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Schism Between U.S. and Israel on Iran May Grow in Coming Months

Beyond the familiar veneer, a substantial gap in definition and policy toward Iran's nuclear plans is forming between Jerusalem and Washington

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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New generation Iranian centrifuges on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, April
A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, AprilCredit: Iranian Presidency Office/WANA (West Asia News Agency)
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

The United States and Israel ostensibly share a strategic imperative and common interest: not to allow Iran to develop a military nuclear device. The premise is twofold: A nuclear weapon in the hands of a radical, messianic, Islamic-revolutionary regime could precipitate a regional nuclear arms race. Secondly, Iran is a direct threat to Israel – as it often declares itself to be – and Israel, given its size, is a “one bomb” country, irrespective of its own deterrence power or second-strike capability.

For over two decades both countries have completed each other’s sentences on Iran: “We will not allow…”; “Iran is a threat and a menace and cannot have nuclear power”; “Iran will not become a nuclear state under my watch”.

Even when the countries’ policies diverged in 2015 over the Iran nuclear deal, the prohibitive rhetoric on Iran remained the same and the differences were explained as two distinct approaches seeking the same objective: preventing Tehran from weaponizing its nuclear program and removing, or indefinitely postponing, what both countries agreed is an existential threat on Israel.

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But beyond the familiar veneer of public commitments, mutually reassuring statements and many platitudes, a substantial gap in definition and policy is forming: Strategically, the U.S. and Israel do not see Iran similarly and their respective perceptions of threats dictate policies that are not at all in synch.

A reality in which Iran is effectively a “threshold state”, meaning a state that has the knowledge, technology, components and necessary material to produce a military nuclear device but chooses not to, is acceptable to the U.S. It isn’t for Israel. Whether Israel is right or wrong is a matter for a different debate.

Second, Iran is not a top, vital American interest; China is. The U.S.’ re-prioritization of interests and shift of focus to an ascendant China is the most dramatic and large-scale transformation of foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Seen from Washington, the international system is reverting to a bipolar world and great power competition and the U.S. needs to make major adjustments such as withdrawing from Afghanistan, retreating from Iraq, forging a new Indo-Pacific coalition – The Quad, consisting of the U.S., Australia, Japan and India – and announcing a partnership this week between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. – AUKUS – that could become an alliance.

All other arenas and issues are becoming marginal and secondary in resource and attention allocation. That includes Iran, whether Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates like it or not.

Israel recognizes the gradual U.S. disengagement from the Middle East in that context, but believes it creates a vacuum that emboldens and allows Iran to further undermine the region through proxies and under the cover of being a threshold state.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Foreign Policy Magazine that Iran is boxed-in and that is something Israel can acceptCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Third, whichever scenario plays out regarding the negotiations over a possible U.S. return to the nuclear deal – whether a positive reentry or failure to reach an agreement and suspension of talks – Washington and Jerusalem are bound to have serious disagreement.

A U.S. return to the deal will allow Israel time and opportunity to formulate a new Iran policy. In this case, whatever reservations and anxieties Israel has over the deal and the monitoring, enforcement and safeguards mechanisms, Iran is boxed-in and that is something Israel can accept, as Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Foreign Policy in an interview earlier in the week. But the deal does not cover or govern Iran’s non-nuclear activities and it has an expiration date. Given America’s change of priorities, Israel will soon feel that the U.S. has lost interest.

In the event that the talks falter and no reentry agreement is reached, Iran is free to continue its nuclear program, including a military dimension. Even if it consciously refrains from crossing the threshold, it will significantly shorten the breakout time – the amount of time required to build a bomb with the materials at their disposal. The prevailing thought in Israel is that the U.S. will be reluctant to engage in a military strike against Iran, which would leave Israel on its own unless it drastically changes its mode of thought, accepts Iran’s status and plays a high-stakes deterrence game.

On this backdrop, two reports came out last week. First came the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015)” periodic report.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi warned in the report, released September 7, that Iran’s failure to fully cooperate and communicate with the IAEA “is seriously compromising” the agency’s ability to maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi at a meeting with head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Mohammad Eslami, in Tehran last weekCredit: WANA (West Asia News Agency)

The report most notably determined that “While Tehran has not installed any new advanced centrifuge cascades at the main fuel enrichment plants at Natanz nor Fordow over the reporting period, Iran has continued to stockpile uranium enriched to higher levels. Tehran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent grew from 63 kilograms noted in the May report to 84 kilograms in the Sept. 7 report. The stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium also grew, from 2.4 kilograms in May to 10 kilograms in September.”

Based on that report, the Washington-based think tank Institute for Science and International Security issued an analysis of the IAEA’s report. In it, they determine that “A worst-case breakout estimate, which is defined as the time required to produce enough WGU (Weapons Grade Uranium) for one nuclear weapon, is as short as one month. Iran could produce a second significant quantity of WGU in less than three months after breakout commences. It could produce a third quantity in less than five months, where it would need to produce some of the WGU from natural uranium.”

Then the media and political drama began. “Iran Nears an Atomic Milestone,” The New York Times proclaimed, while others exacerbated the facts with a simple but brutal “Iran can be a month away from an atomic bomb.”

That is dangerously misleading.

Yes, Iran is as close to having the capability to build a military device as it ever was, thanks mostly to the President Donald Trump’s reckless unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s encouragements and assurances.

But no, Iran is not 60 days away from a bomb.

First, Iran’s enriched uranium is not at 90 percent enrichment, which is required for weapons grade. The report extrapolates that Iran may have sufficient quantities of enriched uranium in a month – not a bomb. Even then, uninterrupted, the breakout time is anywhere between two to four months. That is ominous, but it’s not 60 days.

Second, breakout time is a technological and technical determination that does not factor in intentions or political will. All it does is vindicate Iran’s status as a threshold state, not turn it into a nuclear power by definition.

There is a case to be made that Iran prefers being a threshold state rather than having a nuclear weapon at this point. Tehran knows that China and Russia, emerging Iranian allies, will not be happy with a nuclear Iran and the instability that may produce.

Iran also knows that possessing military nuclear capability will precipitate a regional nuclear arms race in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and even Egypt will all seriously contemplate acquiring their own capability.

All this leads Iran to believe that it has greater maneuvering room and regional latitude by virtue of being a threshold state rather than attracting the limelight and focus of actually having a bomb.

The U.S. can conceivably – perhaps unfortunately – live with that, provided Iran refrains from crude, provocative moves in the event there is no new nuclear accord. Israel believes it cannot, and the schism may grow in the coming months.

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