Why Israel was not ready for an airstrike on Iran in 2019 - analysis

Iran has reaped levels of knowledge that cannot be bombed. The only question now is whether that can be overcome or too late.

 PEOPLE PASS a mural of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran (photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE/WANA VIA REUTERS)
PEOPLE PASS a mural of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran

Politics is politics, but every now and then, blatantly political attacks raise real substantive questions.

One such issue that has come up more and more recently is the question of why the IDF is only now fully and loudly preparing a potentially executable option for an airstrike to push back Iran’s nuclear program.

Already in May 2019, Tehran started to publicly and blatantly violate the 2015 nuclear deal’s limits and press forward with its nuclear progress.

The political context is an almost constant back and forth ping-pong game of criticism between former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (and to some extent Defense Minister Benny Gantz).

Netanyahu started the fight by calling Bennett and Gantz weak on Iran and accusing them of getting pushed around by the US.

 A missile unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location in Iran in this picture received by Reuters on August 20, 2020. (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) A missile unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location in Iran in this picture received by Reuters on August 20, 2020. (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Bennett responded by saying he was shocked when he became premier to find that Netanyahu had failed to keep the IDF ready to pull the trigger, if necessary, on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities.

Gantz piled on that Netanyahu had left Israel with a weaker inheritance in terms of readiness to strike Tehran if necessary.

Putting aside whether Netanyahu or Bennett’s tactics with the US are smarter on Iran policy and the fact that both made some superficial criticisms, one issue that unites all three is that all of them have some responsibility for the lack of readiness.

Netanyahu was prime minister throughout the 2019-2021 period when Iran rolled forward with its violations – now closer to a nuclear bomb than ever before.

But Gantz has been defense minister since May 17, 2020, and did nothing to move toward a greater state of attack readiness.

Likewise, Bennett was defense minister from November 12, 2019, until May 17, 2020, and took no actions to move the IDF toward being more ready to strike.

Having established that none of the three politicians fighting over the issue have “clean hands,” the question about why none of them saw fit to order the IDF to ready a potential strike option only becomes sharper.

Like many hefty issues, the answer is complex.

First, from July 2015 until May 2019, there was no reason to have a ready attack option.

Keeping such an option on immediate standby costs billions and takes away scarce resources from other crucial issues, whether they be for properly funding missile and drone defense against Hezbollah and Hamas, finding a solution to Hezbollah and Hamas’s new attack-tunnel challenge, or improving and altering security forces capabilities to address security challenges from Syria, the Sinai and the West Bank.

Former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, who ran the military during this period, believes to this day that one of the main benefits (even as he has criticisms) of the JCPOA was it gave Israel years of breathing room to invest in combating other dark threats.

Second, the Islamic Republic started slowly and always moved in carefully foreshadowed steps for each nuclear violation, with a new violation about every two months.

Its original steps were almost meaningless, as it violated technical aspects of the deal but was no closer to the bomb.

So there was no reason to get alarmed and drain resources away from combating other security threats.

In fact, the focus on 2019 is a bit of a misnomer.

The first real red line Iran crossed that Netanyahu and Bennett ignored (and Gantz did nothing about when taking office) was in March 2020, when it had enriched enough low-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb.

Then in May 2020, the Islamic Republic announced it would not proceed with new nuclear violations, but would merely continue to enrich low-grade uranium. There was also a strong sense that Iran would not get too close to a bomb during the US election season, since it hoped that keeping its head down could help to oust the vehemently anti-Iran Trump administration.

But why Israel didn’t get ready to take action before Iran crossed a red line in March 2020 is still a strong question.

Part of the answer is that even if it did not prepare overt action, it got ready to hit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities with covert actions.

In July 2020, the ayatollahs’ major above-ground nuclear facility at Natanz was destroyed, setting back Iran’s progress by about nine months.

The next real turning point came between November 2020 and January of this year.

In November 2020, Iran nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated.

Although in principle this could have set the Iranian nuclear program back quite a bit, in practice their anger was so intense that by January of this year, they had retaliated by jumping their enrichment to the median 20% level.

This truly should have been an alarm for Netanyahu and Gantz to get the IDF ready because getting to the 20% level is actually most of the hard work on the enrichment track.

They decided instead to lean again on the Mossad. After all, the trick had delayed Iran once with little cost in July 2020, and Iran was still at least months away from completing the uranium enrichment track to weaponized levels.

Also, Iran had reached 20% levels before the 2015 deal, so Netanyahu and Gantz may have thought that this was the ayatollahs’ stopping point.

In April of this year, the new underground Natanz facility was hit covertly.

Once again, Tehran’s reaction crossed a new redline – this time the 60% enrichment level.

Now experts started to talk about the distance to enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb dropping from months to weeks.

It was also clear by August 2020 that the second hit on Natanz had bought much less time.

There is really no explanation for why the political echelon and the IDF did not prepare a military option at this point.

Maybe it was the mix of incremental progress putting Israel to sleep like the rest of the world, of having relied on the Mossad, and of general denial at being stuck with a crisis.

Whatever the reason, there has already been a major cost to Israel’s hesitancy.

Iran has already reaped major new levels of knowledge that cannot be bombed, even if Jerusalem at some point orders a strike to slow down certain physical nuclear facilities’ progress.

The only question now is whether that cost can be overcome or whether it is already too late.