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How Israel should approach Iran’s nuclear programme

The historic agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 last November continues to fire the optimism of the international community four months into its interim phase.

At the same time, it has left Israel visibly balking on its own, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu compelled – by virtue of his position if not historical outlook – to stand up to what Israelis widely consider their principal strategic adversary. Israel may be seen to be playing the petulant spoiler, but its pessimism isn’t driven only by emotions.

Israel views Iran as a ‘strategic’ threat in the most fundamental sense of the term, as a threat to its survival, on which basis any grand strategy must depart. In Israel’s case, overwhelming military strength has long been identified as the necessary condition for this to happen. The practical means to this end finds expression in the two-and-a-half legs of a veritable ‘Iron Wall’ comprising a disproportionately outsized army, the so-called ‘Dimona’ option, and superpower patronage, respectively. This ‘Iron Wall’, an idea which in its most abstract form originated with Vladimir Jabotinsky in the 1920s, was intended to disabuse Arabs or any other hostile regional power as is the case with Iran today, of the temptation to remove the Jews from their historic land by force of arms, and instead convince them of the higher virtues of diplomacy. According to this outlook, even if peace cannot be attained, Israel must at least strive to obtain tacit acceptance of its existence by its Muslim neighbors. This is prefaced by the assumption that the Jewish state will never force quantitative parity, let alone superiority, onto the Arabs.

Now, the ‘Dimona project’ leg of the ‘Iron wall’, i.e. its alleged nuclear arsenal, isn’t only the highest manifestation of its qualitative edge, it is also logically incompatible with the rise of any nuclear adversary – hence the Begin doctrine concerning preemptive strikes. Nuclear parity and mutual deterrence, supposing Iran is deterred, forces Israel to rely on the remaining one-and-a-half legs. The trouble with a disproportionately outsized army is that over time, Iran possesses the necessary resources to develop a similarly disproportionate conventional fighting force. The problem with the US superpower alliance, on the other hand, is that it is meant to support the first two legs, not comprise an independent plank of Israel’s national security. It will be remembered that absolute reliance does not guarantee absolute reliability, and even the US – as committed though it may be despite its receding global dominance – may be compelled to revise its balance of alliances to Israel’s unintended detriment. Alternatively, while a nuclear conflict with Iran may be highly unlikely, even the slightest odds of miscalculation is a risk Israel cannot afford. For this reason, any Israeli prime minister will continue opposing uranium enrichment and plutonium separation on Iranian soil. At least so long as Iran remains hostile.

But Jerusalem isn’t blind to the fact that Iran has indigenized and thereby rendered permanent the rudiments of the knowledge infrastructure necessary to constructing a nuclear weapon, commonly boiled down into the enrichment, weaponization and delivery components. Further, neither US nor Israeli expert military estimates guarantee complete obliteration that does not require repeated strikes. What Israel has been and is likely to continue doing is to disrupt, delay and deter this capability from maturing or at least keep it within the acceptable risk margin, namely a reasonable detection timeframe to a working nuclear weapon minus the means of delivery. To this end, it has reportedly engaged in cyber warfare, the assassination of leading Iranian nuclear scientists and other covert activity, in tandem with international diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.

But if one holds that the epistemic basis for a nuclear Iran can neither be erased, nor would military means suffice to eradicate its existing nuclear facilities, then even as it disrupts, delays and deters, Israel might also conceivably focus on altering the other element of the Iranian threat, namely its intentions. As Jabotinsky bemoaned the illusion of ‘voluntary Arab agreement’, so inducing Iran to desist would require a more robust structure of incentives in concert with strategic coercion. In other words, Israel should consider forcing the Islamic Republic onto the diplomatic defensive, and into such a position as to convince Tehran – with Washington’s close cooperation – that it stands on the verge of a ‘grand bargain’.

