Israel’s Policy Toward Iran’s Nuclear Program—Some Counterfactual Remarks

by March 2023
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on an illustration describing Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, as he addresses the UN General Assembly, September 2012. Photo credit: REUTERS

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that a nuclear Iran is Israel’s greatest threat, then why is his government focused instead on passing domestic judicial reform legislation as its top priority? This question, posed by a former head of the Mossad’s Iran department, appeared in the headlines of Israel’s daily Yedioth Ahronoth on March 3.

Iran is certainly on the agenda of the Netanyahu government. On March 6–7, Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzahi Hanegbi and Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer were in Washington for meetings with their American counterparts to discuss Iran. Hanegbi stated earlier this year that Netanyahu will mount a preventive military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites if necessary. Netanyahu said the same when he came into office for his second term as prime minister in 2009, when I was his national security advisor. He stated then that stopping Iran from going nuclear was his historic mission and highest priority. The oft-repeated operative policy formula then was that Israel should present Iran with a credible military threat coupled with the strongest international economic sanctions. Obviously, the credibility of such a threat rested on its perceived feasibility and on Netanyahu’s resolve to act if and when needed. Netanyahu had already deployed this credible threat formula in 2007—even before his second term as prime minister— when he met with Vice President Cheney and also in 2008 with then presidential candidate Obama.

Yet here we are in 2023, seeing the same formula again employed, arguably because, among other reasons, Israel has never made good on its military threat. Over the years, Iran crossed various red lines followed by inaction. Presently, it is becoming a threshold nuclear state and is closer than ever to having a bomb. If indeed Iran has been such an existential danger to Israel, and if it indeed has been Netanyahu’s highest priority, how come he still is not concentrating on it?

It has been Israel’s habit to alert the world of Iran’s advancing nuclear program, which in reality is one of the oldest among nations to have such a program, by drawing “points of no return” or “moments of entry into zones of immunity,” thereby underscoring the urgency for preventive action.

In 2009, I asked an Israeli air force general when, in his calculations, might a preventive strike be optimal. Upon reflection he responded, “two years ago.” Strike options should have been considered in 2002 when the Natanz enrichment facility was uncovered, at a time when Iran was clandestinely working on an integrated crash program to develop five nuclear warheads by 2004. American officials planning the 2003 war in Iraq were questioned at the time about the necessity of such an attack on Iraq, which was already under sanctions and effectively constrained, while Iran presented a much greater danger. An American official responded privately that Iraq remained America’s first priority, while Iran may be next, once the US would deploy to Iraq. An unexpected consequence of the invasion of Iraq was Iran’s announcing it was ceasing to enrich uranium, effectively putting its crash nuclear program on hold.

By 2009, Israel had adopted a delaying strategy for Iran, including a variety of preventative measures, such as diplomatic pressure, international economic sanctions, operations against nuclear scientists, and cyberattacks. But concurrently, as there was no certainty that prevention would suffice, a deterrent capacity had to be put in place. Acting on the premises of such an approach, Netanyahu pressed in his first meeting with President Obama in 2009 to have the US president reaffirm historic strategic understandings concerning Israel’s independent deterrent. At the same time, and against the expressed opposition of the defense establishment, Netanyahu ordered an additional submarine, the sixth for its fleet. In 2010, I estimated the target date for achieving a robust deterrent capability against a nuclear Iran to be 15 years later or 2025.

If indeed Iran has been such an existential danger to Israel, and if it indeed has been Netanyahu’s highest priority, how come he still is not concentrating on it?

In retrospect, it is clear now that the real optimal time for military strike came in 2011–2012. Ehud Barak, Netanyahu’s defense minister, supported a preventive strike, conditional on the US being on board. Iran had been found in flagrante with a new secret underground enrichment facility at Fordow, and its enrichment activities having continued. By September 2009, it had already passed the “point of no return,” and by 2012, the attack option came to a head in Israeli deliberations.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2012, Netanyahu explicitly presented a red line, drawing it at the level of 90% enrichment (the proportion of U-235 fissile material usually considered to be necessary for a bomb). That was a double mistake, because it implied that Israel would tolerate enrichment levels short of 90%, when in effect the real red line should have been drawn at 20%—the point beyond which all enrichment of Uranium must be assumed to be of a military nature. This figure, 90%, may have also allowed the Americans to give concessions on enrichment in the negotiations that followed.

Netanyahu often referred to the Iranian threat in apocalyptic terms and equated it to another holocaust, but he backed away repeatedly from ordering an effective preventive strike. In fact, he did not work to fully develop a credible military option. The most evident deficiency was Netanyahu’s failure—in terms of both operational and political feasibility—to reach sufficient coordination and possible cooperation with the US in effecting such an option. Instead, Netanyahu rapidly drifted into a dispute with the American administration over settlement activities and other issues related to the Palestinian territories. He then made a major political miscalculation by appearing to side with the Republican candidate for the US presidency in 2012. He even failed to convince his own ministers, as well as defense and intelligence chiefs, that a unilateral strike would be, on balance, cost-effective when assessing its expected results against its risks and costs.

The sanctions policy, however, turned out to be successful and had an effect. The imposition of ever tighter sanctions on Iran, particularly US third-party sanctions on countries doing business with Iran, brought it to the negotiating table. It appeared Iran too was hedging its bets and was willing to slow down the progression of its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

But then Netanyahu turned hostile to the very idea of negotiations—calling them historic folly—and tried even to sabotage them by demanding ridiculously extreme concessions and mostly by repeatedly admonishing against them. He might have calculated that no deal would be achieved anyway as the gaps between the parties were too great.

