the north and south are swarming with Iran-backed militias.
“For the US, a nuclear Iran endangers the entire region, threatening the Gulf states and Israel,” said Navon. “The US cannot afford this kind of threat.”
There is no deadline for the talks in Vienna and it is unclear whether failure to reach a deal will lead to an immediate, if any, American strike or overt Israeli military action in Iran. Israel also needs to weigh the diplomatic fallout of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. If in the past Israel needed to convince the international community of Iran’s intentions, the years that have gone by have made room for clarity.
“Today there is an understanding that Iran is a strategic threat to Israel,” Navon said. “Israel can justify an attack in terms of international law under the claim of self-defense, in light of Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapon and its repeated threats against Israel.”