Against Iran, tactical success doesn’t mean strategic victory

Instead of simply waiting for Iran to act to design a response – a strategy that willingly forfeits the initiative – Israel ought to prepare effective responses in coordination with the US.

August 15, 2019 20:48
Against Iran, tactical success doesn’t mean strategic victory

iran missile test flag 248 88 ap. (photo credit: AP)

 In recent months, Tehran has shifted its response to the American “maximum pressure” campaign from passive strategic patience to active strategic patience. The new Iranian approach, which includes low signature attacks on Gulf oil infrastructure, the downing of an advanced unmanned US intelligence collection aircraft, and minor breaches of the nuclear deal, has not yet resulted in dramatic change but it has increased the situation’s volatility. 

That is not to say we are headed to war. In fact, there is a low chance of that happening for the simple reason that both sides view war as an undesirable option.
So where are things headed?
Iran is now largely in control of the tempo and direction of events. That is because the US has already employed most of the economic and diplomatic measures at its disposal, and the Trump administration does not seem unified on any singular strategic goal beyond “maximum pressure.” Before assuming his current post, National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that regime change should be the goal of US Iran policy, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Iran should meet 12 demands in accordance with global norms, and President Donald Trump’s tweets indicate that he wants to negotiate a deal that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Thus, Washington awaits an Iranian response while its sanctions exact a heavy price.

To avoid surrender and war, decision-makers in Iran are likely contemplating the following options: 

1) Continuing active strategic patience in the hope that Trump will lose in the 2020 elections, 

2) Renewing negotiations in order to have painful sanctions lifted, and 

3) Resuming full-scale nuclear activity. 

Instead of simply waiting for Iran to act to design a response – a strategy that willingly forfeits the initiative – Israel ought to prepare effective responses to the above-mentioned contingencies in coordination with the US. In doing so, Israel should prioritize three strategic goals vis-a-vis Iran (in order of importance): 

1) Maximizing the distance between Iran and a nuclear weapon,

2) Halting Iran’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony, and

3) Avoiding war with Iran. 

The end-state that Israel seeks, which is first and foremost preventing Iran from advancing toward a nuclear weapon, can be reached in two ways: 

• First, countries opposing Iran’s nuclearization could exact an extremely high economic and political price for its nuclear advances. This, in turn, might cause decision-makers in Tehran to conclude that it would be unwise to continue because the costs of building a nuclear weapon are either existentially threatening to the regime or outweigh the benefits of possessing one. If that occurs, Iran will likely seek to formalize the decision to halt its military nuclear program through an agreement that provides it with concessions. 

• Second, if Iran remains determined to acquire the A-bomb, then countries opposed to Iran’s nuclearization can functionally delay the regime’s efforts through a range of kinetic and non-kinetic tools. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing. For example, Iran’s concerns regarding a credible military option would likely be weighted heavily in any cost-benefit analysis of the military nuclear program. 
While Israel should prioritize the former scenario which prevents Iran’s nuclearization and avoids heightened risk of war, the success of its overall strategy must not depend on the ability to influence Iran’s decision-making, and should include plans for coping with the latter scenario as well.

Despite its ostensibly more hostile stance in recent months, Iran has given several indications that it is considering a return to the negotiating table. If talks are renewed, Jerusalem should coordinate with the White House so that Israel is not left out of that discussion as it was in the Obama era. To do so, Israel must have a clear and realistic outline of what a JCPOA 2.0 ought to include.

Israel’s primary focus should be on extending the “sunsets” of the nuclear restrictions to 30 years, empowering an anytime, anywhere inspections regime (which is especially important after Iran proved dishonest in its disclosure of PMDs to the IAEA), and placing more stringent restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activity. The prime minister should also bear in mind that if he seeks to prevent the conclusion of anything except the ideal comprehensive agreement, covering all aspects of Iranian policy, he runs the risk of being perceived as a spoiler and cut out of the conversation.

If negotiations are not renewed, there may come a point at which the regime is no longer willing to abide by its existing commitments. In that case, Iran could opt to return to more intensive nuclear activity and withdraw from the JCPOA or even the NPT.

To prepare for such a scenario, Israel should coordinate with the US on how to define the nuclear red lines and delegate which party is responsible for what in the event that those lines are crossed. 
In addition, because the IDF’s 2015-2020 force-building program was budgeted under the assumption that an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear program would not be necessary in the near future, the government of Israel should allocate additional funds to refresh a range of options to stop an Iranian nuclear breakout.

It is also possible that Tehran will determine that it is able to absorb the economic punishment from US sanctions and wait out President Trump (in the hope that he will be defeated in the 2020 presidential elections), and continue on the path of active strategic patience. Should the agreement survive into 2021, many of the Democratic candidates for president have already pledged to rejoin the JCPOA if elected. That would be a grave strategic blunder on the part of the US, as even the deal’s advocates note, because it would mean re-entering an agreement and making concessions just before Iran’s nuclear restrictions begin to expire in 2023. 

To dissuade the American leadership and the American people from returning to the JCPOA without closing its loopholes, Israel should publicly present high-quality intelligence which convincingly demonstrates that Iran maintains dangerous nuclear ambitions and therefore cannot be allowed to become a threshold state by 2030 (as permitted by the 2015 agreement).

Thus far, withdrawing from the agreement and re-imposing sanctions proved effective on the tactical level of inflicting economic damage on the Iranian regime. But tactical success does not guarantee strategic victory. That will require initiative, forethought, coordination and contingency planning rather than ad hoc reactions to Iranian steps.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin served as chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence from 2006-2010. He is now the executive director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. 
Ari Heistein is chief of staff at the INSS.

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