In a recent ceremony for Israel's new Mossad chief, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that if Israel has to choose between "friction with the United States and eliminating the Iranian threat, eliminating the existential threat wins." This declaration reflects a deviation from Israel's policy that for years perceived the United States as the only player in the international arena with the necessary power to prevent a nuclear Iran.
One of the first foreign policy decisions facing Israel’s new government will be if it wants to maintain or modify the policy spearheaded by Netanyahu to counter the United States' determined effort to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Moreover, the new government needs to assess how successful the maximalist approach Israel has embraced since the negotiations between Iran and the great powers began about two decades ago has been, and to what extent it has pushed the international community to refrain from making concessions and compromises vis à vis Iran.
Paradoxically, although Israel has significantly impacted the way Iran's threats are being addressed, turning them into an international problem, from a comprehensive perspective, Israel's overall balance of containing Iran in all dimensions is on a negative trend axis. At the current strategic crossroads, the lessons learned over the past two decades indicate that it is high time that Israel craft an updated strategy for curbing the Iranian regime's nuclear ambitions.
Such a strategy must avoid turning the Iranian nuclear problem into an Israeli one and rise above an unrealistic "all or nothing" approach that could lead Israel to a dead end. Instead Israel should base its strategy on the unequivocal U.S. commitment to its security, as well as the two countries' shared view that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons by any means.
Since the early 1990s, Israel has increased the international community's awareness, and particularly that of the United States, about the developing Iranian strategic threat. Consequently, Israel has harnessed the world to actively inhibit and stall Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
Israel has played a key role in the battle over narratives, convincing the international community that Iran's nuclear program is not an innocent civilian project but has military objectives. When it seized and released Iran's nuclear archive in 2018, Israel proved to the world beyond a shadow of a doubt that Iran had an organized, elaborate plan — at least in the past — to obtain a nuclear bomb, based on a concrete directive issued by the highest echelons of the Iranian regime.
Over the years, Israel has shared its intelligence and assessments on Iran's prohibited actions with the world. It has played a key role in exposing secret facilities, such as the underground Fordo enrichment plant in 2009, and the evidence it has provided has led the International Atomic Energy Agency to demand explanations from Iran about past suspicious activities in possible military dimensions in undeclared nuclear facilities, including in the past year. At the same time, various clandestine operations attributed to Israel, including targeting facilities and assassinating scientists, have led to significant delays in the progress made by Iran's nuclear program in terms of technological advancement.
Israel also had a tremendous impact on the international sanctions and pressure system employed against the Iranian regime. For instance, it was due to Israeli prompting that the U.S. administration first imposed secondary sanctions on Iran back in the mid-1990s (under the Iran Libya Sanction Act). In the early 2010s, by signaling its intent to take military action against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, Israel pushed the United States to present a credible military threat to Tehran and to clearly undertake to prevent its nuclearization and to impose stricter sanctions against it.
Moreover, Israel played a significant role in shaping the world's approach to the right way to counter Iran's nuclearization. Israel introduced concepts like the "point of no return," "immunity zone," and a "dash" to a nuclear weapon, which distinguish between the worst-case technical timeline to Iranian attainment of military nuclear capability and the time that would be needed to stop Iran, at any given moment, if it decides to break out for the nuclear bomb. Looking back, this distinction stands at the basis of the overarching principle of the JCPOA: the one-year breakout time, which is the time it will take Iran to obtain enough fissile material for one nuclear device.
Finally, in a step considered controversial to this day, Israel fought the nuclear deal after it had discerned that the outcome of the international community’s negotiations with Iran, which lasted for 15 years, did not meet its demands for permanently curbing the Iranian nuclear program. The Israeli anti-Iran nuclear deal campaign, which reached its climax with the unveiling of the nuclear archive, provided the Trump administration with the tailwind it needed and was among the reasons that encouraged it to announce its withdrawal from the JCPOA while rebuilding the sanctions regime that was ultimately the most stringent Iran had ever faced.
A negative trend
Despite all of Israel's accomplishments and its clear impact on the campaign against Iran, the Iranian nuclear program has made continued progress. Over the years, Tehran has gradually revealed its nuclear facilities, as well as its technological advancements on the ground (the start of its uranium conversion and enrichment in 2005 and 2006 respectively) and successfully presented them as a fait accompli, leveraging them, time and again, as a baseline in its negotiations with the great powers.
The international recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium and have enrichment infrastructure on its soil was ultimately validated by the JCPOA signed in July 2015. The agreement was a dramatic Iranian feat whereby most of the restrictions imposed on its nuclear program would be incrementally lessened from the 10th year of its implementation onwards, until being lifted altogether at the end of its 15th year, even if its commitment to never build nuclear weapons remains in effect permanently.
Thus, despite significant achievements, from a historical perspective, looking back on the past few decades, ultimately Israel's balance of success in its efforts to curb Iran is on a negative trend axis. Whereas in 2003 Iran had suspended its nuclear program due to decisive international objection without having gained control of the nuclear fuel cycle, it now has substantial enrichment infrastructure that has won international approval and recognition.
A similar trend is emerging in the region too, as described by Mike Eisenstadt. Iran was in strategic distress in the early 2000s, fearing an American siege following the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, however, it has become the one to employ a siege strategy against Israel and Saudi Arabia, entrenching itself militarily in new arenas such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, while heading a radical camp operating as a system both operationally and politically.
