Iran is close to crossing Israel’s nuclear ‘red line’

Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool via AP
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz arrives to attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 3, 2022.

What are Israel’s political and security aims regarding Iran, and are they now matched by their military capabilities? In May, Israel completed the most significant and comprehensive war games in its history, “Chariots of Fire.” Hundreds upon hundreds of Israeli warplanes in coordination with its elite special forces, the regular army and reserves, trained in anticipation of scenarios Israel may confront on multiple fronts. 

They emphasized being nimble to coordinate and adapt, since an enemy rarely follows one’s war plans. The scope and scale of these war games were unprecedented for Israel. My meetings this month with some of Israel’s intelligence and security officials corroborated that there is no ambiguity about the need to stop Iran’s aims to dominate the Middle East with nuclear weapons.  

Israel knows that if it is forced to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, it will unleash Hezbollah’s 150,000 missiles in Lebanon, Hamas’s rocket arsenal in Gaza, and attacks from Iran’s newest bases in Syria and Iraq. That would dwarf the 2006 Hezbollah Second Lebanon War and the combined five Hamas-led Gazan wars. Palestinian unrest in the disputed territories and within Israel would be an additional complicating factor. 

New alliances and changing relationships are developing in response to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran. They include Russia’s relationship with Iran supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s seemingly contradictory relationship with Israel, allowing it unfettered access to strike Iranian weapons factories. In addition, we have Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman behind the scenes but moving toward closer cooperation with Israel in response to Iranian expansionism and threshold nuclear weapons status. Add to this U.S. allies Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan — all are affected by how far Iran might go and how far Israel can bend before it is compelled to act.  

The Iranian leaders are intelligent and pragmatic, despite their ideological Islamist extremism and hatred for the Jewish state. They are fully aware that Israel would feel compelled to act when their nuclear weapons program crosses some line. But where is that line?

The potential for miscalculation is high. Iran’s flaunting of its obligations to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and restrictions on peaceful atomic development in the Obama administration’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) walks right up to Israel’s nuclear “red line.” A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly details that Iran increased its nuclear enrichment on the eve of President Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

If Iran is confident that it knows where Israel draws the line, its leaders likely will stop before crossing it and then accept the Biden administration’s prompting to return to the JCPOA — with all its economic lifelines. A return to such an agreement would have happened already if Iran could not sell oil to China at a high price without any significant U.S. sanction or penalty.

Hopefully, the Biden administration knows that — whether Israel’s interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, remains in power or Benjamin Netanyahu returns to the political helm after the November Israeli election — Israel’s leadership will be committed to acting militarily to prevent Iran from having an atomic bomb.

But, what does that mean? Is it a certain amount of enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon that would trigger Israeli aircraft to strike Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow? We know Iran can enrich uranium to 90 percent if it chooses, based on its ability to enrich it to 60 percent and its work with advanced centrifuges. Israel also knows that Iran has ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Tel Aviv and striking more than 80 percent of Israel’s civilian population.

This brings us to one area where there is a consensus: Iran’s inability at this time to weaponize a nuclear warhead. Iran has advanced quite a bit on this last front. The IAEA’s Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said last year that “inspectors had confirmed that Iran had produced 200 grams of uranium metal,” a crucial step for the weaponization of a nuclear warhead. Since the terms of the JCPOA prohibited international inspections on military sites, only covert intelligence would know if Iran was using clandestine military facilities for even more advanced nuclear weapons development — which could be another trigger for an Israeli attack.

Israel is capable of striking Iran to set back its nuclear weapons project. There has been an acceleration in Israel’s cyber attacks, sabotage and alleged targeted assassinations over the years. Detractors claim a major Israeli strike would slow Iran’s program for only three to five years. But, based on my meetings with policymakers, the deterrence that timeframe would afford is worth the risk to Israel. Furthermore, the assumption that the Iranian nuclear program will restart immediately may be unfounded.  

I am convinced that Israel believes it cannot accept a nuclear weapons-capable Iran with the leverage that Iranian nuclear-armed missiles would give its hegemonic ambitions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and possibly Jordan in the future. There is no analogy between the deterrence afforded by Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War and what Israel could tolerate with a nuclear Supreme Leader. 

The former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, has said that “Israel will likely need to attack Iran directly to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.” And with a nuclear umbrella, “Iran would be free to build a ring of fire around Israel” from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Iran. If the U.S. and Iran restore the JCPOA, “Israel will have no choice but to act militarily to prevent Iran from manufacturing a nuclear weapon.”  

Israel’s Arab allies in the U.S. Central Command in the Middle East are counting on Israel to stop a nuclear Iran. The Biden administration should understand that Israel doesn’t expect the U.S. to join it in any attack on Iran’s nuclear arms facilities; it only wants the U.S. to not stand in the way if and when Israel finds it necessary to strike.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

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