The result of Netanyahu’s vocal opposition to the Iran nuclear negotiations was that Israel was not kept abreast of their progress and not in a position to usefully influence their outcome. Once a deal was reached in 2015, with Obama seeing in it his most important foreign accomplishment, Netanyahu sought to have it rejected by Congress. He ignored an American quiet offer to Israel of additional military technological assistance in return for avoiding a battle in Congress. In the end, however, Netanyahu failed to defeat the Iran deal in Congress and also forfeited the proposed enhancement of the military technological aid package.

This was not a trivial setback since budgetary considerations are a key factor when it comes to strategic weapon systems. At the same time Netanyahu decided to acquire three more submarines from Germany, years ahead of their scheduled planned acquisition. This too led to a dispute between him and his minister of defense and uniformed military chiefs. At one point and against the backdrop of his inaction, Netanyahu publicly revealed that the strategic mission of Israel’s newly acquired submarines was to deter Iran. In doing so, he departed from the deliberate policy of ambiguity that Israel had scrupulously held to for years. A senior defense official described such a departure as “utter madness,” because it not only contradicted standing national policy, but it also put at risk the future supply of these very submarines.

Former US President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, November 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS
Former US President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, November 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS

The Israeli defense establishment did not negatively perceive the 2015 Iran deal, which Netanyahu was adamantly against. A former head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission declared the deal to be reasonable. Others thought that while flawed, it still had the merit of placing long-term restrictions on key elements of Iran’s declared nuclear program, as noted by American officials, that were likely to prevent Iranian nuclear breakout for up to 15 years.

With the election of President Trump, Netanyahu found other priorities relating to Jerusalem, Palestine, and the Golan Heights to advance with the US. As far as Iran was concerned, Netanyahu constantly urged Trump to formally walk away from the Iran deal, which Trump criticized anyway as Obama’s legacy. In 2018 Trump accommodated Netanyahu.

The effect of Israel’s failure to take decisive action was to remove limitations on Iran. It proceeded gradually but systematically to introduce new and more advanced centrifuges and moved equipment to areas that were not supposed to be operative. Iran increased its inventories of enriched uranium but also crossed the thresholds from 20% to 60% and recently, reached 84%, based on local measurements by the International Atomic Energy Agency. If the breakout time for Iran was estimated at one year, when the agreement entered into effect, it is now measured in weeks. With President Biden having entered office in 2021, the US sought to put into place an updated agreement, adjusted to changing circumstances, but that would put certain restraints on Iran, however late in the game.

Talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria, June 2021. Photo credit: via REUTERS

Already in 2020, Ariel Levite, who held senior positions at Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and the National Security Council, argued in a commentary published in Haaretz that Netanyahu’s Iran policy suffered from judgment errors at critical junctures. Those judgment errors, Levite claimed, brought Israel to the current situation whereby Iran is a threshold nuclear state and Israel’s prevention or pre-emption options are more limited and their realization more dangerous.

Netanyahu’s decisions at critical junctures were often contrary to the advice of his experts and advisors. As early as 2012, I noted that while the Iranians seemed to act quite rationally and in their best interests, I was not so sure about Israel. The reality, however, was that Iran was not Netanyahu’s real first priority. His domestic political interests came first.

In retrospect, I see that Netanyahu’s policies were not inconsistent; he gave preference to cater to his political base on the right, involving Palestinian issues and symbolic culture war issues. That, in turn, meant disagreement with the US, which jeopardized a more muscular Israel–American cooperation against the Iranian nuclear program. In short, it was not a failure of his Iranian policy as much as it was a failure of his American policy. Had Netanyahu forged the so-called “Yitzhar in exchange for Natanz” bargain, as the Israeli media at the time dubbed it (namely, a willingness to offer concessions to the Palestinians, and perhaps even to consider evacuating isolated West Bank settlements, such as Yitzhar, in return for a strategic understanding with Washington on Iran), a viable military strike would have been possible in 2012, including the prevention of any restoration of the program in the aftermath of the attack.

Had Netanyahu joined the 4+1 negotiations of the Iran deal, it could have been improved, and the feud with the US could have been avoided. As a bonus, Israel would have agreed to the enhanced military and financial aid, including necessary means for military action.

Had Netanyahu chosen not to ask President Trump for symbolic favors, such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and instead had concentrated on applying maximum pressure on Iran and at the same time had not urged Trump to walk away from the Iran deal, Iran would not have been able to establish itself as close as it has done in the highly unstable position of being a threshold nuclear state.

This mismanagement of Israel’s relations with the US, thereby hurting Israel’s policy of preventing Iran from becoming nuclear, has placed Israel again on the horns of the dilemma of whether or not to act militarily with the remaining preventive options or to opt for the fallback policy of deterrence. The latter was prepared long ago, and it was anticipated to be required by 2025. Deterring a nuclear Iran, however, will be no less testing, difficult to manage, and more costly or dangerous than a preventative strike.

Uzi Arad
Professor Uzi Arad served as the national security advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu from 2009 to 2011 and as the prime minister’s foreign policy advisor from 1997 to 1999. Between 1975 and 1997, Arad served in the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence service, holding posts both at home and abroad, the last of which was director of the Intelligence Division. He is currently a senior fellow at the Yuval Neeman Workshop for Science, Technology, and Security at Tel Aviv University.
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