During the visit to Washington two weeks ago, there was a single message from members of Congress: Don’t count on American backing. The two options remaining on the table for dealing with Iran are problematic from Israel’s perspective. Iran itself is ready for a historic decision.
On the eve of the renewal of nuclear talks between Iran and the global powers in Vienna, and with the visit to Israel and Arab states by Robert Malley, the American envoy for negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, all officials involved in the Iranian nuclear issue face some difficult dilemmas. They must decide whether they prefer to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement given its advantages and deficiencies; seek a much better agreement; or deal with the new reality being formed in which Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state, i.e., a country that can produce enough quantities of enriched military grade uranium (in general, more than 90%) for a portable nuclear explosive device.
In the first stage, the decision on these dilemmas was in the hands of Iran and the United States. Iran is striving to equip itself with a nuclear arsenal that is secure and acquired quickly; in its view, the arsenal is vital for ensuring its superpower status and for promoting the mission of exporting the revolution. Despite the damage caused by American sanctions, it has refused until now to return to the original nuclear agreement and is insistent that changes be introduced to the agreement. The primary change is an American pledge that in the course of the agreement the United States will not be able to withdraw from it as Donald Trump did, even after Joe Biden is replaced.
Another condition is that the United States remove all sanctions imposed on Iran since the agreement went into effect, including those sanctions not linked to the nuclear issue. The Iranian message is that if the United States refused to accept the first condition, Iran’s second preference is that their country continue advancing toward a threshold state status despite the apparent risks involved.
It can be assumed that the new Iranian senior leadership, where the voices of realistic leaders such as former President Hassan Rouhani or Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are weak, supports the argument that risks should be taken, which from their perspective are insignificant, and to charge forward. In fact, Iran has already reached the point of a nuclear threshold state and has moderated its economic distress thanks to Chinese aid and belt tightening. It can be assumed that Iranian leaders who support this line are assessing the series of signals showing weakness that the United States has recently sent, starting with the exit from Afghanistan. These signals include the lack of American response to Iran’s violations of nuclear issues (led by Iran’s failure to report on nuclear facilities and blocking inspectors); the reduction in inspections of the nuclear program; and Iran’s accumulation of 10 to 25 kilograms of enriched uranium at a 60% level and more than 100 kilograms of enriched uranium at a 20% level.
The significance of all of this is that Iran only needs a few weeks in order to produce military-grade enriched uranium for its first nuclear explosive device. Accordingly, Iran has started producing metallic uranium, a step that has no explanation other than the intention to produce nuclear weapons. The lack of a response to attacks on military bases in Syria and Iran’s attempt to assassinate the prime minister of Iraq should inform the Iranian leadership that it has no need to fear an American reaction. This occurred despite the demonstrative flights of the American B1 bomber over the region. Israel, in general, is not ready to act, either because of gaps in operational quality or because it does not have American backing for this step.
It appears that Iran has already prepared in a practical way for the possibility that it will act in this manner. The acceleration of weapons shipments to Syria and Hezbollah, which have required Israel in recent days to increase its pace of attacks in Syria, and growing Iranian confidence in the quality and quantity of its unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles give evidence of this.
Another no-less-important proof of this is the decision to produce metallic uranium. The experience the Iranians are gathering will allow them to reduce the amount of time necessary to convert enriched uranium to military grade in order to produce a bomb. Several leaders, including the outgoing director of military intelligence and director of Mossad, believe that despite everything, it will take two years from the time Iran acquires enriched material until it can produce a bomb. I have my doubts. The Iranian progress in producing metallic uranium, the progress in producing long-range missiles, the gaps in knowledge regarding how much the Iranians were able to acquire before they stopped their nuclear project in 2003 and what they have done recently in this field, even if everything was straightforward, leads to the assumption that the amount of time necessary to acquire a bomb is much shorter. That said, the selection of this path, without doubt, will require Iran to surpass a dangerous threshold where it will be exposed to attack (Israeli and/or American) and subject to harsh economic sanctions.
The United States Warns, but Does Not Threaten
The possible return to the nuclear agreement in writing and in word is, in my view and in the view of many, supposed to be a very safe and easy option for Iran to acquire a large arsenal of nuclear weapons within less than a decade. This is because Iran will be exempt from having to cross the dangerous threshold. This possibility is being presented by Iran itself as the worst option, either because some in the leadership in Tehran in fact believes this or because by going this way, the Iranians will block the American demand for improvements in the agreement that will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while ensuring that if they choose this option, they will win respect and practical gains from the United States and all the international framework.
The United States, which wants to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but at the same time avoid a forceful confrontation, sees the return to the nuclear agreement as the preferred option. In the past, the United States presented this as the first step intended to distance Iran from nuclear weapons and, following this, to open negotiations on expanding and strengthening the agreement in order to ensure that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons. This does not appear to be practical and is tantamount to an illusion, but recently this goal had almost disappeared in how America approached the issue. The United States is warning Iran not to continue moving forward toward becoming a nuclear threshold state, but is careful not to issue concrete threats; specifically, it does not address the possibility of violent action of any type to prevent this from occurring.
The United States also has avoided any step that could lead to a harsh Iranian reaction. In a joint statement with Britain, France and Germany on Oct. 30, the leaders expressed concerns regarding Tehran’s behavior and determination to ensure that Iran would never be able to develop nuclear weapons or be equipped with these weapons. However, the call for Iran to return to the nuclear agreement was accompanied only with a soft reference that subsequently, they would discuss the issues that are troubling the West and Iran, instead of explicitly addressing the importance of strengthening and expanding the agreement.