Looking back with hindsight decades on, adherence to maximum objectives, and their anticipated accomplishment, both in the nuclear field and in the region, as well as the use of punishments, sanctions, and political and military pressure, have not achieved the necessary results.
Since the overall strategic balance is not in Israel's favor, the new Israeli government should ask itself what it can do differently. Is it not time now to rethink Israel's modus operandi and develop new alternatives to its counter-Iran policy?
A strategic crossroads
The negotiations between Iran and the great powers in Vienna have revealed a worrying trend: the United States is gradually emerging as the party whose actions result from a sense of urgency and a weak position in the conflict with Iran over its expanding nuclear program and aggressive regional policy.
In light of the Biden administration's apparent eagerness "to put the Iranian nuclear program back in its box" in order to focus on more pressing foreign policy issues, primarily what it views as the historic fight with China over global leadership, it is likely that the administration will choose to continue "softening" its demands of Iran. Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that it will be able or willing to deliver on its promise that the return to the JCPOA will result in a "longer and stronger" deal. Moreover, the Biden administration will likely hesitate to reimpose stringent sanctions to pressure Iran, because such a step could be perceived as a return to the Trump policy, which the administration had publicly renounced as ineffective.
These trends pose a dilemma for Israel whereby it must decide on several fundamental issues: Can the United States be trusted to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state? Does Israel believe it can permanently prevent such a scenario on its own? Where does Israel draw its red line with regard to Iranian nuclearization, and what is the Israeli definition of the Iranian threshold capability?
The answers to these questions are expected to lead the new Israeli government to a strategic crossroads where it will have to choose between two basic alternatives:
- Confronting the U.S. by opposing the return to the JCPOA, which Israel identifies as a severe threat to its national security, while taking steps to topple it should the parties renew their adherence to it.
- Pursue quiet bilateral understandings with the U.S. administration based on its declared and unequivocal commitment to Israel's security, as well as the two countries' shared view that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons by any means, while relying on the effective collaboration channels between the two allies in areas such as intelligence, defense, and operations.
An updated strategy based on past lessons learned
By deciding to confront the Biden administration, the new Israeli government may discover that it is repeating the same mistake made with the Obama administration, where its opposition did not prevent the signing of the nuclear deal with Tehran back in 2015. In light of the international consensus on the need to return to the JCPOA clearly reflected by the Vienna talks, a confrontational policy coupled with military signaling could isolate Israel, and ultimately turn the Iranian nuclear threat into an "Israeli problem" instead of a global challenge. Moreover, a conflict with the U.S. administration on the Iranian issue is expected to reflect negatively on Israel's overall relations with the United States, jeopardizing the latter's support for Israel, even as it faces growing challenges (the Gaza war or the proceedings in the International Criminal Court being cases in point).
By contrast, however, a policy that strives for bilateral understandings with the U.S. administration may lessen the pressure exerted on it to embrace a resolute policy against Tehran, and may also be associated with certain constraints on Israel's freedom of action against the Iranian nuclear program. Still, in light of the strategic American interests on the line, it is unlikely that Israeli pressure would make the U.S. administration fundamentally alter its policy and conduct on the Iranian issue. An Israeli military option at this time also seems futile, for a potential return to the nuclear deal keeps the Iranian nuclear program at a reasonable distance from breaking out to weapons-grade material in the near future.
Given the current state of affairs, it seems that the pursuit of a deep, quiet dialogue that aims to reach shared bilateral understandings with the Biden administration will serve Israel's interests better. A quid pro quo dialogue with the administration should focus, inter alia, on the following issues and objectives:
- Ways of obtaining a longer and stronger agreement with Iran, and the steps that will be taken if such an agreement fails to be reached;
- Monitoring the Iranian nuclear program to ensure that Iran does not break or "sneak" out to nuclear weapons;
- Early detection of such actions and guarantees to thwart them within a relevant timeframe;
- Total separation between the nuclear issue and the need to curb the spread and entrenchment of Iran and its proxies across the Middle East;
- Maintaining regional stability, preventing the Gulf States' drift toward Iran, and an ongoing pursuit of the normalization process;
- Preventing a regional nuclear arms race (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt); and
- Freedom of action, force buildup, and maintaining the Israeli qualitative military edge.
Ultimately, the new government in Israel must learn the lessons of the past two decades of fighting Iran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities and hold an intensive discussion on its policy, at least internally and as part of its intimate dialogue with the United States. In it, Israel must rise above its "maximum pressure" policy designed to achieve "maximum goals" — an equation where the two sides lack correlation, and that becomes an "all or nothing" policy that could lead to a dead end. Instead, a differential strategy is called for, consisting of prioritization, a combination of areas of flexibility and "red lines," inhibiting as well as incentivizing steps, and most of all arrangements led by the great powers, albeit partial and temporary, that, in the greater scheme of things, will improve Israel's strategic situation.
In the absence of substantial achievements over time, Israel may discover it has lost on all fronts: its maneuvering area will have diminished and it would gradually return to a situation whereby the military option, which is far from optimal and comes with a hefty price tag, would be the only alternative by which to stop Iran from further advancing its nuclear program.
Colonel (res.) Udi Evental is a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy & Strategy (IPS) at the Inter Disciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, where he also teaches policy planning. While in uniform for 25 years, Colonel Evental served as: head of the strategic planning unit of the political-military bureau of the Israeli Ministry of Defense; assistant for intelligence to the military secretary of the prime minister; intelligence attaché in Washington and elsewhere. Follow Udi Evental on Twitter: @UEvental. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.
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