Political and security drama during the time of massive protests. The U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff landed in Israel on short notice. This week the U.S. secretary of defense will arrive. The background: Concern in the United States that Benjamin Netanyahu will order an attack on Iran following uranium enrichment almost to the level needed for a nuclear weapon and also, perhaps, to extricate himself from an internal political crisis. These are the topics on the agenda for the meetings.
The massive protest against judicial reform is overshadowing a political and security drama in relations with the United States. Recent developments and policies by the government of Israel with respect to Iran and the Palestinian arena are instigating the drama.
The Biden administration is disquieted by the steps the Israeli government is likely to take given recent developments in the two arenas. Therefore, the administration dispatched to Israel, on very short notice, two very senior Pentagon officials – the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense – to clarify and coordinate with senior Israeli defense officials and political officials in Jerusalem.
The reason for this, according to a senior defense official in Israel, is that the White House and Pentagon are concerned that the current government in Jerusalem will surprise the United States and drag it into a Middle East war at the same time the United States and its allies are investing the majority of their resources in Ukraine and the “cold” conflict escalation with China. From the American point of view, the situation now is similar to that of 2010-1012 when Barack Obama was president, and Prime Minister Netanyahu and then Defense Minister Ehud Barak planned to attack Iran.
Therefore, last Thursday Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley landed in Israel at the invitation of Chief of General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces Herzi Halevi. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is scheduled to make a lightening visit immediately afterward on Thursday at the invitation of Defense Minister Yoav Galant. However, from various reports we can see that American officials consider Galant to be a moderating factor and a matter-of-fact leader in the current Israeli government who is approachable and who can convey influence in Israeli cabinet discussions.
In any case, a spokesman for Milley casually remarked that senior American and Israeli officials will discuss recent developments in Iran and the region. From Israel, American officials will visit other Middle East capitals. However, even they are not hiding the fact that the discussions in Israel are urgent nor are they hiding the reason for their visit. But Defense Minister Galant has no intention of answering his American counterparts’ questions about Israel’s intentions in Iran and the coordination they want on this issue. They want statements by the Netanyahu government that will calm matters in the Palestinian arena. For Galant and Chief of Staff Halevi, who I discuss in greater detail, they have their own agenda, primarily in the Iranian context, which they want to promote in their talks Austin and Milley.
12 Days To Reach Fissile Material
In the background of these unplanned meetings is the fact that U.N. IAEA nuclear inspectors discovered that Iran was enriching a small quantity of uranium to 84% at the Fordow reinforced underground facility. The news, which was published two weeks ago, created a mini-storm in Israeli security circles. Until now, it was known that Iran had enriched uranium to a 60% level and already accumulated a quantity of almost 70 kilograms (approximately 154 pounds) of highly enriched uranium. Following this, the West assessed that by the end of 2023, Iran would have enough enriched uranium at various levels and quantities to allow it to produce a dozen nuclear explosive devices.
Now, after learning that Iran had enriched uranium to 84% at Fordow, the estimated timetable, previously accepted by Western intelligence agencies in relation to Iran’s military nuclear program, has been greatly shortened. A senior American official addressed the IAEA’s discovery in a hearing last week in Congress saying that Iran now Iran had the capability to produce fissile material for a nuclear warhead within only 12 days.
The director of Iran’s nuclear agency, Mohammad Eslami, claimed that the small quantity of uranium almost enriched to the level of a bomb was produced as a result of a technical failure, common in the enrichment process. However, those who follow Iran’s military nuclear program in IDF intelligence and Mossad do not buy this argument, nor do the American intelligence agencies.
In November, the head of IDF military intelligence, Gen. Aharon Haliva, said that soon “Iran would flirt with enrichment to 90%, even in a symbolic manner.” He explained that “Iran holds today enough enriched uranium for four nuclear bombs. This means that they need 100 kilograms (approximately 220 pounds) of uranium enriched to 90% in order to have the material necessary for four nuclear warheads. They are going step by step all the time and are waiting to assess the reaction of the international community. After they see the world living in peace with the nuclear program, they continue to move forward.”
Crawling toward the Bomb, Persistently
Beyond this, in Israel they believe enrichment to 84% was intentional, and meant to achieve two goals: one, to accustom the world to the fact that Iran is crawling, taking small steps, but doing so persistently toward full nuclear capability and that, in the end, Iran will achieve this capability given that it did not take big steps or create any provocation, something that would have given the West and Israel enough of an excuse to attack.
Iran’s other objective is to deliver a warning to the United States and Europe that the Iranians, will not hesitate to increase the pace of movement toward nuclear weapons if the U.S. and Europe do not lift their biting sanctions imposed by former President Trump, and if the U.S. and Europe impose additional sanctions through the U.N. Security Council, because of the military aid we are giving to Russia for the war in Ukraine.
