Opinion |

Israel's Race Against Iranian Nukes Has Become a Marathon

For more than 20 years now, Israel has tried to block Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons – and the time has come to draw conclusions from these efforts

Ariel E. Levite
Ariel E. Levite
A view of Bushehr nuclear power reactor in southwestern Iran.
A view of Bushehr nuclear power reactor in southwestern Iran.Credit: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl MN/AA
Ariel E. Levite
Ariel E. Levite

For more than 20 years now, Israel has tried to block Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons – and the time has come to draw conclusions from these efforts.

Iran apparently has not abandoned this ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, but at the same time sees no urgency in achieving this aim, while also seeking to minimize the risks entailed pursuing it. Therefore, Israel’s intelligence assessments on the timing of Iran’s nuclearization have consistently proven wrong.

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Even at present Iran has not set a concrete goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. It is enriching uranium in abundance, but has been leery of resuming the production of components for a nuclear bomb. It would be wise, then, to recognize that we are running a marathon against it, not a sprint, and weigh our steps accordingly.

A nuclear Iran would indeed pose a serious challenge for Israel, and may well drag the entire region into a nuclear arms race. Nevertheless, it is not capable of threatening Israel’s very existence or the realization of the Zionist vision. Israel has been preparing for more than a generation for such a situation. Its ability to deter and defend itself against an Iranian nuclear threat, as well as to deal with its operational capabilities below the nuclear threshold, are steadily improving. But we must not sacrifice ourselves to attain this goal nor mortgage all of our resources to achieve it.

For a long time now, Israel has conducted a broad campaign, both on its own and together with the United States, Europe and even Russia, to thwart the plans of the ayatollahs in Tehran. This undertaking has combined diplomacy, daring covert operations, psychological warfare and military strikes. And so far, it has succeeded in deterring Iran from racing for the bomb and breaking much china to get there.

Negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, in Vienna, last week.Credit: Handout/AFP

Let's face it. It is beyond our ability to make Iran abandon its dream of possessing nuclear weapons or its ambition to achieve the status of a nuclear threshold state. If we strive for more, we may actually achieve the opposite, and spur Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

The clandestine war against Iran is containing the Islamic Republic’s efforts to build a web of deterrence against Israeli attacks in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, all without triggering escalation. These operations have also deepened Iran’s sense of its own vulnerability, dissuading Iran from rapidly advancing on the critical path towards nuclearization.

But such operations alone are incapable of physically delaying Iran’s nuclear project in a significant way. They also push Iran to undertake steps that would ultimately make it difficult to exercise a military operation against it in the future. Moreover, Israel’s many disruptions and harassment against Iran – like in cyberspace – are dragging us into a war of attrition that is unlikely to leave Israel better off.

Israeli threats to militarily attack Iran do not constitute a serious consideration for the Iranians, who have systematically prepared to defend themselves as well as to respond both directly and indirectly, through their proxies in the region. These threats are also a double-edged sword; they spur the United States (and others) to act more resolutely against Iran, but even more so to seek a deal that would restrict Iran’s progress and make an Israeli military action against it both unnecessary and illegitimate.

The United States recoils from taking military action against Iran itself, and its reluctance has only increased as Iran’s capabilities to respond and retaliate have improved. America’s reticence about a military entanglement – whether in the Middle East or against Russia in Ukraine – keeps on growing, fearing that it would divert it from strategically confronting China as well as from dealing with its burning domestic woes.

Washington’s worry that Israel will drag it into a military conflict with Iran has fueled its diplomatic efforts and lent them urgency, especially when Israel escalates its rhetoric about preparations for such independent military action. Rather than encouraging the U.S. to insist on conditions for a longer and stronger agreement with Iran that would be tough for the latter to swallow, Israel has achieved the opposite – Washington is now seeking a more modest and weaker deal at almost any price.

Former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert understood the limits of Israel’s power. And instead of positioning Israel at the forefront of the campaign against Iran, opted to work energetically behind the scenes without displaying acute anxiety about the Iranian actions that play into the hands of the extremists in the Iranian regime and enable them to successfully leverage the nuclear card to bolster their legitimacy and international status.

Israel should be preparing vigorously and consistently – neither of which characterized the tenure of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – to prepare all it takes for a military option as the absolutely last resort, but should make sure to do so quietly. Meanwhile, refraining from taking head on U.S. diplomacy. Instead, it should seek understandings with the Americans about cooperation, red lines and the assistance necessary to build its own operational capabilities.

The most significant achievement to date in blocking Iran’s plans stemmed from continuous pressure on it, which led to an agreement that kept Iran within a straitjacket (however imperfect) of restrictions. This pressure was bolstered by Israeli moves, but Israel did not spearhead it.

The biggest failure stemmed from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to demolish the nuclear agreement, with Netanyahu’s enthusiastic encouragement. This freed Iran from the confines of the agreement and enabled it to leap forward in its production of fissionable material.

Though Iran’s domestic situation is currently terrible, sanctions will not break its leadership that cares little for its people. Nevertheless, this Iranian leadership is also unprepared to race toward the bomb. Consequently, it would be far preferable to continue running a strategic marathon to block its efforts. This means exacting prices from it from such pursuits; setting red lines on its quest for nuclear weapons; constraining it from making progress, even through partial agreements, and preparing for international action. This would also mean, if left no choice, the possibility of independent Israeli action, should it violate those agreements or race ahead.

Meanwhile, we should play for time. We need to wait patiently for domestic conditions to ripen in Iran that would reorder its priorities and take the wind out of the sails of its nuclear pursuits.

Ariel Levite is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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