Deciphering Israel's mixed messages on Iran's nuclear threat - analysis

Conflicting messages from high-level officials suggest Israel does not yet have a tangible plan in place to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Missiles are displayed during Iran’s National Army Day parade in Tehran in September 2019. (photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
Missiles are displayed during Iran’s National Army Day parade in Tehran in September 2019.
(photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)

Israel’s public posture on Iran’s nuclear advancement last week was a tale of two messages.

The first was that of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who put the international community on notice during his UN speech that Israel’s patience was not endless.

“Over the past few years, Iran has made a major leap forward in its nuclear R&D, in its production capacity, and in its enrichment,” Bennett said.

“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment – and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.’’

His message was clear, if not necessarily new. Israel will act if it must in order to prevent what it deems an existential threat from Iran.

Iranians burn an Israeli flag during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, in Tehran, Iran May 7, 2021.   (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)Iranians burn an Israeli flag during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, in Tehran, Iran May 7, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

That was one message.

But then another message – starkly different – came out in several analysis pieces in the Israeli media that appeared a few days later on Friday (including in The Jerusalem Post), all saying essentially the same thing: Israel does not have an up-to-date and effective military plan for hitting Iran’s nuclear installations.

That the pieces all appeared on the same day and had the same underlying message was an indication that senior journalists were briefed by a high-level official. And the message that emerged was that, while a decade ago Israel had a plan on how to attack Iran’s nuclear program, once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was concluded in 2015 and it became clear that Israel could not now buck the will of the world and hit Iran militarily to keep it from racing toward nukes, those plans – including the budget that allocated considerable sums to train and acquire the military hardware to carry out such an attack – were scratched.

In other words, while a decade ago Israel had what it felt was a credible and effective plan to thwart its existential threat, today those plans simply do not exist.

This is the product of a feeling that after the nuclear deal was signed, it could not act alone, and then – when the US-backed out of the deal in 2018 – the result of the political paralysis in Israel and an inability, because of the lack of a state budget, to allocate the billions of shekels needed to plan, train and prepare for such a mission.

According to these stories, with the new state budget soon expected to be approved and money earmarked for this purpose, the plans are now being revamped, and Israel – in the near future – will again have a plan.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi implied as much in comments he made Tuesday at the changing-of-the-guard ceremony for the new head of Military Intelligence.

“Operational plans against Iran’s nuclear program will continue to evolve and become more sophisticated. Whatever the developments, it is our duty to provide an effective, timely military response,” he said.

But those new revamped plans are not in place yet.

On the surface, these two messages seem contradictory. On the one hand, Bennett is saying Israel has run out of patience and will take action when need be, yet on the other hand, there was an orchestrated message being broadcast that while Jerusalem may be willing to move on this matter, it is not yet ready.

If in 2011 Israel was apparently able but not willing, now – according to these two messages – it is willing but not able.

Going on the assumption – a safe one – that Bennett’s message and the one that appeared on Friday were coordinated, one simple question must be asked: Why?

Why say you’re ready to attack on one day, yet on the other say you are not? Perhaps to send a message to the US and the world community that they still have some time to try and block Iran’s nuclear march through diplomatic means, but that this period is not unlimited, and that when Israel gets a plan in place, it will be willing to act.

Not surprisingly, these two messages emerged just days before high-level US-Israel talks focusing on Iran. National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata arrived in Washington for talks Tuesday with his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan, to discuss Iran. This will be the third meeting between the two, who will be joined by officials from various security and intelligence branches, since August, and attests to close coordination between the two countries even though the US aims to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran, while Israel believes this would be a grave mistake.

These meetings will be augmented by a scheduled meeting next week in Washington between Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Before those meetings, the US sent out messages of its own, both to the Iranians and to Israel.

In a message to the Iranians, a senior American official who briefed reporters before the Hulata-Sullivan meeting appeared to shoot down one of their new demands, floated over the weekend by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, that if the US wants to renew nuclear talks it would have to free up “at least $10 billion” in frozen assets. This is not going to happen, the official made clear.

And he also relayed a message to Israel saying that the US will tell Hulata’s team that while the Biden administration remains committed to diplomacy with Iran, if needed, it will pursue “other avenues” to make sure Tehran does not get nuclear weapons.

“We of course remain committed to a diplomatic path,” he said. “But obviously if that doesn’t work there are other avenues to pursue, and we are fully committed to ensuring that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon.”

The official, predictably, did not spell out what those other paths were, but this sounded very much like comments made at the beginning of the last decade by former president Barack Obama and administration officials pledging that while Washington preferred diplomacy, “all options were on the table” in keeping Iran from going nuclear.

Those comments were made at a time when Israel actually had a plan of attack and was designed as much to keep Israel from using it, as it was to scare off the Iranians. For if the US was considering military action, why would Israel want to risk it by itself?

Fast forward a decade, and administration officials are using very similar language, just substituting “not off the table” with “other avenues.” Might this be for the same purpose, to prevent Israel from implementing plans to attack once they have those plans revamped and ready to go?