Israel's Reaction to Iran Talks: Too Much Bravado, Too Little Sense

As the nuclear talks briefly resumed in Vienna, Israel went on the offensive with a barrage of combative statements. Perhaps it would be better to think before speaking, especially on such a sensitive issue

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A man views newspapers in Tehran, Iran, last week.
A man views newspapers in Tehran, Iran, last week.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

“Explain something to me,” said a U.S. congressman, well briefed on the Iran nuclear talks. “Are you totally out of your minds? What could possibly be the purpose of confronting the U.S. now? What will this achieve? Where are the tangible benefits for Israel?”

“Can you be more specific?” I asked. “You do realize that, as Israel sees it, the level of coordination and degree of transparency on the nuclear deal talks with Iran are low. Israel feels shut out.”

“Fine,” he said. “Let me be more direct and elaborate.”

“A minister in your government anonymously calls Secretary of State Antony Blinken a ‘leftist’ and implies he can’t be trusted. Someone in your government acerbically and nastily briefed, ad hominem, against a presidential envoy, Rob Malley, just as he was about to visit Israel and exchange ideas on the resumption of talks.

“The head of the Mossad,” he continued, “is making a public pledge and guaranteeing that ‘Iran will never get a nuclear bomb.’ Your IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Kochavi, saw fit to impart his advice and a list of ‘dos and don’ts” to President Biden shortly after his inauguration. Then there’s a number of generals threatening military action against Iran when we both know no such realistic option exists.

“And on top of all that,” he concluded, “Prime Minister Bennett already vehemently opposes an agreement he hasn’t seen and whose likelihood of actually materializing is close to zero at this point. So why are you creating a crisis over nothing?”

Sometimes, verbosity, bluster and arrogance in national security statements are signs of overconfidence, smugness and euphoria. On rare occasions, they are planned and carefully crafted as part of a deterrence campaign and used as a tool of public diplomacy.

But most frequently, they are a clear indication of confusion and frustration, and indicate a lack of policy – not just a preference for a different policy. This is when bravado dangerously becomes a substitute policy, and this is the case with the flurry of grandstanding statements emerging from the Israeli establishment in recent days.

To be sure, it reflects a real and legitimate sense of agitation: of Israel being marginalized and a sense that Israeli concerns and reservations concerning the U.S.’ Iran policy and its geopolitical effects are not being carefully considered or adequately weighted into U.S. policymaking.

There is growing resentment in Israel that it is being taken for granted by the U.S., that Washington knows Israel has no viable options and will eventually go along with whatever the U.S. does. If that is done grudgingly and under protest, then so be it.

Notwithstanding the exasperation, the recklessness and irresponsibility of some of these statements is simply inexplicable. Mossad chief David Barnea said at a ceremony last week that “Iran will not have nuclear weapons, not in the next few years, not ever. This is my pledge, this is the Mossad’s pledge.”

That’s a grand guarantee, but one you expect to hear from a car salesman, not the head of the Mossad. There is no question that Barnea, a quintessential professional, was speaking out of genuine conviction and concern. But this is exactly the problem: the idea that such statements are actual policy. They are not.

His immediate predecessor, Yossi Cohen, said in a conference that “Iran is more isolated today than it was when the original JCPOA agreement was concluded in 2015.” This is inconsistent with the Iranians’ ongoing dialogue with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and starkly at odds with the “strategic partnership” Tehran signed with China earlier this year – reportedly a 25-year agreement supposedly worth $400 billion (however vague the exact document is).

Since when was or is isolating Iran an objective? If this isolation fails to curb the nuclear program, what purpose does it serve?

Protesters demonstrating against the Iranian regime, near where the nuclear talks were taking place last week between Iran and the world powers. Credit: JOE KLAMAR - AFP

More importantly, this is inconsistent with the fact that Iran now has considerably more enriched uranium at a higher enrichment level than it had before 2015. Since Iran began wholesale violations of the nuclear deal in June 2019, and in response to the U.S.’ unilateral withdrawal and reimposition of sanctions in May 2018, its military nuclear program progressed significantly.

In January, less than a week after his inauguration, President Joe Biden received some unsolicited advice from an unlikely source: the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

“If the 2015 JCPOA agreement would have materialized, Iran could have developed a bomb,” Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said. Which is why, he cautioned the president of the United States, any agreement to return to the JCPOA is bad.”

The fact is, the 2015 agreement – however imperfect and flawed – did curtail Iran’s nuclear program. The leap forward was done after the U.S. withdrew, with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s enthusiastic encouragement, and without any alternative policy or set of principles. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and former head of the “Iran Project,” Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, have all conceded that the U.S. withdrawing from the nuclear deal was a net negative for Israel.

To make things even more ridiculous and almost comical sounding, a “high-level security official” was quoted as saying in a closed meeting last week that perhaps Israel should consider withholding intelligence data from the U.S. This was in response to the U.S. Department of Commerce listing two Israeli spyware companies as entities that are threats to U.S. national security.

Since the 1980s, Israel has had one overriding, organizing principle: preventing Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability. However valid and central this major policy principle is, it does not exempt Israel from developing a series of policies and contingencies – something it has abjectly neglected to do since the JCPOA was signed in 2015.

So now, feeling left out of the process, Israel is publicly assailing any possible agreement. The fact that no agreement was even close to being concluded didn’t stop the grandiose statements. “The U.S. is being blackmailed by Iran.” “Iran will cheat and deceive.” “Israel has to consider other options,” implying a military strike. But did Israel really weigh the alternative?

Let’s assume the U.S. determines, as it already tentatively hinted as early as June, that Iran is not seriously interested in an agreement and that Washington will not expend diplomatic capital, and its political reputation and credibility, on meaningless Iranian stalling. Things to that effect were said by a senior U.S. official at the weekend, who described the failed Vienna talks as Iran walking back any of the compromises it “had floated here in the six rounds of talks, pocketing all of the compromises that others, and the U.S. in particular, had made, and then asked for more.” They did not have the posture of a serious negotiator, the official said, noting that even China and Russia were “taken aback” by Iran’s positions.

Will Israel regard that as a success? Let’s examine the scenario: Without an agreement and a monitoring regime, Iran will continue to advance its nuclear program, move forward on the “threshold state” spectrum and get ominously close to a very short “breakout time.”

This will further embolden Tehran to expand its destabilizing regional policies, fostering and funding proxy terror organizations and militia groups’ activities throughout the region. How could that be deemed a success?

Furthermore, the gap between U.S. and Israeli perceptions of the Iranian threat will widen. The U.S. can tolerate and live with a “threshold state” Iran. Israel claims it cannot.

Which brings us to the erroneously vaunted “military option.” Does Israel have one? A viable, feasible military option that can set back Iran’s nuclear program? Did Israel conduct a thorough cost-effective study of employing such an option?

Israelis who have been involved in military planning say there isn’t a game-changing option, a view with which American policymakers concur. In the current context, the limited military options that do exist may put Israel on a collision course with the U.S.

Yet this doesn’t stop Israel from making public threats and implying that perhaps the U.S. should consider a military course of action. That will not happen unless Iran is egregiously provocative with its nuclear program. It is highly doubtful it will be.

Evidently, there is something of a communications issue between Washington and Jerusalem. It hasn’t reached distrust levels yet, but Israeli public statements aren’t helping much. That could and should have been avoided.

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