Elements of an indirect approach

Three elements are central to this strategy. First, alter the Israeli rhetoric. Netanyahu’s harsh criticism of the interim deal is understandable as a way of maintaining a strong bottom line in negotiations between Iran and the major powers. However, Israeli support for the P5+1 talks, particularly its acceptance of low enrichment on condition of intrusive IAEA inspections and monitoring, would give Iran’s more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani maneuvering room for domestic constituencies while placing the onus on Iran to prove its purely peaceful intentions. This would also make the negotiations more credible, with a clearer understanding of the incentives and penalties on the part of Iran, and less prone to utter failure.

Second, if Israel makes the preceding concession, it must accordingly restore its own credible threat option by not shifting its own red lines as has happened time and again. So while Israel should make it clear to Iran that it will accept enrichment for civilian purposes under extremely rigid supervision, it is imperative that it respond with a limited military strike to violations in the same way it has allegedly disposed of Syrian arms shipments to Hezbollah. Unlike a military intervention aimed at incapacitating Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, limited pinpoint strikes in response to Iran’s violation of its own pledges are far less likely to provoke massive retaliation, international censure or a nuclear breakout.

Third, Israel should in the midst of all this hold out an olive branch to signal to the Iranians that should they be willing to stand down and adopt the Pakistani model (no diplomatic relations, no stated or actual intent of hostility), Israel would desist from any course of action directly inimical to Tehran’s interests. Specifically, neither would it stand in the way of a grand bargain between Iran and the world powers, most importantly Washington. If Tehran seeks longterm accommodation with the west, this must and can only be accompanied by a corresponding degree of de-escalation and détente with Israel.

There is irony in that the sworn adversaries are each attempting to isolate the other but are themselves confronting sanctions, the one linked to the Palestinian issue, the other to its alleged nuclear ambitions. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t the wellspring of the region’s problems, Israel’s Iran strategy could benefit from crucial tailwind should the former rehabilitate its diplomatic standing and moral upper hand as perceived in the eyes of the international community, by persisting in good faith with negotiations with the Palestinians even if a final status agreement is still nowhere on the horizon.

Balancing the odds

The retention of a low enrichment capability (3.5–5 percent) lays the way open for military-grade uranium (90 percent) and is likely to even remain part of the final agreement. Conversely, Iran has already mastered the fuel cycle fundaments, which is the most challenging component of a nuclear weapon. Alternatively, if Iran were to significantly curtail its centrifuges, refrain from introducing faster-spinning models, reduce its 20 percent-enriched fuel stock and shut down the Arak heavywater plant, combined with thorough and intrusive inspections, this would limit its operational nuclear scope and improve early detection towards breakout.

Clear acceptance of limited enrichment would reduce Israel’s margin for maneuver, at least compared to zero enrichment. However, an indigenous low enrichment capability would not only allow President Rouhani greater margin for domestic maneuver, but preserve Iranian dignity and undercut Iran’s fuelstock dependency argument. Moreover, because Iran’s nuclear knowledge cannot be undone, any gain in time to prevent a breakout, whether three months or three years, is ultimately a matter of degree, and violation of clearly stated limits should exact a proportionate military response all the same – if Israel respects its own red lines forthwith.

Strategically, this course of action doesn’t just allow Iran to get closer to a nuclear weapon should it choose. It signals to Iran that stubborn insistence pays off, and may encourage regional governments to acquire or develop nuclear power, thereby increasing proliferation risks. But with the right spurs and bridles in place, it would shift the onus of belligerence from Israel onto Iran, and limit the rampant uncertainty which has governed Israel’s security environment in recent times. If a ‘grand bargain’ were to be reached, issues linked to aggressive Iranian conduct in the region and elsewhere will almost certainly be broached. Ultimately, by bringing a nuclear threshold Iran under firm international constraints, by restoring Israel’s conventional deterrence, and by closing the gap with Israel’s closest allies, this would strengthen rather than undermine the ‘Iron Wall’ in its existing formulation.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 19 March 2014.