As Iran and the major powers continued talks in Vienna aimed at resurrecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Israel stepped up preparations to ensure that a credible military option was in place in the event that no agreement is reached.
While Washington is eager to return to a formula that renews restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of sanctions, Israeli efforts were focused on winning support for a Plan B that will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrived in Washington on December 9, the same day that negotiators resumed talks in Vienna.
Gantz told US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that he has instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for an attack on Iran in case the ongoing negotiations meant to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions fail, and that he has set a deadline for when the IDF will need to complete preparations for such an attack.
“Iran is playing poker with a bad hand and it is playing for time,” Gantz said, and that he hopes to “deepen our dialogue and cooperation” on Iran, including “joint military readiness to face Iran and to stop its regional aggression and nuclear aspirations.”
Stressing the “unshakable” bond between Israel and the US, Gantz added: “I am totally confident in the commitment of the United States as a global power to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.”
Austin said that the US is “deeply concerned” about Iran’s nuclear actions and what he termed the “lack of constructive diplomatic engagement,” and that President Joe Biden has made clear “we are prepared to turn to other options. We will defend ourselves, we will defend our friends and we will defend our interests.”
Austin said that the US was “completely aligned in our commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We share Israel’s deep concerns about the Iranian government’s destabilizing actions, including its support for terrorism and its missile program, and its alarming nuclear advances.”
In an address to senior scholars at US think tanks, Gantz said Iran was building up its military capabilities in western Iran so as to facilitate attacks in the region, including Israel. “We are preparing for every such effort, and we will do everything necessary to defend our citizens and assets,” said the defense minister.
Gantz said that Iran’s goal was to become a hegemon that can impose its ideology on the region and around the world, but that Iran currently was not powerful, and that state of affairs made it possible to act to stop it.
Also in the US as the Vienna talks resumed was Mossad chief David Barnea, who in unprecedented remarks for an intelligence chief a week earlier, outlined the Mossad’s commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran.
“Iran will not have nuclear weapons – not in the coming years, not ever,” Barnea said at an award ceremony for Mossad agents. “This is my personal commitment; this is the Mossad’s commitment. Our eyes are open, we are alert, and together with our colleagues in the defense establishment, we will do whatever it takes to keep that threat away from the State of Israel and to thwart it in every way.”
As the top-level Israeli-American contacts were taking place, The New York Times revealed that Jerusalem consulted with Washington before carrying out covert strikes on an Iranian nuclear facility and a missile base earlier this year.
The talks in Vienna are aimed at reviving the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which set limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment in return for lifting sanctions. The landmark agreement was signed between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom despite Israeli objections.
The Trump administration exited the deal in May 2018, but President Biden wants to return to a modified version of the agreement.
The EU has brokered indirect talks between the two parties, and prospects for a successful outcome hang in the balance.
The Vienna talks were the first after a five-month hiatus caused by the election of Iran’s new hardline government under anti-Western President Ebrahim Raisi.
As working groups convened to discuss sanctions that Washington might lift and the nuclear curbs Tehran needs to observe, there were mixed messages on the prospects for a breakthrough.
Raisi reiterated that Tehran sought a successful outcome to the Vienna talks. “We are serious in the negotiations, and if the other side is also serious about the removal of the US sanctions, we will achieve a good agreement,” he said. “We are definitely after a good agreement.”
Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, warned that the talks were at a deadlock and cannot continue indefinitely.
“Time is running out,” Baerbock said. “Iran has shown in the last days that we do not have any progress... due to the offer of the Iranian government, negotiations have been thrown back six months.”
Western officials said Iran abandoned any compromises it had made in the previous six rounds of talks, pocketed those made by others, and demanded more. The feeling was that Iran is deliberately treading water while consolidating its position as a nuclear threshold state.
A senior European Union official said important points still need to be negotiated, but progress was being made. “My impression is that we are simply advancing in quite the logical way of the negotiation,” the official said.
The Russian ambassador to the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, also sounded upbeat. “We managed to eliminate a number of misunderstandings that created some tension,” he said. “Everyone confirmed their commitment to productive work to restore the nuclear agreement.”
Israeli officials expressed concern in recent weeks that the US is considering an agreement – dubbed “less for less” – to have the US lift some sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing its nuclear program, which has now advanced far beyond the JCPOA restrictions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in early December that Iran has started the process of enriching uranium to 20% purity with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow facility, which is buried inside a mountain.
Israel responded by urging the world powers to immediately terminate the talks in Vienna.
“Iran is carrying out nuclear blackmail as a negotiating tactic, and this should be answered by the immediate halt to negotiations and the implementation of tough steps by the world powers,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a phone call.
Preparing for the worst-case scenario that Israel may be forced to act alone militarily, the IDF announced it will hold a large-scale exercise over the Mediterranean in the spring with dozens of aircraft simulating a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Fighter jets, spy and refueling planes will conduct the exercise over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Israel, simulating the distance from Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Despite a massive allocation in the budget for plans to combat Iran’s nuclear program, reports indicate that the military at this juncture is still unprepared for such a scenario.
In 1981, an Israeli air strike destroyed the French-built nuclear reactor in Iraq, and in 2007 the North Korean-built reactor in Syria was hit. But in both cases the Air Force hit a single facility, which was enough to end an enemy’s entire nuclear program.
The challenge presented by Iran is on an entirely different scale.
Iran’s nuclear program is decentralized and spread across multiple installations, with much of it underground. Military officials have expressed confidence that the Air Force would be able to destroy nuclear sites on the ground or close to the surface, but hitting the sites located deep underground will pose a more significant challenge.
Another problem is that even if a military strike was successful, the benefits would likely be only temporary.
In contrast to Iraq and Syria, Iran’s nuclear knowledge is local, acquired over many years, and the Iranians insisted that its nuclear research and development continue even under the terms of the JCPOA. This means that even after any Israeli attack Tehran will eventually be able to reconstruct their knowledge capabilities.
Israel also has to prepare for the very real scenario in which the talks in Vienna will eventually lead to an agreement. Does Israel under such an outcome continue with its military plans? Will Washington be willing to provide the necessary ordnance, such as bunker-busting missiles, if it rejoins the JCPOA?
While not explicitly ruling out a military option if the Vienna talks fail, Washington still believes there is no evidence that Iran has decided to weaponize its nuclear capability, and appears, at least at this juncture, to be willing to live with Iran as a nuclear threshold state.
For Israel, the threat is closer to home.
“Israel is the only country in the world that has a country, Iran, seeking its destruction and building the means to do it,” Gantz told a gathering of the Israeli American Council on December 10. “As Israel’s minister of defense, I will never let it happen.” ■