Iran Becoming a Threshold Nuclear State Challenges Israel's Policy of Ambiguity

If, or when, Iran develops a nuke, Israel will have to balance reassuring the public, deterring the Iranians and securing American backing

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly from Tehran, Tuesday.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly from Tehran, Tuesday.Credit: HO / Iranian Presidency / AFP
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Iran is rapidly moving to “threshold state” status, with enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb – and then another one and another one after that. It will take time for Israelis to internalize this, but as former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an article appearing in Yediot Aharonot this past weekend, this is the strategic reality that Israel must now contend with.

The Iranians don’t have an operational nuclear weapon and, as far as anyone knows, they have put off developing a bomb and the means to deliver it. They are concentrating on amassing enriched uranium and developing the infrastructure to produce it. But the delays are technical ones that Iran can overcome without great or prolonged effort. Iran exploited the Trump administration’s exit from the 2015 nuclear agreement, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Benjamin Netanyahu, to create nuclear facts on the ground that will give them an edge going forward – both in improving the terms of any future agreement with the Biden administration and in strengthening their standing in the region, with or without an agreement.

Netanyahu very much feared rapprochement between the United States and Iran, and invested heavily in diplomacy and military operations to foil it. But he failed both to prevent the possibility of an Iranian-American detente in the future or, alternatively, to create a dialogue between Jerusalem and Tehran to ease tensions and prevent a war that neither side wants.

Before the end of the Netanyahu government, the Iranians rejected Israeli feelers about creating a direct channel between the two countries. Whatever contacts there are, if any at all, are through an arbitrator concerning the division of assets belonging to the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Co. (today known as the Europe Asia Pipeline Company) and are being conducted in Switzerland. Others are through third countries that both sides trust. More direct contacts, had they come to fruition, would have enabled the two countries to discuss a range of regional issues, and reduce mutual tensions and the risk of regional flare-ups. But if there’s no one to talk with on the Iranian side, what do you do?

Ehud Barak – who should know something about these issues – contends that the Israeli military option of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities in a way that would delay for many years Tehran’s “crossing the nuclear threshold” is no longer viable. He holds that even the Americans, whose army is much more powerful than the Israel Defense Forces, have no operative plan or interest in attacking the Iranians. He concludes that Israel must therefore deepen its ties with the U.S. and seek more diplomatic and military assistance.

Experience has taught us that when Israel is contending with security-related distress, it relies more on America. But it also tends to reexamine its policy of nuclear ambiguity, under which it declines to confirm “foreign media reports” about its capabilities and refrains from conducting nuclear tests or declaring that it has nuclear weapons. Ever since the Yom Kippur War, whenever Israel’s leadership was concerned about the public’s anxiety, one official or another would compromise a little on the ambiguity and hint at Israeli capabilities. Even Barak, in his Yediot article, lauded Israel’s deterrent power and said Israelis need not worry.

The appearance of a new nuclear power in the region, not to mention one hostile to Israel and that publicly calls for the dismantling of the “Zionist regime,” will certainly raise the level of concern in Israel. Can we really expect a “second Holocaust” as Netanyahu has warned? The dilemma has now been handed over to his successor, Naftali Bennett: How to reassure the public, deter the Iranians and win American backing.

The “Daniel Project,” a team of nuclear and strategic experts from Israel and the U.S., made recommendations in 2003 to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about what to do if a country or an organization hostile to Israel were to achieve nuclear capabilities. Its conclusion was that a “credible and decisive” declaration of Israel’s nuclear capabilities would be essential to its very existence. Therefore, Israel might “have to change its policy of ambiguity to a limited degree by revealing its capabilities.” That idea will no doubt resurface as Israel copes with the recognition that Iran has become a threshold power and will continue making nuclear advances.

A satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona, in February.Credit: ,AP

The main limitation Israel faces in ending ambiguity is its commitment to the U.S. to display restraint. In exchange, America provides a diplomatic umbrella that shelters Israel’s Dimona facilities and its output from international disarmament and nonproliferation initiatives. When the Americans feel that Israel is compromising that understanding, they leak information about Israeli capabilities. Thus, several months ago satellite imagery was leaked showing extensive expansion underway at Israel’s nuclear research campus.

Bennett won’t want to upset that understanding with Washington, about which he spoke during his White House visit with Joe Biden last month. But pressure is going to be exerted on him to reexamine the understanding as Iran amasses more and more enriched uranium and the left wing of the Democratic Party challenges conventional military aid to Israel. This debate will now be very much on the minds of decision makers in Jerusalem and at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv.

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