Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his threats against Iran on Sunday during a cabinet meeting held as part of a national war drill.
“The reality in our region is changing rapidly. We are not stagnating. We are adapting our combat doctrine and our possibilities for action in keeping with these changes,” Netanyahu said at the meeting, which was held at an underground military bunker in Tel Aviv. “We are committed to acting against the Iranian nuclear program, against missile attacks … and against … what we call a multifront campaign.”
The statement came hours after the Israeli prime minister accused the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of “capitulation” to Iran. Last week, the IAEA closed a case investigating heavily enriched uranium particles that had been discovered in Iran. The agency reported that it had received a satisfactory answer explaining the presence of the particles, which had been enriched to 83.7%, worryingly close to the 90% needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu characterized the agency’s decision as political, criticizing the IAEA for failing to confront the Islamic Republic.
In context: Under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limit its uranium stockpile and to enrich uranium only to 3.67%, the purity needed to run nuclear power plants. In return, Iran received relief from sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, and the UN Security Council. Since the US unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran has said that it is enriching uranium up to 60% purity. Iran’s uranium stockpile has also grown tenfold since the fall of the nuclear deal.
“Iran has progressed greatly in its uranium enrichment,” Danny Citrinowicz, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies’ Iran Program, told The Media Line.
No dramatic actions is needed at the moment
Amid the backdrop of numerous statements suggesting that Israel is on the verge of military action against Iran, Citrinowicz urged caution. “The situation is worrisome but at this point does not merit dramatic action,” he said.
For years, Israel has been carefully watching as Iran makes headway toward nuclear capability.
“Iran cannot be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. It can only be delayed,” Citrinowicz said. Israel’s hesitance to take serious action against Iran could be attributed to the apparent inevitability of Iran’s nuclear capacity, as well as the complexities associated with any preemptive strike.
Israel is believed to be behind hundreds of airstrikes and other operations against the Iranian nuclear program. These include assassinations of senior Iranian scientists and cyberattacks against nuclear facilities.
Israel’s current military exercise is meant to prepare the country for a prolonged multifront war, the scenario Israel expects should it strike Iran. The “Firm Hand” drill also involves a civilian front preparation test.
According to an Israel Defense Force statement released before the exercise began, the drill includes a multiarena exercise for the air force and a strike and defense mission exercise for the navy.
Israeli officials have repeatedly conveyed that they will not tolerate Iranian nuclear capability. Israel sees Iran as its archenemy and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear aspirations as its most formidable threat.
“The latest statements are probably a response to an American effort to reach some sort of an agreement with Iran,” retired Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and former national security adviser to Netanyahu, told The Media Line.
Negotiations with Iran have been going on since 2013
Iran has been negotiating with world powers since 2013. President Joe Biden took office in 2021, almost three years after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, and quickly began new negotiations. Those negotiations failed to produce a new agreement, and recent media reports have suggested that the US is now looking to enter talks with Iran on an interim agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium but not completely stop it.
“The Israeli statements are also aimed at Iranian ears, that should they cross a certain line, Israel will respond, and does not see itself committed to any international agreements reached with Iran.”Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror
“The Israeli statements are also aimed at Iranian ears, that should they cross a certain line, Israel will respond, and does not see itself committed to any international agreements reached with Iran,” Amidror said. “It is committed to its own security and not to the international belief that the solution to the problem is only a diplomatic one.”
Since identifying the Iranian nuclear program as its most major threat over two decades ago, Israel has maintained its position against Iran’s nuclear aspirations and against any agreement with Iran.
Iran now appears to be on the cusp of nuclear capability, with many experts believing the country already has the technology and expertise it needs to develop nuclear weapons. Only internal political will appears to be keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Given that reality, Israel is facing the dilemma of whether to carry out a preemptive strike on some or all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Destroying Iran’s nuclear program may be an unrealistic goal for Israel. Iran’s nuclear facilities are scattered across the country, raising doubts about Israel’s ability to perform the complex airstrikes to take them out, more than 1,000 miles away from Israeli Air Force bases.
“Israel has the ability,” Amidror said. He acknowledged that the American capability to strike Iran was significantly higher than Israel’s capability, but said that Israel would be willing to use “what it has at its disposal.”
“For Israel, this would be a very complex operation, which would entail the whole of the Israeli Air Force being airborne at once, then reaching Iran – probably being targeted on the way – and successfully attacking Iran,” Amidror said.
An Israeli attack on Iran would likely be the opening act in a larger, multifront regional war. With Iran expected to urge its regional proxies to attack Israel in response, such a war would presumably lead to extensive damage throughout the Middle East and a large number of casualties.
“For Israel, this would be a very complex operation, which would entail the whole of the Israeli Air Force being airborne at once, then reaching Iran – probably being targeted on the way – and successfully attacking Iran.”Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror
Iran would be unlikely to abandon its nuclear ambitions in the aftermath. “The knowledge Iran has accumulated cannot be erased, even if such an attack is successful. Iran will not relinquish its plans the day after such an attack, and it will rebuild,” Citrinowicz said.
While most of the West is eager to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, Israel has been steadfast in its opposition to any negotiations. This dynamic puts Israel in “an inferior position,” Citrinowicz said. “There is very little international appetite to deal with Iran in any other way than by negotiating with it,” he added.
In an attempt to avoid a large-scale military confrontation, Washington has been pushing negotiations. But the international environment that allowed for the JCPOA to be signed with Chinese and Russian support cannot be recreated at this point.
Iran has been emboldened by Russia, which is now at odds with many of the negotiating powers due to its offensive in Ukraine. Direct Iranian involvement in that war, with a steady supply of armed drones to Russia that have been used to attack Ukraine, saw immediate global criticism aimed at Iran.
In this current atmosphere, fewer countries would oppose an offensive on Iran, Amidror said.
That said, the international community wants to avoid a major regional war, which is almost guaranteed if Israel strikes Iran. Many countries want the problem of Iran to be resolved quietly without creating chaos in the region.
Will Israel strike Iran without US support?
One open question is whether Israel would choose to strike without US support.
“Without American backing, an Israeli strike would be a very complex gamble,” Citrinowicz said. “With such major ramifications of an offensive, coordinating such a strike with the US in advance is critical.”
Recent Israeli rhetoric suggests otherwise.
“If Israel will conclude that Iran is close to nuclear power, the threat is so big that it will not wait for international legitimacy,” Amidror said. “For years, the world did not help Israel, so Israel will have no choice.”
Earlier this year, the Israeli and US armies held a massive joint drill including simulated target strikes. But the Biden Administration has been unwilling to get further involved in the Middle East so far. The 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the beginning of a policy of decreased US involvement in the region.
“We will not be seeing American boots on the ground, which is likely the only thing that would impact Iranian decisions on its nuclear program,” Citrinowicz said.
Israel has expressed grave concern about the US’s progress toward negotiations with Iran. Whether Israel will follow through on its threats of a preemptive strike remains to be seen. As major ramifications are expected, Israel appears to be treading carefully before taking steps that would change the face of the Middle East.