What’s Israel’s next move if the Iran nuclear deal fails?
What does the Israeli government really want from Iran? Major consequences hang on the answer to this question, not just regarding Iran, but across the Middle East. On that answer also hangs whether there will be open war with Iran involving Israel and almost certainly the United States, with significant repercussions throughout the region and beyond.
In the United States, Israel’s concerns are assumed to focus primarily on Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility that it will acquire one or more nuclear weapons in the not-too-distant future. That prospect can certainly not be ruled out, given that the Vienna talks on renewing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or an updated version of it, are in an almost daily on-again, off-again status, while Iran continues apace with its nuclear program.
From the U.S./Israeli side, time has just about run out for a rapid resolution and thus a halt to Iran’s nuclear work, at least until sometime after Israel’s November 1 elections and U.S. midterm voting on November 8. The Iranian issue has a major impact on Israeli politics; in the United States, it’s more of a niche issue, but one of concern to a large number of significant leaders with sizeable political clout, especially in Congress, the White House, and the State Department.
The Israeli government has consistently opposed any nuclear agreement, beginning well before the JCPOA was concluded. Its efforts to prevent it included an unprecedented appeal by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress. That stance, as well as pressure from several of his biggest campaign donors, obviously influenced President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement in May 2018 and reimpose sanctions.
Now, Jerusalem’s opposition to the Biden administration’s returning to the JCPOA is in high gear, with many public statements and visits by top officials to Washington to argue for scrapping the JCPOA forever. This case is being buttressed by the fact that some JCPOA provisions would anyway “sunset” in a few years, with the relevant UN Security Council Resolution (2231) terminating in October 2025.
Of course, concerns on this point ignore the four years wasted since Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and renewed sanctions, leading Iran to respond by renewing its nuclear work. Rarely discussed, as well, is that following JCPOA Implementation Day in January 2016, Iran exported almost all of its enriched uranium and poured concrete into its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor. But when Washington broke the agreement, so did Tehran, although it waited a full year before doing so.
If nothing changes, the upshot is likely to be Iran’s moving toward the ability (if not the intent) to produce a bomb. If so, then both Jerusalem and Washington could in the not-to-distant future decide whether to use military force to destroy Iranian nuclear-related capabilities, if not also to do more militarily. Indeed, at the UN General Assembly this week, President Joe Biden renewed his pledge that “We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Any debate about whether a nuclear-capable Iran could be deterred has been ruled out.
In theory, Israel might be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear programs relying only on its own military capabilities. These could be buttressed by long-range U.S. strike capabilities, but some of the most important capabilities, especially mid-air refueling tankers, are currently not likely to be delivered to Israel by 2025. At this point, however, it is hard to believe that Israel could successfully conduct a major attack against Iran without a direct U.S. combat role.
Yet even if it did not join Israeli attacks on Iran, the United States, as Jerusalem’s long-term backer, would find itself in Tehran’s crosshairs across the region. Further, Israel would have to assess the possible costs in terms of attacks directed against its homeland, especially from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has the capacity to cause serious damage and casualties in Israel, despite the latter’s significant defensive capabilities.
It’s thus hard to argue that Israel’s current gamble focused on preventing Washington from rejoining the JCPOA is likely to promote its own security.
Along with some Arab countries, Israel also has concerns about what it sees as additional threats posed by Iran, especially in supporting terrorism and instability. (Yemen and Iraq are most often cited, as well as Lebanon.) All of them want to push back against Iran’s assertion for greater power and influence in the region. Some Israeli leaders would also like to see “regime change” in Iran or even its disintegration as a single country, as effectively happened in Iraq with the U.S. and Israeli-blessed 2003 invasion.
But from America’s perspective of its own security interests, Israeli and Arab hopes of destroying Iran’s nuclear program and possibly more, however desirable, are very much secondary. Further, if there were a military attack on Iran that vastly reduced its military capacities, it’s doubtful that Arab states would continue to see much value in developing relations with Israel, at least for political, if not high-tech economic reasons. That could lead to the collapse of the Abraham Accords on which both Israel and the United States have placed such store.
Critically important, of course, is that Iran is also placing difficulties in the way of success in the Vienna talks and restoration or replacement of the JCPOA. Iran’s clerical leadership in effect has been pursuing a parallel course, at the very least wanting to get a deal that would go beyond what is provided for in the JCPOA. Notably, it wants assurances that the United States would not again pull out of any deal that was agreed, as Trump did in 2018. Further, at the UN General Assembly this week, Iran’s president, Seyyed Evrahim Raisi, repeated many of the Iranian government’s dominant themes, including placing the burden for problems on the United States — though he also emphasized the importance of “dialogue and negotiations.”
In sum, if Israel’s intensive efforts to block the JCPOA succeed, reinforced by today’s parallel negativism and risk-taking by the Iranian clerics, they would dramatically increase the chances of a war that could be catastrophic for everyone. This is not to argue that reinvigorating the JCPOA will solve all the security and other problems regarding Iran. But it remains the best and necessary first step.
This discussion leads back to the beginning: what does Israel really want regarding Iran? Has it thought through the possible consequences of its current policies? Or is it just acting on autopilot, without understanding that, if carried to its logical conclusion, its current course contains a high risk of open conflict, embroiling not just Iran and Israel, but also the United States and others, with negative consequences for all? The United States would not abandon Israel, but it would be unlikely to say “thank you” if there is another Middle East war.
To venture out on the high wire without a reliable safety net below is never a good approach.