Analysis |

Empty Words and Lots of Noise: Israel Has No 'Iran Policy'

If Washington and Tehran fail to seal a nuclear deal, Israel may be forced to do something it dreads: craft a policy and not be content with anonymous 'senior sources' muttering about how the Americans blindsided Israel

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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An Israeli F-35 leaving a hangar last year.
An Israeli F-35 leaving a hangar last year.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

It sounds like the beginning of a skit. An upset Israel is sending its national security adviser on an urgent mission to Washington to alert the U.S. administration about glaring weaknesses in the European Union’s final draft of a renewed Iranian nuclear deal.

That’s right, Israel thoroughly dissected the document, while the White House, National Security Council, State Department and CIA either didn’t read or didn’t understand the document. Sounds logical.

Israel's concerns are real and justifiable, so why does this sound like a skit? Because we’re way past the end of America's attention span regarding Israel’s grievances, however valid.

Israel is showing up at the stadium after the game with the crowd gone, the lights out and the TV cameras packed up. In effect, Israel is briefing the catering and cleaning people and has no impact on whether there will be an agreement. If this is merely domestic political posturing, it’s an exercise in futility.

Because Israel realizes that the United States can live without an agreement while Israel conceivably cannot.

Because the United States leaving the negotiating table – which Israel reportedly suggested – is something the Americans have threatened since June 2021 without Israeli encouragement. In fact, the last time Israel encouraged Washington to make a course correction, it was the astute idea to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and effectively bring Iran to the precipice of a nuclear capability.

Because deep down Israel prefers an agreement it can admonish with righteous indignation over the absence of an agreement and the adverse consequences.

Missiles and a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on display in Tehran in 2017.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP

Because despite the grandstanding and platitudes, Israel doesn't have a grand Iran policy, just a sequence of never-ending complaints about the agreement. There was a notable, possibly dramatic, shift in Israel's approach to Iran, toward what is called “strategic proportionalism.” This means to hit Iran directly rather than its proxies, but in the context of Iran’s regional policies or what Israel calls the war between the wars.

And finally, because Israel is preaching to the generally disinterested. It seems that no one, with the exception of Israel and Iran, still cares enough about the nuclear agreement. Tone statements are being made, and “grave concerns” are being uttered, but relevant world attention lies elsewhere.

The United States can live without a nuclear agreement and with a nuclear-threshold Iran. It’s not ideal, but it's also not a prime U.S. interest.

While the Biden administration has said repeatedly that it won't let Iran acquire a military nuclear capability and in fact threatened to use force if Iran crossed the threshold, this isn't a foreign policy priority. Naturally, the United States prefers a deal rather than addressing the ramifications in the absence of a deal, but the current focus is on Russia’s war with Ukraine, while the overall strategic emphasis is on China, not Iran.

An Iran that hovers near but never crosses the “breakout point” – the point where it drops its commitments or self-imposed restraints – and possesses a “significant quantity” of fissile material to produce a bomb, (but doesn't decide to actually make one), isn't something Washington is happy about. But this is something it's resigned to uncomfortably live with. (Regarding that significant quantity, 25 kilograms [55 pounds] of 90-percent enriched uranium is required for a nuclear weapon.)

The European Union was as proactive as possible in trying to mediate between the United States and Iran, but it too is preoccupied with Ukraine and can ultimately live without an agreement. Conceivably the EU has a vested interest in an agreement that would bring Iranian oil back onto the market amid the shortage caused by the sanctions on Russian oil. But there’s only so much European goodwill can do if Iran and the United States reject each other’s request.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, now the prime minister, in the Knesset in May.Credit: Emil Salman

Russia is obviously focusing on Ukraine, anxious about the prospect of 2.5 million to 3 million barrels of Iranian oil poured onto the market as it tries to expand a strategic relationship with Iran. But most of all, it perceives the relationship with the United States as a zero-sum game. So whatever Iran is happy with, Russia will be too.

China is focusing on domestic economic issues and the latest Taiwan crisis with the United States. It has already signed a $400 billion strategic cooperation agreement with Iran and, like Russia, sees Iran as an issue in the broader context of relations with the United States. So anything that attracts criticism of U.S. policy and is seen as an American failure, China likes.

Notwithstanding the prime directive of “Iran should not and will never have a military nuclear capability” and a policy of assassinating Iranian scientists, sabotaging facilities and disrupting production, Israel has never had a coherent policy on a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-threshold Iran or a nuclear agreement.

Israel has always been eloquent in explaining “why not” but illiterate in devising a comprehensive policy tailored to various contingencies.

Israel was against the original 2015 agreement but against a U.S. withdrawal from the deal, though it pushed Washington to withdraw from the agreement it was initially against. Now Israel is against an agreement but also against not having an agreement, which of course it's staunchly against.

Clear enough? If not, let’s elaborate.

Israel was against the Iranian nuclear deal from the outset because it believed it was replete with holes that Iran would exploit as it cheated its way through and further developed its nuclear program. Israel said there’s “a better agreement” but never divulged it, mainly because it never existed.

Now Israel is apprehensive about an agreement but equally so about a “no agreement” because that’s as bad as a bad agreement, maybe worse. Israel was against the United States' unilateral withdrawal from the agreement, but only retroactively. In real time, in 2018, it enthusiastically encouraged Washington to withdraw from the deal.

IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaking with the deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Behrouz Kamalvandi, in Tehran last November.Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/AP

Now, many people in the Israeli defense and intelligence communities admit that the combined genius of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu propelled Tehran to the near breakout point, with the Iranians possessing more enriched uranium and advanced centrifuges – and plenty of subterfuge – than ever.

What Israel is saying now is that it's against a renewed agreement because that's as bad as the original agreement. But Israel is also against not having an agreement, though it's vociferously against the agreement that it was always against. Surely that’s clearer.

To simplify the matter, if the United States and Iran fail to conclude an agreement, Israel may be forced to do something it dreads: actually craft a policy and not be content with anonymous diplomatic or defense “senior sources” muttering about how bad things are and how Washington blindsided Israel. This would be a policy that addresses both the nuclear and menacing non-nuclear aspects of Iran’s policies, a policy that carefully balances military operations with U.S. interests.

A failure to reach an agreement will potentially leave Israel alone to face Iran. There is no real Sunni-Israeli coalition, and talk of a loose Israeli-Saudi-Emirati defense alliance to deal with Iran is more strategic fiction than actionable reality. This is where Israel finds itself: simultaneously against and for an agreement, threatening Iran at a time when no one around the world has any bandwidth left for a looming confrontation in the Middle East.

If Iran gets what it wants – its progress remains intact (minus the fissile material that will be shipped out), monitoring and inspections are narrowed, sanctions are lifted and oil exports are renewed – it will have achieved something spectacular: endorsing the Israeli position that “there’s a better deal available” and making it happen. (Regarding oil, Iran can potentially export 3 million barrels a day, which at the current price of $90 per barrel equals $270 million a day, or $98.5 billion a year.)

Recent Israeli statements, and those that will ensue after an agreement or no-agreement scenario, must be examined through three lenses. First, the absence of a coherent policy has led to groupthink where the same cliches are used as a substitute for policy. Second, an entire political system has uncritically subscribed to Netanyahu’s “it's 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany” narrative. Third, Israel has another general election in November.

Combine the three and you can understand how confused Israel is.

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