A five-year breathing space

Israel must use the time to improve its strategic position vis-à-vis a future Iranian nuclear drive.

IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot
IN A rare public address in mid-January, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot described last summer’s Iran nuclear deal as a “strategic turning point,” heralding a significant change both in the “vector” Iran was pursuing and in how the Israeli military perceives the issue.
Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies’ annual conference in Tel Aviv, he observed that although many dangers remain, there are also new opportunities. While the military is naturally focused on the risks, Eisenkot cautioned against embracing worst-case scenarios, which in his view can be as problematic as overly optimistic ones.
He revealed that the IDF is conducting a major review of this strategic development and its implications for force-building, and he laid out two significant timelines: The first is the more immediate fiveyear period in which Iran is expected to go to great lengths to fulfill its end of the bargain in order to secure the full economic and diplomatic gains the nuclear deal provides; the second looks ahead 15 years, and in this timeframe, Eisenkot says, Israel must keep a close watch on Iran and its possible clandestine activities, because even though the deal marks a strategic turning point, Iran continues to harbor visions of a military nuclear capability.
This is part of Iran’s self-perception as a major regional power and of its hegemonic regional designs. That it continues to strive for regional hegemony is evident in its relentless efforts to shore up influence through its proxies.
While the ongoing dangers are clear, Eisenkot did not elaborate on the opportunities. We can only assume that he was referring to the initial five-year period in which the immediacy of the Iranian nuclear threat will be significantly reduced. His position provides some balance to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tendency to adopt worstcase scenarios as frames of reference in his rhetoric. From an Israeli point of view, this is a welcome development.
However, the chief of staff’s comments need to be further elaborated and placed in context. Two important issues in particular should command our attention.
The first focuses on Israel’s calculations, plans and policies for the next five years of “strategic breathing space” and the second argues for placing Israel-specific calculations in a broader perspective on the Iran deal.
From the narrow Israeli perspective, the question is what Israel can and should do with the time it has gained. Indeed, it is not the very fact of gaining time that matters most, but rather what is done with that time in order to improve Israel’s position. One set of activities is clearly within the mandate of the IDF and focuses on building up its capabilities for confronting Iran effectively, both in potential warfare with Iran’s proxies, and in light of the prospect that Iran will continue to move forward with its military nuclear plans.
In looking toward the 15-year deadline – and there is certainly a question of what can happen before then, namely in the five to 15 year time frame – how will the IDF prepare for the scenario of Iran going back to doing in the nuclear realm precisely what it had been doing before the deal was secured? Beyond cultivation of an Israeli military option and possible covert operations, these are years that should and most likely will be spent improving Israel’s ballistic missile defense systems.
But if strategic breathing space has been gained – even five years – for this to be considered a true opportunity, Israel must use the time to improve its strategic position vis-à-vis a future Iranian nuclear drive – on the diplomatic field as well. In other words, the time must be utilized well by the political echelons in Israel and not just by the military.
What this means above all is devising a strategy for getting dialogue with the US administration back on track. Israel must be in a position to conduct focused conversations with the Americans, and it must have a clear strategy for such talks, which would likely focus on intelligencegathering and on P5+1 (the six world powers group) responses to possible Iranian violations or aggressive acts like the two ballistic missile tests last fall.
Israel and the US should also be discussing the option of Iranian defection from the deal (a path Iran might choose, while accusing the P5+1 of bad faith) and how realistic snap-back economic sanctions are in this scenario.
BEYOND CONVERSATIONS with the US and other members of the P5+1, Israel should be actively pursuing dialogue with its regional neighbors, who tend to perceive the Iranian threat to the Middle East in very similar terms. Israel’s ultimate goal should be to ensure that the five-year breathing space is extended for as long as possible, and for that to happen it must work with others, both in the Middle East and at the global level.
The second issue that arises when considering Eisenkot’s remarks is that Israel’s calculations must be wellintegrated into a broader perspective on the deal, with keen attention to its strengths and weaknesses. While Israel has its own interests vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear threat, and within the security establishment a prevalent view might be that a deal that sets Iran back at least five years is inherently preferable to an Israeli military strike that in the best-case scenario might have delayed the Iranians for only two to three years, this is not the sole or, necessarily, the best basis for evaluating the deal. Israel should not lose sight of the broader picture and the additional serious challenges that the deal entails.
The Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), must be evaluated against the backdrop of goals that the negotiators set: basically to bring Iran back into the fold of the nonproliferation regime, to stem Iran’s military nuclear plans, and to reduce the motivation of additional states to go down the nuclear route. But the JCPOA suffers from many serious weaknesses, from the inadequate inspections regime to the so-called “sunset provision,” by which all meaningful restrictions will be lifted in 10-15 years.
Compliance with the deal will be constantly under strain both because Iran has not backed away from its decades-long effort to achieve a military nuclear capability, but also because there is a palpable dearth of political will among the P5+1 to hold Iran strictly to its commitments. Iran will be getting tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and there is little reason to believe that much of it will be routed back to the population.
Nevertheless, the US administration talks about implementation of the deal as creating a new horizon for the Iranian people.
These are shortcomings that Israel needs to take seriously and, in charting its course for the coming years, it must press the P5+1 to remain truly vigilant.
When the message from the P5+1 is “we will know if Iran violates the deal and we will have time to take care of it,” Israel must try to get clear answers on both counts. It must probe the grounds for the US administration’s certainty about detecting a violation, when intelligence failures cannot be discounted. It must press for answers regarding what the P5+1 will consider to be a significant violation. And, perhaps more importantly, it must try to get clearer answers on what “we will take care of it” means in operational terms.
The Iran nuclear deal was not meant to be about merely delaying Iran from attaining a military nuclear capability; rather, it was meant to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear state.
But if this goal has not been achieved, and the P5+1 negotiators nevertheless continue to act as if it has been, this could create problems down the line that will ultimately become Israel’s problems as well.
The deal may have given Israel some strategic breathing space, but it needs to use this time wisely to develop new and better military and diplomatic options for countering what is still a menacing Iranian threat.
Dr. Emily Landau, an expert on arms control and regional security, is a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies