The world's attention is currently focused on the off-again on-again negotiations in Vienna. But whatever comes out of those negotiations, it is now clear that they will not allow Israel to avoid or even delay much the decision whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
As of this writing, the negotiations are off. But Iran has made clear, in any event, that it has no intention of returning to the 2015 JCPOA, and America is no longer pushing it to do so. Iran has long since exceeded the JCPOA's limitation on enrichment above 3.67%, and possesses enough or nearly enough nuclear material enriched to 60% to fashion a nuclear weapon in a short span of time.
Meanwhile, Iran is busy installing even faster centrifuges to get up to the 90% threshold necessary for a weapon. It has denied the International Atomic Energy Agency access to the site where production of advanced centrifuges, which has no conceivable non-material use, is taking place.
As was the case leading up to the JCPOA, when American negotiators were holding a much stronger hand than at present, the Biden administration negotiators, including many veterans of the Obama era nuclear negotiations leading to the JCPOA, are behaving as the party desperate to conclude any sort of agreement. Though American officials state that Iran will not be permitted to obtain a bomb, no one, least of all the Iranians, believes that the U.S. would ever take military action to prevent Iran from doing so.
The Americans have demonstrated since 2012 that in their minds the worst possible result would be a military confrontation with Iran. And the frenzied manner in which the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan has only reinforced the impression that nothing could induce the U.S. to commit serious resources to another Middle East war.
Even if a deal were to be concluded, Iran will be allowed to retain the uranium already enriched far beyond the levels permitted under the JCPOA, as well as its advanced centrifuges. In addition, it will obtain billions of dollars in sanctions relief just for returning to the table. Indeed prior to the halt in negotiations, the Iranians had limited all discussions to the sole issue of sanctions relief.
So much for candidate Biden's promises to secure a better agreement – one which would encompass Iran's missile program and its support for terrorism. The U.S. has indicated that it will be satisfied if the Iranians just call a halt to their enrichment activities for the time being.
Meanwhile Iran continues to treat the U.S. with thoroughgoing disdain, refusing to allow the U.S. to even participate directly in the Vienna negotiations, as a punishment for President Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA.
IN BOMBING IRAQ'S OSIRAK REACTOR in 1981, then Prime Minister Menachem Begin established what became known as the Begin Doctrine: No avowed enemy of Israel will be allowed to obtain weapons of mass destruction. In 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acted in accord with that doctrine when he ordered the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor.
With respect to the first condition for invocation of the Begin doctrine, there can be no doubt of the Iranian regime's malevolent enmity to Israel, which its Supreme Leader has repeatedly declared to be a cancer that must excised from the world. Less than two weeks ago, the chief spokesman for Iran's armed forces, declared, "We will not back off the annihilation of Israel even one millimeter. We want to destroy Zionism in the world."
Israel's leaders have repeatedly emphasized that their red line is an enemy state, i.e., Iran, becoming a nuclear threshold state capable of producing a nuclear weapon within a short period of time. That capacity would allow Iran to provide a cover for its allies surrounding Israel – Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria -- with various Palestinian groups in Judea and Samaria and within Israel proper providing operational support. Iran is already at that threshold stage or very close to it. And nothing that takes place at Vienna is going to affect its achievement of that status.
While Israel also has the power to inflict devastation on Iran, that does not necessarily mean that the ayatollahs are therefore permanently deterred. For one thing, deterrence in the form of mutual assured destruction (MAD) is only effective if both parties are operating within the same framework of rationality. But the theology of Iran's Shiite leaders alters that calculation. The great contemporary scholar of Islam and the Middle East Bernard Lewis frequently pointed out, the ayatollahs view history ending with the advent of the Hidden Imam, an event which will in their view be preceded by an apocalyptic confrontation. Therefore a nuclear confrontation with Israel might be for the ayatollahs "not a bug but a feature."
The ayatollahs are deeply unpopular in Iran, and the impact of severe sanctions imposed by the Trump administration only increased their unpopularity. But as Bret Stephens has pointed out, the very unpopularity of the regime makes the ayatollahs even more dangerous. Were they to feel power slipping from their grasp, they might well unleash an Iranian nuclear weapon at Israel in order to trigger the arrival of the Hidden Imam.
SO THE QUESTION BECOMES: Does Israel have the capacity to destroy the Iranian nuclear program and thereby remove the threat, as it did in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007? Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) wrote last week in the New York Post, that Israeli defense officials have told him that they believed that the JCPOA gave them ten years to draw up the plans for military action against Iran. They did not anticipate President Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and imposition of biting sanctions on Iran, which, in turn, provided Iran with a plausible excuse to openly ignore the JCPOA's provisions (something that they would have done on a smaller scale in any event.)
Former prime minister and subsequently defense minister under Netanyahu, Ehud Barak wrote recently in Yediot Ahraonot that Israel no longer has a viable military option for preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state, and needs the United States to develop the necessary military plans. He added that the U.S. has no interest in developing such plans nor in executing them if it did so.
Speaking at a Reichman University conference in Herzliya, Prime Minister Bennett implied that his predecessor had been mostly talk and no action with respect to Iran:
When I arrived at the Prime Minister's Office less than half a year ago, I was amazed by the gap between rhetoric and action. . . . To summarize the reality that we inherited in one sentence: Iran is further along in its nuclear program than ever before, and its enrichment machine is more advanced and broader. . . .
Iran has also been consistently successful in encircling Israel in rings of militias and rockets from every direction. . . . To the northeast, there are Shi'ite militias in Syria; to the north, Hezbollah; to the south, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. . . . [T]he Iranians have surrounded the State of Israel with missiles, while they sit safely in Tehran. They harass us, drain our energy, and wear us out. . . . They bleed us without paying a price.
That Israel does not have a clear plan of action against Iran's nuclear program and the Revolutionary Guard at present is not difficult to believe. The development of such a plan is no easy matter, as we shall discuss next week. But the idea that Binyamin Netanyahu, who was obsessed with the Iranian threat, did little to work on an Israel response to the Iranian menace strikes me as implausible.
Netanyahu likely hoped that if American sanctions under President Trump failed to bring Iran to heel that President Trump could be persuaded to use the far greater military resources at his disposal to strike directly at the Iranian nuclear program. No doubt he prayed for Donald Trump's re-election.
But it would be hard to believe that a strategist of Netanyahu's level put all of Israel's eggs in the basket of Trump's re-election. Netanyahu knew that Trump never had an approval rating over fifty percent in his four years in office, and the likelihood of his re-election was not great.
Moreover, it's clear that Netanyahu and head of the head of the Mossad under him, Yossi Cohen, missed no opportunity to make Iran aware of Israel's capabilities and to make its leaders uneasy. Their notable recent accomplishments include the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist; collaborating with the United States to rid the world of Iran's second most powerful figure, Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; perhaps the greatest espionage achievement in history in removing tons of records of the Iranian nuclear program from Iran to Israel without being detected; repeated mysterious fires and explosions at Iran's nuclear facilities; and constant attacks on Iranian forces and weapons depots in Lebanon and Syria.
None of these square with the charge that Netanyahu was all talk and no action vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear program.
Next week: The Challenges of a Direct Attack on the Iranian Nuclear Program and What Happens Then.