Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Renewing the Iran-Nuclear Deal: Israel’s Dilemmas (August 29, 2022)


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 Israeli security establishment appears to be severely stressed by the prospect of US-Iran agreement on a renewed JCPOA. Why?

A. The Israeli establishment has become convinced that Iran and the US are both determined to sign off sometime in the coming weeks on the European compromise formula for a renewed nuclear deal. The heads of Israeli intelligence are divided as to whether the deal will benefit or hurt Israel’s strategic interests.

Head of Mossad David Barnea is the most vocal critic of the impending deal, publicly calling it a “strategic disaster” for Israel. Barnea argues that within three years the deal will have delayed Iran’s nuclear weapon break-out time from one month to barely two to three months--hardly an achievement for Israel--while removal of sanctions will funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to Iranian weapons programs and fuel Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony. Meanwhile, the global community will in effect ignore Iran’s past nuclear violations. The US, Barnea accuses publicly, “is poised to sign a deal that is a blatant lie”.

IDF intelligence takes a more moderate approach, emphasizing that the agreement delays any likely Iranian nuclear plans until 2030, thereby giving Israel more time to prepare to confront Iran. The military intelligence establishment, usually speaking through retired senior IDF and Mossad officials, points out that Israel (meaning former prime minister Netanyahu) has made repeated mistakes regarding the US-Iran JCPOA nuclear deal.

First, Netanyahu publicly lobbied against the Obama administration over a deal that Israel had originally lobbied for and that could benefit Israel. Then, once the deal was in place, he egged on the Trump administration to abandon it, thereby freeing Iran’s nuclear hand. Finally, under Netanyahu, Israel neglected to allocate funds for military preparations to deal eventually with Iran’s nuclear program.

Behind the scenes, the Biden administration points out the renewed deal’s benefits for Israel: strict limits on Iranian stockpiling of enriched uranium; removal of Iran’s advanced centrifuges; prohibition of Iran reprocessing and redesigning a reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium; and comprehensive IAEA inspections.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, both fresh from talks in Washington, point optimistically to US readiness to compensate the Israeli security community for the regional military boost the deal will give Iran in the form of sanctions relief. Both also emphasize that the deal is still not a certainty, and that the Pentagon is listening to Israel’s reservations. And they are encouraging the Pentagon to prepare its own military options regarding Iran.

In contrast, Mossad Head Barnea claims the deal is “100 percent certain”. His overall sense of extreme alarm is backed by outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. Skeptics claim that Gantz and Hulata are misreading polite American smiles and nods.

Q. Where do Israeli politics enter the picture?

A. Elections are barely two months away. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, ignoring allegations regarding his own mistakes in creating conditions that have allowed Iran to register nuclear progress, has in general adopted the allegations of Mossad Head Barnea in attacking the Lapid government.

Lapid, who began by celebrating a high level of Israeli-American coordination regarding the Iran nuclear deal, now feels the domestic political pressure. He complains that the deal on the table is not the one President Biden promised him. He wants the US to advertise a military threat against Iran. He is clearly discomfited by the manifestations of disagreement within the intelligence community. He awaits a badly needed reassurance call from President Biden that has yet to manifest itself.

Q. What does this controversy tell us about the Israeli intelligence community?

A. Ever since the intelligence surprise of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, pluralism within the Israeli intelligence community regarding assessments of enemy capabilities and intentions has become a sacred component of the community’s overall performance. In other words, Barnea has every right to disagree with the assessment of IDF intelligence regarding Iran and renewal of the nuclear deal. Still, that he has aired his reservations so publicly is unusual, particularly insofar as his vocal warning plays (presumably inadvertently) into Netanyahu’s election campaign.

Note, by the way, that Barnea’s warning also raises to new heights the public profile of an Israeli intelligence organization that not too many years ago was so secret, the public did not know the identity of the head of Mossad. In this sense, the JCPOA-renewal controversy, coming at election time and in parallel to Gantz’s impending election-eve decision regarding the identity of the next IDF chief of staff, adds to the ongoing politicization of Israeli intelligence that began under Netanyahu. 

Q. How is the resultant tension playing out in terms of US-Israel relations and tensions with Iran in the Middle East?

A. Broadly speaking, Israel and the US agree that the Iranian regime is a force for evil, aggression and unrest in the Middle East. It is a UN member state that overtly seeks to eliminate another UN member state. Where Israel and the US differ is over the question: can we live with this?

Israel answers in the negative, because it understands Iranian long-term intentions to be directed toward trying to destroy it: through forces and proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza, and by means of a military nuclear program. The US, in contrast, answers in the affirmative because Iran does not threaten it, because America is preoccupied with the sharp divisions fragmenting society, and because it is concentrating its threat assessment and military preparedness on China and Russia.

Israel and the US have to, and can, live with this difference of approach. The Israeli security establishment wants the US to prepare, and advertise, an American military option regarding an eventual Iranian nuclear breakout. It wants Washington to toughen its demands on Iran in this last lap of talks on a nuclear deal. It complains that Washington is not taking Israel’s reservations seriously enough. Yet Israel understands it has to prepare, with American help, its own military option.

Meanwhile, both the US and Israel are dealing militarily with Iran in Syria. Not only Israel apparently continues to attack Iran-associated targets on Syrian soil. Twice in recent days, American forces have attacked Iranian proxies on Syrian soil in response to drone attacks on the few US forces deployed in Syria. And according to some reports, US and Israeli F-35 stealth fighters recently jointly overflew Iran, while Israeli F-35s attacked an Iran-related base in Yemen.

That the US-Iran tit-for-tat has not impeded progress towards an imminent renewed JCPOA--indeed, that even Iran’s tactic of taking innocent Iranian-Americans hostage and its assassination attempts on American soil have not impeded progress--says a lot regarding Washington’s drive to finalize an Iran nuclear deal before November midterm elections. That the US and Israel are reportedly operating in tandem against Iran in the Levant says something about the two allies’ capacity to work together in Iran-related strategic arenas despite their differences over JCPOA renewal.

Even the growing Iran-Russia strategic nexus, now including the supply of Iranian attack drones for use by Russia in Ukraine, appears not to constitute an obstacle to agreement between Moscow and Washington regarding a renewed Iran-nuclear deal.

Q. Assuming that in the weeks ahead there is indeed a renewed JCPOA, how do you predict Israel will respond?

A. In Israel’s domestic arena, the Knesset election campaign is already dominated by debate over the alleged pluses and minuses of the agreement. Netanyahu will presumably continue to accuse Lapid and Gantz of a sellout and a failure to stick up for Israel’s interests. He will quote Mossad head Barnea and claim that Lapid and Gantz have plunged Israel into strategic disaster.

Gantz and Lapid, for their part, will argue that no one in Israel could have prevented the agreement. They will remind voters that Netanyahu is to blame for the Trump cancellation that catalyzed Iran’s recent nuclear drive. And they will pledge to do what Netanyahu allegedly failed to do over the past decade: seriously prepare Israel for a war against Iran.

At the strategic international level, it will be business as usual between Israel and the US. And it will be more of the same (but no more than that) in Israel’s ‘campaign between wars’ (Hebrew acronym: mabam) against Iran’s military efforts to Israel’s north. The security professionals in Tel Aviv and Washington know how to ignore the politicians’ squabbling and the media’s sensationalizing.

Lapid and Gantz will argue that the Biden administration will now compensate Israel on a spectacular scale for Iran’s financial gains from cancellation of sanctions. The US will openly support Israel in its efforts to thwart the strategic benefits accruing from cancellation of sanctions for Iran’s militant hegemonic drive in the Levant. Israel will also presumably point to enhanced anti-Iran strategic cooperation, with US backing, between Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies.

Yet all these manifestations of support for, and cooperation with, Israel’s stance against Iran will be limited. In the case of the Gulf Arabs--Iran’s neighbors--very limited. Israeli strategic planners must proceed based on the assumption that ultimately Israel will be on its own against Iran.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Michael Milstein of the Dayan Center and Reichman University (and a former senior IDF intelligence officer) summarized the Iran-nuclear controversy eloquently and aggressively in Sunday’s Yediot Aharonot with reference to Israeli politics, Israel’s intelligence establishment, and Israel-US relations:

“Disagreements among [Israeli] security professionals that should remain behind closed doors are exposed to the public. Ostensibly objective views are labeled instantly on a scale of for or against Netanyahu. Alongside all this is our inclination to position ourselves at the center of the world and to explain the world’s behavior as a consequence of our actions: beginning with exaggeration of our role in [the US] leaving the Iran-nuclear deal and ending with claims about the extent to which America is listening to Israel’s arguments. . . .

In 1967, faced with the sense of an existential threat, political rivals joined forces in a unity government--a scenario that cannot at present even be imagined.”