With uranium violation, the ‘who attacks Iran first’ talk gets louder - analysis

One camp is not only committed to diplomacy, but has always believed that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities is a massive risk that could lead to regional war.

July 3, 2019 05:43
3 minute read.
A view shows railway packages for containers with uranium hexafluoride salt, raw material for nuclea

A view shows railway packages for containers with uranium hexafluoride salt, raw material for nuclear reactors, similar to the one be used for the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank. (photo credit: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / REUTERS)

It was no surprise on Monday when Iran crossed the 300 kg. of enriched uranium threshold set in the 2015 nuclear deal. If anything, it was a surprise that Tehran did not cross the threshold last week as it had claimed earlier in June that the limit would be violated by June 27.

Although violating the 300 kg. limit does not actually bring the Islamic Republic all that much closer to a nuclear bomb, it is changing the conversation in the Israeli defense establishment. Most circles still prefer a negotiated outcome, but calls to begin discussing a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will get louder. The Jerusalem Post has followed differing points of view within the Israeli defense establishment regarding this issue. There are fundamentally two major camps.

One camp is not only committed to diplomacy, but has always believed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is a massive risk which could lead to regional war, including tens of thousands of Hezbollah rockets raining down on Israel’s home front. Those in this camp would still sign off on a preemptive strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities on the premise that enough uranium was enriched for a bomb close to being able to deploy. However, broadly speaking, they oppose an attack before such a point is reached.

Furthermore, they oppose too much public discussion of an Israeli strike on the notion that saber rattling harms the chances of a diplomatic solution and may alleviate the pressure on the Trump administration to attack if needed. They heavily prefer the US to carry out such a strike if necessary, cringing at the idea of Israel going it alone unless there is no other choice.

The other camp is more triumphalist, taking the threat from Hezbollah and regional war with Iran seriously. Overall, they believe that Israel’s military and deterrence are strong enough to avoid major conflicts with Iran’s proxies if a surgical strike on the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities were executed.

In this narrative, it is believed that proxies would fear paying too massive a price and thus would avoid getting involved as it would be clear that Israel attacked surgically, not threatening the survival of Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime.

This camp asserts that Jerusalem should talk loudly and repeatedly about its readiness to carry out a preemptive strike without global support, on the belief that making the threat clearer will improve diplomatic efforts by eliminating the perception of a bluff. Further, they believe the Trump administration has lost respect in the eyes of the Iranians and therefore only a clear threat from Israel might pressure Khamenei to compromise in the nuclear standoff.

Finally, this camp appears ready to order a preemptive strike before Iran has enough enriched uranium for a bomb, regardless if they are not yet able to deliver the explosive material.

All of this is likely jumping the gun as in recent weeks there have been more than a dozen significant developments in the US-Iran nuclear standoff. However, none of them have moved either party closer to a deal or nuclear breakout. This is partly because the 300 kg. limit is more symbolic than incremental.

In contrast, Khamenei could have announced that he was ordering the enrichment of uranium to the 20% level, which would have shortened the breakout time to a nuclear bomb. Iran could have reduced IAEA access to its nuclear facilities, or exited the 2015 deal or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

By sufficing with the 300 kg. symbolic violation of the deal, Iran is still signaling it does not want an escalation into a military conflict.

The next Iran deadline is July 7. It’s unclear what new violation Iran will commit by then, but the latest reports from Tehran say that they will enrich uranium to 3.7%, which above the nuclear deal’s 3.67% limit, or much more substantially enrich uranium beyond the 300 kg. threshold. These likely would still be merely symbolic violations. Without jumping to at least 20% enrichment, as Khamenei ordered before the 2015 deal, the breakout time to a nuclear bomb will only get reduced on a very incremental basis.

So in all likelihood, Monday’s “big” news will probably not change the ongoing game of chicken radically. However, it will likely change the tone and focus of the conversation in Israel. Those calling for putting the Israeli preemptive strike option front and center have probably gained a temporary upper hand.

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