Israel's Chief of Staff: Return to Iran Deal Is 'Wrong,' Military Action 'Should Be on the Table'

Amid talk of a Biden administration return to the 2015 deal, Kochavi says 'anything resembling the current agreement is bad and must not be permitted'

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi sit together as they deliver joint statements in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi sit together as they deliver joint statements in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.Credit: Corinna Kern/Reuters

The military chief of staff said on Monday that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to return to the deal with Iran on its nuclear program and that military action "must be on the table," taking a position opposed to U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to return to the deal.

"If the 2015 nuclear deal had materialized, Iran would have gotten itself a bomb," Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said, calling on the United States not to return to the agreement, which he argued would be "a wrong thing" to do.

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Speaking at the annual conference of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, a leading Israeli think tank, Kochavi said the agreement, which former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018, would allow Iran to enrich sufficient uranium to be within striking distance of a nuclear bomb. "Strategically, it would presumably lead to the regional nuclearization of the Middle East," he said. "For that reason, anything resembling the current agreement is bad and must not be permitted. The Iran of today is not the Iran of 2015. Today Iran is under enormous pressure, economic pressures... that must be maintained in every way, whatever happens."

Kochavi added that vigorous action must be taken to guarantee that Iran does not have a path to nuclear weapons. "Despite everything I have said, Iran can decide that it is advancing toward a [nuclear] bomb," he said. "In light of this fundamental analysis, I have instructed the IDF to draw up a number of operational plans, in addition to the existing plans, and we are working on them diligently and will develop them over the coming year." Kochavi stressed that any decision to act on the plans will be made by Israel's political leadership, but, he said, "These plans must be on the table."

Earlier Tuesday, Iran warned the Biden administration that it will not have an indefinite time period at its disposal to rejoin the deal.

Iran also said it expects Washington to swiftly lift crippling economic sanctions that formerTrump imposed on the country after pulling the U.S. out of the accord as part of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.

The remarks Tuesday by Iran's cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei were part of pressure that Tehran is trying to exert on the U.S. as it seeks to increase its leverage and get the Biden administration to quickly return to the deal.

Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said last week that it was "vitally important" to consult with Israel and Gulf states regarding any potential re-entry into the deal, however.  Blinken told the committee that the 2015 nuclear deal, "for whatever its limitations," was relatively successful in preventing Iran from producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.

At the conference on Tuesday, Kochavi also accused Hezbollah of ignoring international law to concentrate forces and weapons inside cities and within the country's civilian population, and said the IDF is "adapting its combat patterns" for that shift in ways that include the army's use of intelligence. "The population lives inside the targets, inside the battlefield. Every fifth house in Lebanon has a rocket storeroom or an anti-tank missile storeroom or a war room," Kochavi said. "We don't intend to leave behind the values of the IDF and the values of international law, but these values were not meant only to prevent injury to noncombatants, they were meant to allow us to protect our citizens."

Continuing, he said it was the choice of the enemy to position itself and its weapons in cities. The enemy, Kochavi said, "deliberately ignores international law, and the proof is that it intends to fire at Afula, Metula and Greater Tel Aviv. Because of this, we must alter combat patterns, thought patterns and even international law to the way we need to and deserve to fight. What is the response? First, operational plans that are based on a strategic scheme. What is the obstacle? The population that lives there."

Speaking virtually at the conference, Bahrain's foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani,said Israel and the Gulf states will be more successful in voicing concerns to the Biden administration if they speak with a unified voice. The way forward regarding Iran was to find a diplomatic solution, and any new agreement would need to reflect new realities, he said. 

Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, said at the same panel that Iran’s missile capability has become deadlier, and that recent actions on its nuclear program were concerning.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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