This message is intended to exploit the global political pressure by the Biden administration, which wants to avoid involvement in Middle East conflicts ow at any cost. A possible strengthening of this policy can be seen in the words of Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian Speaking with CNN, Abdollahian did not hide his desire to renew negotiations on the nuclear agreement. He said he had even received messages from the Americans via diplomatic channels that they were also interested negotiations.
In Tehran, they know that if they enrich uranium to 90%, allies of the United States in the Middle East, led by Israel, will demand that President Biden fulfill his pledge to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran’s message for Israel is that it will accelerate the nuclear program and perhaps even enrich to the full 90% for fissile material in order to produce some nuclear warheads (before Israel will be ready or before they will have an excuse to attack), in reaction to any strikes by Israel against the Iranian military nuclear program and the Iranian missile program – for example, the attack at a factory in Esfahan two weeks ago where the Iranians are developing new strategic missiles reportedly capable of penetrating Israeli anti-aircraft defense systems.
Time is the critical component that is disrupting the Israeli-American “security work plan,” which is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, as a result of the IAEA exposure. If until now Jerusalem and Washington assessed that Israel has more than a year to complete preparations for a major attack against Iran and for war in additional arenas that would develop following the attack, now the estimate Is that perhaps Israel will need to greatly shorten the timetable.
The estimate that it is necessary to shorten the timetable for preparing to attack Iran is based on several reasons:
First, There is growing concern within the intelligence communities in Israel and the United States that perhaps they do not know enough about what Iran is doing and what it has achieved in developing the nuclear weapons system itself and that Israel is likely to be surprised on this issue. So far, the assessment was that it would take the Iranians between 18 months and two years to develop an effective nuclear bomb.
Meanwhile, this estimate has not changed, , but more and more experts are warning against over-optimism in this context. Undoubtedly regarding the issue of time it will take for Iranian engineers to develop the bomb is linked to control and the significant acceleration Iran has achieved in the technique for enrichment of fissile material. (Iran has advanced centrifuges already at work in Fordow.) This raises concern that, one day, we will awaken and discover that Iran is ready to conduct a nuclear warhead test or, God forbid, it has already done so, just as North Korea did. In this situation, Israel and the Americans will have no choice but to deal with the reality and to learn to live in the shadow of an Iranian mushroom cloud.
What increases concern in this area in our defense establishment and that of the United States is the tightening technological cooperation between Russia and Iran. There is information about an Iranian request to receive very effective S-400 anti-aircraft batteries from Russia to intercept aircraft and missiles at a range of more than 400 kilometers (approximately 249 miles) in addition to a request from Iran for Sukhoi-35 bombers from Russia.
However, the primary threat in our view and that of the Pentagon is Russian-Iranian cooperation that already exists in developing precision suicide/attack UAVs and perhaps also the development of ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads and hypersonic missiles. These missiles are very accurate and are capable of penetrating our air defense systems. Given these concerns, you can understand why the meetings between the U.S. defense secretary and the armed forces chief of staff with their Israeli counterparts are extremely important and urgent.
Four issues are on the agenda for meetings between senior Israeli and American officials:
First, to discuss how to jointly deter Iran from enriching uranium to the 90% level of fissile material in a sufficient quantity for one or more bombs. In Israel, they believe that a credible Israeli-American military threat and additional harsh sanctions will make the Iranians think twice.
Second, the parties will discuss how Israel and the United States will if Iran becomes a full threshold nuclear state. American officials are not hiding their concerns about a scenario where Prime Minister Netanyahu gives the order to attack Iran. This is not only because it will interdict the Iranian nuclear program but it will also silence and push the public protest over judicial reform to the side of the agenda among the Israeli public. Therefore, the Americans are demanding that we coordinate with them and get their approval. You are a sovereign state,” they are saying, but it is preferable that we decide together how to respond because, in the end, we also will be forced to become involved in a war. The reason is that American soldiers stationed in the Middle East will be in danger if Israel attacks suddenly.
A secondary issue in this context is how to accelerate the technological cooperation that the previous government of Israel started with the administration and industries in the United States with the main goal of producing military advantages in the Iranian and regional context.
The third issue involves how Israel will request that the United States and the Europeans, via the United Nations, impose additional harsh sanctions on Iran in the framework of the Security Council or outside of it in order to force Iran to reduce its military aid to Russia.
FInally in Israel, they assess that Austin and Milley will demand that Israel refrain from civil and military actions that could inflame the Palestinian territory, which is already on fire (by means of establishing new settlements and expanding existing ones). This would make a two-states-for-two-peoples solution impossible. The Americans are also demanding that the Israeli government refrain from actions that will lead to clashes on the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem during the month of Ramadan. An example of this was the visit by Cabinet Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir immediately at the time of government formation. The bottom line is that the Americans are telling us: We will help you to the extent possible in the Iranian context, but in return, do not escalate a conflict with the Palestinians that would require us to be involved while conflicts are ongoing in Ukraine and the South China Sea.