Hard Questions, Tough Answers: What to do about Iran (September 27, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: The New York Times recently quoted experts who claim that Iran is only one month away from enriching enough uranium to produce a nuclear bomb. What can Israel do about this? What should it do?

A: Following the New York Times revelation, very prominent Israeli security thinkers have been weighing in through the media regarding the Iran nuclear threat and ways for Israel to deal with it. This public discussion focuses on two dimensions: the recent past and the near future. Throughout this discussion, relations with the United States are a major issue, particularly insofar as the Biden administration is still trying to renew the Iran nuclear agreement reached in 2015 by President Obama and abandoned three years later by President Trump.

Opinion pieces by highly respected strategic thinkers and former practitioners are prominent in the current Iran-nuclear discussion. Former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, former defense minister Moshe Yaalon, former head of IDF Intelligence Amos Yadlin, have all weighed in. Israel’s current leader, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is planning to address precisely this issue in remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, as this is being written.


Q: Analysis of the recent past presumably focuses on the 2018 Trump decision, egged on by then-prime minister Netanyahu, to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, reached under Obama. . .

A: The aforementioned thinkers and practitioners are today unanimous in condemning the Trump decision. The JCPOA was flawed, they allow, but it was better than the alternative, which was erroneously predicated on the baseless assumption that heavy economic and other pressures on Iran would bring down the Islamic Republic regime and thereby solve the Iran nuclear problem once and for all.

“There is no doubt,” writes former defense minister (under Netanyahu) Yaalon, “that the nuclear agreement was worse than what we wanted and less than what was thought possible in view of Iran’s [economic] dilemma. From this standpoint it was an historic mistake. But clearly, a bad agreement is better than releasing Iran from the restraints of the agreement.” Had the JCPOA remained in effect, with Iran--everyone now acknowledges--complying in full, any conceivable Iranian nuclear breakthrough would be a far more distant contingency. There would be no cause for the current alarm.

What is striking about all these learned analyses is that by and large, none of these distinguished strategic figures strongly criticized the original Trump decision of 2018 to scuttle the JCPOA. After all, they had opposed the JCPOA, even if they thought Netanyahu’s speech against it in the US Congress was ill-advised. On the Israeli political scene, only Meretz and the Arab parties objected loudly in 2018 to the strategic wisdom of betting on Trump’s (and Netanyahu’s) leadership and determination. This, accordingly, must cast a degree of doubt on the reliability and wisdom of the various versions of “Plan B” for dealing with Iran that the Israeli strategists are now advancing.


Q: And this brings us to the near future . . .

A: And to the alternatives proposed by Israel’s public strategists. Most pessimistic is Ehud Barak, who argues that Iran is rapidly moving toward “crossing the nuclear threshold”. Israel no longer has a viable option of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities in a manner that delays this Iranian breakthrough for long, while the United States, Barak assesses, has neither an operative plan for doing so nor a strong strategic interest in getting embroiled militarily (again!) in the Middle East. Israel, according to Barak, must deepen its strategic and military ties with Washington. Iran will become a nuclear power.

Moshe Yaalon agrees that closer strategic ties with the US, which Netanyahu damaged, are the order of the day. He disagrees that Iran has passed or is about to pass Barak’s “point of no return”. Yaalon’s three-point plan calls for isolating Iran internationally, applying ever-stronger economic sanctions, and preparing a “credible military option”. Israel has to persuade the US, Europe and the rest of the world that a nuclear Iran would be a disaster for their most basic interests.

As prime minister in 2007, Ehud Olmert was responsible for Israel’s very successful preemptive attack on a Syrian/North Korean military grade reactor being built on Syrian soil. This gives him a certain strategic credibility. Today he broadly concurs that a mixture of economic, diplomatic and military measures against Iran can still destabilize its Islamic regime. Like a number of other strategists, he argues that at some point Israel, in coordination with the United States, may have to abandon its decades-old policy of nuclear ambiguity, if only to strengthen its deterrent against a nuclear Iran.

