Moshe Ya'alon weighs in on Iran ahead of Israel defense industry conference

Israel must make sure there are no surprises from Iran nuke weapons groups.

 Israeli defense exhibition. (photo credit: COURTESY OF AVNON GROUP)
Israeli defense exhibition.

European interest in the Israeli defense industry has spiked due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, former defense minister and current ISDEF conference chairman Moshe Ya’alon has told The Jerusalem Post.

Leading into the March 21-23 conference highlighting the Israeli defense industry, he addressed several security challenges, most notably Iran.

“Israel’s purpose is to stop the Iranian regime from getting nuclear weapons,” Ya’alon said. “This purpose has never stopped from [Yitzhak] Rabin [in the mid-1990s] until today.”

The right strategy is to “force the regime into the following decision: to make a clear decision to go for a nuclear weapon [which would end the regime] or [choose] the regime’s survival,” he said.

Ya’alon criticized all three of the last US presidents for their Iran policy.

 Moshe Ya'alon. (credit: COURTESY OF AVNON GROUP) Moshe Ya'alon. (credit: COURTESY OF AVNON GROUP)

“My expectation of [US President Joe] Biden was to try to renew the same coalition that [former US president Barack] Obama tried getting together and which, unfortunately, [former US president Donald] Trump broke” when he pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018, he said.

The 2015 JCPOA Iran nuclear deal “was a bad deal, but things got worse,” Ya’alon said. “If there had been a Plan B [for Trump to deal with Iran], this would have been good. But there was no Plan B, so this gave Iran the excuse to run forward with nuclear project [violations] until now.”

However, he said, Biden has not brought together a global coalition to get the “longer and stronger” version of the JCPOA that he had discussed. Rather, the framework of the emerging new deal seems to have the same problems as the JCPOA, so “it is not good. Less for less, or however it is being framed, is not good. But it is also not good for Israel not to be in the loop in order to influence the deal and the process afterward.”

The new deal is “problematic because it will not stop the [nuclear] project,” Ya’alon said. “But do not cut dialogue or go crazy” against the US in public.

Instead, he again advocated reaching understandings with Washington about the various scenarios that could play out post-deal.

Next, Ya’alon was asked if 2025 – when the JCPOA’s own terms lift limits on how many centrifuges Iran can operate – will create a new level of danger and impetus for immediate action by Israel.

In response, he said many past predictions about the Islamic Republic crossing the line have turned out to be wrong.

“So we need to see it as another point on the spectrum and not a final point,” he said. “We will deal with the challenge... we need to review and renew the right policies to put more pressure on the regime. There will be many opportunities to confront [Iran] in Syria [and] Iranian activities in the Gulf, and we should get the US to apply more pressure.”

Questioned about whether blowing up nuclear facilities and killing nuclear scientists was effective or had failed now that Iran has gotten closer than ever to a nuclear weapon, Ya’alon said: “If Israel didn’t do anything, Iran would already have nuclear weapons. In 1995, the estimate was that they would have it by 2005 if they went straight ahead [uninterrupted]. We are close to 2025, and they still do not have it.”

ANOTHER ISSUE that has come up is whether Iran – given that it has enriched uranium up to the 60% level – will find it easier to hide a clandestine weapons program from the IAEA and Israeli intelligence going forward.

“This is a problematic front, weaponization,” Ya’alon said. “The JCPOA started [with an emphasis] on past military dimensions. But Iran refused, and the US gave up on it. Many things have been done, but it is still hard for them [Iran] to move on with the weapons group.”

“Enriching uranium they know how to do,” he added. “I assume a new deal will bring them back down to 300 kilograms.” Around 1,000 kg. is needed for a nuclear weapon, and Iran currently has sufficient enriched uranium for up to four bombs.

“A central issue is what happened to the weapons program,” Ya’alon said. “This needs to worry us a lot. We need to make sure there are no surprises.”

Regarding Hamas, he said neither a more substantial military operation nor a major new diplomatic initiative, including opening an artificial port off the coast of Gaza, were the right answer.

“The reality with Gaza is that Hamas sets the rules, controls everything and does not accept a Jewish state,” he said. “The story will not be solved.”

But Ya’alon said he was “a big fan of using a stick, a very big stick, against all provocations and interests, as well as carrots,” meaning reacting strongly to violations of Israel’s border or rocket attacks, but trying to help the Gaza Strip improve economically in marginal ways when there is no conflict.

This strategy has worked in the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, he said, adding that although it is more difficult with Hamas in Gaza, it is the best available strategy.

Ya’alon said he did not think another war within the next few years was inevitable.

He expressed hope that Israel would “weigh our actions carefully” to avoid being drawn into wars like in 2014 and May 2021, both of which he said broke out at times when Jerusalem would have preferred quiet.

With regard to Hezbollah, Ya’alon said any “Hezbollah decision to go to war will not be made in Beirut; it would be made in Tehran. As long as Iran has no interest to start a war in Lebanon, there will not be a war... I don’t see any interest for Hezbollah or Iran to start anything from Lebanon” in the near future.

However, in the event of a war, he said Israel has multiple layers of missile defense, and its vast offensive advantage would eventually force Hezbollah into a ceasefire.

Returning to the ISDEF conference, Ya’alon said: “After two years of the coronavirus when there was no conference, there is a high level of interest.”

He rattled off interest from countries on pretty much all six inhabited continents, with 10,000 visitors, 50 official delegations and a varied mix of countries, including Canada, Ghana, Thailand and South Korea.

Countries were more concerned than ever about defending their borders from drones, rockets, missiles and cyber warfare, Ya’alon said, noting the high levels of cyberwarfare both before and during the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, and were open to Israeli solutions.

Moreover, Israel could share its technologies and strategies for combating pandemics, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters, he said.