Israel is an important player in the current stage, but to a great extent, it is a consequential player. Its policy is derived from decisions by Iran and the United States. The preferred option for Israel is that the United States impose its full weight to require Iran to accept an agreement that would deal with the many dangerous weaknesses of the current agreement. This was largely Trump’s policy; had he won a second term, this policy might have had a chance. In the end, the Iranians gambled correctly, and now the possibility that Israel’s preferred option will be realized is very low. Therefore, we must be prepared for two other possibilities. The question of which is preferable for Israel is to a particular extent theoretical, i.e., if we assume that Israel can influence the Iranian decision and American policy. Israel has the capability, but its weight should not be exaggerated.
In the past, this capability was tested many times. In 2012, the threat by Benjamin Netanyahu toward Iran was conducted by means of a diagram of a bomb with a red line for halting Iran’s accumulation of enriched uranium at 20%. This convinced China to join in pressuring Iran and spurred Barack Obama to adopt a harsher policy toward Iran, in order to convince it to start direct negotiations ending in a nuclear agreement. All of this, to a great extent, was done in order to prevent an Israeli attack. The second attempt was Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, which did not prevent the agreement. The third attempt was bringing up the Iranian nuclear archive and exposing it, which contributed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement. Additional actions attributed to Israel damaged the nuclear program, but not only did not block it, but were exploited by Iran as an excuse to justify violations of the nuclear agreement. Today, the Israeli threat to prevent Iran, by any means, from achieving the capability to produce nuclear weapons is taken seriously by the United States and Iran, but it appears that Israel’s influence on the policies of Iran and the United States is less than in the past.
The two options that remain on the table are problematic for Israel. If the Iranian program is not stopped, Iran could become a nuclear state in every sense of the word in a relatively short time (a significant threat to Israel’s security, entrenchment of Iranian regional hegemony, and a regional nuclear arms race). Increased Israeli or American efforts to prevent Iran approaching and perhaps even entering threshold state status is likely to lead, with medium to high probability, to greater escalation.
If, in order to avoid this scenario, Iran and the United States would agree on an outline to return to the nuclear agreement, the Iranian regime would gain huge capital and prestige, allowing it to increase its efforts toward winning regional hegemony by increasing the threat against Israel in a short time frame. Above all, Iran could reach nuclear threshold state status within a decade, allowing it to produce a large arsenal of nuclear weapons without it having to pass a significant threshold, just as it can do on the way to a bomb in the current phase.
It should be remembered that Iranian readiness in 2015 to accept the limits of the nuclear agreement was possible primarily because the agreement guaranteed Iran not only far-reaching economic relief, but primarily a sure path, almost without having to cross a dangerous threshold, to become a nuclear threshold state in 2031 with the capability of producing a large number of bombs within a short time. Iran was in control of three necessary components for weapons: enriched material, ability to convert it to weapons, and means to deliver it to the target. Toward the end of the time period, all restrictions would be lifted; in the meantime, Iran was permitted to enrich uranium with fast centrifuges. There would be no oversight of any location at any time or over nuclear scientists, and there would be no sure way to know how fast Iran was actually moving forward on the path of armament. The Iranians were guarding not only the huge underground enrichment facility at Natanz, but also the small, deep-underground enrichment facility at Fordow, intended to allow them to securely conduct the last stage of enrichment. The agreement also did not limit the development of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Choosing between the two problematic options is not truly in our hands, but in general Israel should prioritize dealing with the immediate threat, also because this is the path in which Iran is moving forward and is much easier for Israel to deal with. The scope of the Iranian program is still limited and allows the production of isolated nuclear explosive devices. It must cross over a problematic threshold for defending its nuclear facilities against clandestine operations, cyberattacks and conventional attacks; its ability to cause Israel significant damage in a counterattack is still partial. Currently, it does not appear that there is American backing for Israeli actions such as these.
In a visit to Washington two weeks ago, I heard a single message from members of Congress: Don’t count on American backing, let alone a direct American operation or American aid. You alone do what you think you should do. This was a disturbing message, but not surprising. However, American backing may be achieved if Iran continues as it is doing; the U.S. administration might even leverage the Israeli threat in order to bring Iran back to the nuclear agreement. If Iran, in fact, advanced toward threshold state status, then beginning from a particular point (for example, starting to enrich at 90%), it may be possible to encourage Washington to take a direct part in the effort that is called “Plan B.”
Returning to the nuclear agreement is quite problematic. First, since this is not a return to the same bad agreement, but to an even worse agreement (the Iranians have already learned how to manufacture advanced centrifuges and metallic uranium and to enrich uranium to high levels). Second, over the next decade they will continue to improve their capabilities to defend the program and threaten Israel. There is no guarantee that we will use the time better than they will.
Some describe returning to the agreement as a step to possibly gain time and, as the accepted simile in the United States goes, “to kick the can down the road.” The problem is that this can is inflating with each kick, given the quick removal of limits on the program until, at the end of the road, it explodes against the one kicking it. The path of agreement will place Iran in a position to be a threshold state with a large arsenal of weapons within a decade and will neutralize Israel’s ability to act. A senior American official who still holds an official position in the current administration told me in 2016 that the nuclear agreement is quite problematic, but during the first years, the advantages will outweigh the shortcomings. According to the official, between the fifth and seventh years, the U.S. president will have to determine if it is still correct to stick to the agreement. We have reached the point now where it is clear that an objective analysis would place great doubt on the usefulness of continuing the agreement.
What should we do? First, we should conduct a close dialogue with the United States in order to make clear the importance of improving the agreement and blocking Iranian efforts to reach the status of a threshold state, while emphasizing the negative implications of refraining from this in an effort to gain American backing and military support at those points where it is necessary. Second, we must complete preparations for actions to interdict current Iranian efforts and its nuclear program in general, with or without American backing, and at the same time, try and encourage the Americans to lead this action.