Amos Yadlin, one of the pilots who destroyed Iraq’s Osiraq reactor in 1981, concedes that “the best attack [on Iran’s nuclear project] by the Israel Air Force would only buy us five years”.  He also recognizes that a renewed JCPOA, negotiated with Iran by the Biden administration, remains a helpful option.

Here we must note that the New York Times warning is deceptive. Iran might indeed be able, within a month, to enrich enough uranium at a high enough level to produce a bomb. But IDF Intelligence reportedly argues that it would still take Iran around two years to operationalize the bomb: to build it and install it as the warhead of a missile that is ready for launching. That undoubtedly affects everyone’s timetable for responding.


Q: Still, what is the absolute worst-case scenario being bandied about?

A: Professor Benny Morris, we recall, is one of the “New Historians” who, several decades ago, dug through the archives to explain to Israelis that, with regard to the Palestinian refugee problem, their hands were not clean. Israeli forces in 1948 played a major role in expelling the Palestinians from what would become the state of Israel. Morris has since argued that the creation of the state necessitated these ugly war crimes--of the sort that characterize all wars of national liberation.

Now, confronted by Iran’s drive for the bomb and its destructive intentions toward Israel, Morris--ever the outspoken academic--faults a succession of both Israeli and American leaders for not preempting years ago and destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. “Israel’s leaders of recent decades did not conduct themselves very differently than US leaders. Thus far, despite the heavy rhetoric they poured onto the issue (‘we will not permit a nuclear Iran’), Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and into the past decade Benjamin Netanyahu did not have the courage to deal seriously with the Iranian nuclear challenge”.

The ultimate result, according to Morris, will either be an all-out, highly destructive war between Israel and Iran or a Middle East increasingly dominated by a nuclear Iran, with a frightened, isolated Israel increasingly abandoned by its neighbors and friends.


Q: Bottom line: where do you stand on the issue of Iran’s military nuclear program and its consequences?

A: First, the Iranian nuclear threat is real. Perhaps of greater relevance, Iran’s intentions toward Israel are genuinely aggressive: just listen to the open declarations of its religious/political and military leaders. Destroying Israel is part of the core ideology of the Tehran regime.

While the current Israeli public discussion of the Iran nuclear issue is healthy, I for one don’t stand with Barak and Morris and their highly pessimistic projections. A renewed JCPOA remains a good idea even if it merely buys us time in which a concerted economic, diplomatic and low-level (more of the same) clandestine aggression campaign might yet have some effect.

Note that in today’s Middle East, only Iran and fellow radical Islamists Hezbollah and Hamas continue openly to threaten Israel with total destruction. The good news here is that the Sunni Arab states, led by Egypt and the monarchies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.), are potential allies who support Israel’s opposition to Iran’s hegemonic drive in the Levant and to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But whether Israel can in any way depend on Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to actually fight with it against Iran is an open, and very doubtful, question.

As matters stand, if it comes to reliance on massive military force against Iran, Israel will almost certainly be on its own. The US will supply logistics and the Sunni Arabs will be cheerleaders, but Israel will be on its own. Here that two-year interval between Iran ‘going nuclear’ and Iran presenting a genuine military-nuclear threat of attack could prove to be a critical window of strategic opportunity. But until that happens, if it happens, Israel and many others can still do a lot to delay, confuse, weaken and isolate Iran.

And to strengthen Israel. Jerusalem can, with US backing, take important steps toward improving its regional status looking toward the day of confrontation with Iran. A concerted effort to reduce or even eliminate the Iranian-proxy missile threats on Israel’s Gaza and Lebanon borders would be a good place to start: economically, diplomatically and if necessary militarily.

Abandoning nuclear ambiguity would be a mistake. It could spiral out of control and generate a dangerous regional nuclear arms race. Israel already enjoys a significant deterrent profile.

Finally, progress toward genuine political coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians would make a significant contribution toward shoring up Israel’s very tentative alliances with the Sunni Arabs. From every standpoint--military, ideological, political--these challenges are of far greater strategic importance for Israel’s well-being than messianic settlers in the West Bank.