The Iranian Nuclear Bomb: A Test for the United States and Israel Approaches

About nine months ago I wrote in Ma’ariv about the Iranian nuclear situation, noting that “an expansion of the options available to Israel would include consideration of military action, deepening Israel’s work on security between the wars,* and of course deterrence, in which Israel would employ overt and covert means at its disposal to clearly and unequivocally threaten the existence of the Islamic Revolution. Israel has to act on all these issues, diplomatic and otherwise, by maintaining a connection with the U.S. to prevent a renewed Iran nuclear agreement or, if possible, to change it […] and also to weigh the pros and cons of containing the situation if the agreement is restored.”

Nine months have passed, and the world, especially Israel, has few options, none of them especially attractive. It is true that talks restarted on Nov. 29 between Iran and the rest of the signatories to the original nuclear agreement — except for the United States, which did not join. But the statements from Tehran do not indicate there is much chance that Iran, led by Ebrahim Raisi, plans to stop or even slow down Iran’s race toward developing nuclear weapons and regional hegemony.

The principal flaws in the original agreement were the fact that Iran could easily avoid compliance with the limits and international supervision placed on it by the agreement; this is actually what has happened. In addition, these limits were supposed to expire in 10 to 15 years. According to a quarterly report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran violated many of the agreement’s obligations, including limiting the amount of uranium it could enrich and stockpile. In the meantime, clear evidence shows that Iran is on the verge of possessing a nuclear weapon, and is a year or less away from the being able to produce nuclear bombs. And so the world — and Israel, more than anyone — is approaching that point where a decision must be made.

The Biden administration has signaled from the beginning that it is prepared to return to the original agreement with practically no conditions or changes, but asserts that the leadership of Iran appears unwilling to agree to even cosmetic adjustments. On the contrary, Iran has begun to impose conditions on reaching an agreement, despite the fact that it is a violation of the agreement to do so. A visit to Israel and other countries in the Middle East, from a delegation led by U.S. Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley, was intended to clarify — or perhaps further obfuscate — the Biden administration’s true intentions, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s refusal to meet with the U.S. team was less a strategic political step than a childish tantrum over the way that the U.S is handling things.

In any case, as The Economist reported, “Israel is now in the dilemma zone” regarding its response.

Whether the nuclear agreement will be renewed or Iran will go forward with the nuclear option absent an agreement, Israel must now seriously weigh a number of alternatives; each of them commits Israel to making a big decision. But from here it follows that Israel will also have to weigh whether it is worthwhile continuing its historically ambiguous nuclear policy.

Israel has agreed with the U.S. on this approach since 1969, and as a result, the U.S. has given Israel diplomatic and political cover in the face of international nuclear disarmament efforts, including the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. John Kerry aptly conveyed this understanding between Israel and the United States when he said, ”The U.S. recognizes the right of Israel to protect itself by itself.”

That is a pronouncement that is reconfirmed from one administration to the next. This policy of ambiguity has had clear benefits from the perspective of the relationship with the United States and especially now, in the face of radical activity by the progressive wing in the U.S. — that is, the extreme, anti-Israel left within the Democratic Party — in contrast to supporting tight connections between the two countries. Eliminating the ambiguous nuclear policy with Iran is low-hanging fruit for the progressive faction of the Democratic Party.

The relevant question is how Israel can bridge the gap between interests and weak points in this situation. There are those today who are sure there is no longer any option. Opinions differ about Israel striking Iran militarily, but there is no escaping the dangers contained in such a decision. We can thank Benjamin Netanyahu for putting the Iranian nuclear issue on the United States and world agendas.

Cancelling the nuclear agreement as Donald Trump did — and there are those who say Netanyahu encouraged him to do so — and tightening the sanctions on Iran may be the most hopeful way, besides military action, to stop the nuclearization of Iran, but this option has been eliminated with Joe Biden’s election. The talk today, especially from Netanyahu’s political opponents, is that “a bad agreement is better than no agreement.” But the result, in fact, is that a bad agreement validates all Tehran’s intentions and gives it the seal of approval as an international agreement. It’s as if we had said at the time that the Munich agreement was better than no agreement at all. And the results of that, of course, are well known.

Spokesmen for the Biden administration today, such as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, are warning that the U.S. is obligated to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but are backing away from saying that the U.S. is obligated to pursue diplomacy in this matter. All this is theoretical at the moment; the real test for the U.S. and Israel is coming soon.

The author formerly served as Israeli ambassador to the United States.

*Translator’s Note: “Between the wars” is a reference to current campaign by Israel, also known as the “interwar campaign,” to use the Israeli Defense Force and certain intelligence communities to challenge the efforts of what it considers enemy countries, e.g., Iran, Syria and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, to strengthen their capabilities.

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