Analysis |

Israel's Saber-rattling on Iran Lacks One Critical Element

Israel's Defense Minister Gantz's rhetoric about Iran, however, has an abundance of politics

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Israel's F-35 combat aircraft during a drill, Israel, in February.
Israel's F-35 combat aircraft during a drill, Israel, in February.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It would be best to tone down the drums of war. Notwithstanding the aggressive declarations in the middle of the week, the raucous headlines and the reports of Israel conducting an exercise of unprecedented scale based on an attack against Iran, Israel and Iran are no closer to war than they have been at any other stage in recent years.

The reports stem from constraints on the government, domestically and internationally, and were intended to send messages to the United States; but as far as is known they do not reflect any extraordinary development that is hidden from the public’s eye.

Iran’s progress toward a bomb is undoubtedly disturbing, but not much is new about that. Tehran is moving toward its goals relatively cautiously, and we shouldn’t confuse the immediate goal (accumulating uranium enriched at a high level in sufficient quantity to manufacture one nuclear bomb) with the final, more distant goal (adapting the bomb to a nuclear warhead that can be installed on a ballistic missile). There are at present no signs that the Tehran leadership is ready to risk developing a warhead at this time, given the international reaction this would generate.

The flood of declarations was unleashed on Tuesday, and in the absence of new resignations from the coalition or Palestinian terrorist attacks, it apparently found an attentive ear among the editors of the television newscasts. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, in a speech at Reichman University in Herzliya, mentioned a worrisome intelligence discovery from the recent past: Iran is building an additional subterranean enrichment facility in which it has installed advanced centrifuges. Gantz reiterated that Iran is just weeks away from accumulating sufficient enriched uranium to manufacture one bomb, and he called on the international community to take action now to bring the project to a halt.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, left, speaks during a joint press conference with his Lebanese counterpart Abdallah Bouhabib in Beirut, Lebanon in March.Credit: Bilal Hussein /AP

The Defense Ministry’s director general, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, added that “the ability to operate in Iran exists, and in the period of the present government, resources have been allocated to build a more massive force” for that purpose. And the speaker in an Israel Defense Forces briefing stated that exercise Chariots of Fire, in which the IDF is currently simulating a multi-arena war, also includes a simulated extensive aerial attack against Iran.

Before we get the bomb shelters ready, it would be useful to recall the context. Gantz is in a government whose end is clearly looming, even if the date of its demise hasn’t yet been set. (Some commentators see an election being held around next January.) The coalition leaders are squabbling and are all readying themselves for the next round. On Saturday, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar tweeted his objections to Gantz’s decision to allow Palestinian workers from the Gaza Strip to enter Israel again. In the next day’s cabinet meeting, Gantz assailed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for not giving him enough credit in the media. And through it all, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu continues to savage the government for neglecting the Iranian threat. The defense minister, like his ministerial colleagues, is looking for high media visibility in difficult circumstances.

Gantz spoke at Reichman University before leaving for the United States, where he met with senior officials in the Biden administration. Israel is indeed frustrated by the situation. The Obama and Trump administrations preserved, each in its own way, at least the semblance of a military threat against Iran. The present administration is not bothering to do that. On the other hand, it is also not hurtling into a new nuclear agreement with Tehran, as many had expected. The Vienna-based talks between Iran and the world powers are bogged down, and the U.S. refusal to remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from the list of organizations subject to severe economic sanctions is turning out to be a major obstacle to signing a new agreement.

The statements issued by Gantz and the IDF barely constitute a campaign. The declarations attest to constraints, internal and external, and are meant to send a message that action is being taken in the Iranian context, perhaps in the faint hope of persuading Washington to display a more determined approach. The bottom line that’s missing from these assertions is a concrete or immediate threat against Iran. In practice, as is implicit in Eshel’s remarks, the IDF’s deployment for a possible attack on nuclear sites was neglected for years.

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement in the wake of prodigious efforts of persuasion by Netanyahu. A year later, in response, the Iranians started to violate the terms of the agreement and to reboot enrichment, which reached high levels in 2021. But Netanyahu did not translate this into a directive to the IDF to deploy again for a possible independent attack on Iran. Bennett resumed dealing with the preparations, but you can’t close a years-long gap in two months, and apparently not even in two years.

In the weeks ahead, the IDF will undoubtedly release footage from the great flyover, which based on previous experiences, will lift off westward, creating a kind of mirror image of the game plan required for an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. The images will fill the hearts of some Israelis with pride, others will be seized by dread. In reality, this scenario is far from being actualized, despite the frequent declarations by politicians and generals. Other dangers arise from the government’s tenuous condition: injudicious moves being undertaken in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

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