Whatever else happens in the coming hours and days in the high-stakes drama over Iran’s nuclear program, there is one thing we can all be sure of. Israel’s apparent, daring attack on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz will be repeatedly and widely described in U.S. media as a move intended to “set back Iran’s nuclear program.” But it was nothing of the kind. The purpose of these latest Israeli attacks on Iranian facilities was not to set back some kind of notional progress that Iran was making towards some kind of notional nuclear weapon. It was to set back diplomacy. And it was a tactic the Israelis have been using for a very long time.
For more than two decades now, Israel has been quick to try to torpedo any move that the United States and Iran might be making towards resolving their differences — and always at the precise moment when a warming of relations looks most likely to happen. I outline this long history of sabotage in detail in my new book — ranging from the Karine A affair in 2002 to the assassination of nuclear scientists in 2011-2012. Perhaps the most fascinating common denominator in this string of escapades is that, in every case, Israel reveals itself to be more threatened by the possibility of improved relations between Washington and Tehran than it is by the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
There is a simple reason for this. Israel knows better than anyone that Iran is not actually interested in nuclear weapons — a fact amply demonstrated and documented by the New York Times in March 2012 (and explained at length in my book). But Israel also knows that acknowledging this fact would remove one of the major hurdles to ending U.S.-Iranian hostility and open the door to improved relations between the two countries.
This, in turn, would likely lead to a fundamental realignment of U.S. policy in the Middle East, in ways that would reduce Israel’s relative importance to America. For Israel, an atmosphere of constant tension and enmity between Iran and the United States, along with the extreme isolation and punishment — in the form of severe economic sanctions on Tehran — that goes with it is always the most desirable outcome. And one of the easiest, most convenient ways to maintain this atmosphere is to make sure that the nuclear issue never dies.
From Israel’s perspective, attacks like the one we saw over the weekend would be an obvious, sensible, strategic move, for a multitude of reasons. For starters, they put Washington in an impossible position. The Biden team now has two basic choices in how it can respond. It can issue a strong public condemnation, making clear that it had nothing to do with the attack. But if it does so, it risks being raked over the coals domestically for criticising Israel. Alternatively, it can say nothing, which is far easier politically. But this risks creating the impression that Washington condones (or was even somehow complicit in) the attack.
It is fairly obvious what this would mean for the nuclear talks. If there is the slightest impression that Washington somehow offered Israel a “green light” to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran would (justifiably) accuse the United States of negotiating in bad faith this week in Vienna. After all, the official policy of the Biden administration has been that it is committed to resurrecting the 2015 nuclear deal, which was abrogated by President Trump in 2018, and, in recent days, it has shown real seriousness about taking the tough steps to make that happen. How would the other members of the P5+1 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) react to the news that this was all just fake diplomacy, and that Washington was secretly plotting a surprise attack on Iran all week?
There is, of course, a third option, which is for the administration to offer quiet or backchannel reassurances that it was not involved in the attack and does not approve of it. But such a course poses one awkward problem. Let us remember that the attack took place within hours of a high-profile visit to Israel by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a visit intended to reinforce Washington’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s defence posture in the region. A wishy-washy, sheepish, off-the-record admission that Washington didn’t know about the planned attack, or knew and didn’t try to stop it, does not exactly place the Pentagon chief in the best light.
The big picture here, of course, is that Israel is complicating Washington’s return to the JCPOA and Tehran’s renewed compliance with its enrichment limits. Let us remember, after all, that the new administration’s position all along has been that it can only come back into compliance with the deal if Iran also comes back into compliance. But what government would ever make concessions like that while its nuclear facilities are literally under attack? It’s unclear at this point whether Iran will agree to scale back uranium enrichment without a very clear indication that Washington and the rest of the P5+1 were not involved in that attack.
All of this adds up to an ingenious tactic, and one only Israel can really employ. There are other countries in the region that would also love to sabotage the nuclear talks. But let us just imagine what would have happened if Saudi Arabia had attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities. There would have been a chorus of condemnation among Democratic lawmakers furious at the show of disrespect for President Biden’s foreign policy from a major U.S. ally. Of course, there will be no such chorus of condemnation aimed at Israel.
In effect, if Israel was behind the attack it has assumed for itself a unique kind of leverage. Although officially, Israel is not a member of the P5+1 negotiating group, it has shown that it is, for all practical purposes, able to veto or at least complicate the decisions of the other members. And this, perhaps, is the most powerful impact of its actions. By taking aggressive steps against Iran that Washington is unable or unwilling to prevent, Israel effectively buys itself a seat at the table at the P5+1 it would otherwise be denied.
All of this would be a brilliant move, if there was anything new about it. But it has been the Israeli playbook since at least the turn of the century.