“I have come back to office … for one main reason,” Benjamin Netanyahu said after winning his sixth term as prime minister, “to do everything I can to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons.”
Governments come and go in Israel, but the Iranian problem remains. Not only does the mullah regime present an ongoing strategic challenge for Israel’s new leadership, but the stakes are getting higher.
Netanyahu highlighted the threat during his speech at the ceremony on January 16 as Herzi Halevi took over as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff.
“Iran is responsible for 90% of the problems in the Middle East. This regime threatens to destroy us. We will not wait for a sharp sword to be placed on our necks. The IDF and the Shin Bet and the Mossad will do whatever it takes (to prevent this).”Benjamin Netanyahu
“Iran is responsible for 90% of the problems in the Middle East. This regime threatens to destroy us. We will not wait for a sharp sword to be placed on our necks. The IDF and the Shin Bet and the Mossad will do whatever it takes (to prevent this),” Netanyahu said.
“We will not be dragged into unnecessary wars, but on the decisive day we will fight. We will have to show a willingness to sacrifice in order to maintain our freedom, our security, and our very existence,” he added.
More than just nuclear: Iran's multifaceted threat to Israel and the region
Iran’s drive toward a nuclear bomb is the most alarming element of the Iranian threat, but the Islamic Republic’s meddling in the internal affairs of states across the region, using local proxies, also remains a cause for concern for Israel. The annual report for 2023 presented by the IDF Intelligence directorate to Israeli leaders noted that in Gaza, Iran is the exclusive financial benefactor of the Islamic Jihad and the main funding source for Hamas.
In the northern arena, the directorate concluded that Iran is resigned to the fact that it had failed in its effort to establish a foothold in Syria, although it will continue to arm Hezbollah – especially with precision-guided munitions – but also by supplying it with cruise missiles and precision-guided armed UAVs, similar to those that it has been supplying Russia in its war against Ukraine.
At the same time the directorate predicted that in 2023, Hezbollah will continue to be mainly preoccupied with internal Lebanese matters and will therefore be deterred from a military confrontation with Israel.
The multifaceted Iranian threat was the focus of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s recent phone conversation with his US counterpart Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
He highlighted the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, regional aggression and proliferation of advanced accurate weapons. Gallant emphasized the importance of international cooperation in order to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability, warning that a nuclear Iran threatens not only Israel but the entire international community.
He also stressed the importance of expanding the Abraham Accords to additional countries and deepening Israel’s existing strategic and military cooperation with regional partners, under US leadership.
Hopes are waning that international sanctions, combined with the popular protest movement that swept across Iran in 2022, would finally lead to regime change. Many analysts argued that such hopes were wishful thinking and that the hijab protests, courageous as they were, never reached a level that endangered the regime.
The protests in Iran were triggered by the September 16 death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, following her arrest by morality police for an alleged breach of the Islamic Republic’s dress code for women. However, amidst a brutal crackdown and a series of public hangings, all the signs in early 2023 indicated that the protests were losing momentum. Despite the domestic unrest and chronic economic woes, Tehran continues to press ahead with its nuclear program.
Iran has long said that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, but the International Atomic Energy Agency – the UN’s nuclear watchdog – says it cannot confirm this, partly because there has been “no progress” in resolving questions about the past presence of nuclear material at undeclared sites.
The administration of Donald Trump, encouraged by Netanyahu, withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in 2018. Iran began violating the agreement two years later, making worrying progress in enrichment, overcoming technological obstacles and coming very close to obtaining enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.
“We will act powerfully and openly on the international level against the return to the nuclear agreement — not only in talks with leaders behind closed doors but also powerfully and openly in the arena of global public opinion,” Netanyahu said, addressing ministers at the new government’s inaugural cabinet meeting.
Reviving the Iran nuclear deal is off the table
Efforts by the international community to revive the nuclear deal appeared to be gaining momentum last year, but the prevailing assessment now is that a deal is off the table. Washington claims that Tehran “killed the opportunity” to revive the nuclear agreement months ago.
Speaking at a joint press conference with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in mid-January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Iran rejected a deal to revive the nuclear agreement offered by the world powers last August.
“With regard to the JCPOA, the Iranians killed the opportunity to come back to that agreement swiftly many months ago. There was an opportunity on the table that they rejected, an opportunity that was approved by all who were involved – the Europeans, the United States, Russia and China even at the time,” he said.
And, he made clear, the nuclear agreement is no longer a priority for Washington. “It’s not our focus. We’re focused on what’s happening in Iran. We’re focused on what Iran is doing in terms of the provision of weapons to Russia to use against innocent people and the entire energy grid in Ukraine,” Blinken stressed.
“It’s not our focus. We’re focused on what’s happening in Iran. We’re focused on what Iran is doing in terms of the provision of weapons to Russia to use against innocent people and the entire energy grid in Ukraine.”Antony Blinken
The regional impact of Russia’s growing military alliance with Iran and efforts to form a joint Israeli American strategy against Tehran was high on the agenda during Netanyahu’s talks with visiting US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in January.
“Our talks focused on the regional security challenges, especially Iran, as well as ways for cooperation between us against this common threat,” Netanyahu told the cabinet on January 22. ”I must say that regarding the meetings, I was impressed that there is a genuine and mutual desire to reach understandings on this issue, which is of decisive importance to the security of the state. The discussions on the issue will be held between Jerusalem and Washington in the coming weeks.”
Blinken is due in Jerusalem for discussions in the coming weeks ahead of the prime minister’s trip to Washington, expected in February where, once again, the focus will be on how to combat the Iranian threat. But how ready is Israel for a military confrontation with Iran? After Naftali Bennett took over as prime minister in 2021, he said he discovered “total neglect” when it came to preparing an Israeli military option against Iran.
Bennett, together with defense minister Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, who replaced Bennett as prime minister, said Netanyahu believed that former president Trump would order a US strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This belief, combined with the fact that years passed without a budget being approved during Israel’s period of ongoing political instability, led to a delay in the plans to thwart Iran.
The Bennett-Gantz governments allocated billions of dollars for the training and acquisition of munitions and directed the IDF to redraw strike plans, including the targeting of nuclear sites deep inside Iran.
Before leaving office late last year, Gantz said Israel has the capability to conduct a military operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“There has been a very significant increase in the range of targets in Iran. We’ve conducted two major exercises in the past six months. In the near future, we’ll conduct a third exercise,” outgoing IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi said before leaving office. “The preparation level has improved. If and when an Israeli government decides to act, I believe this capability will be mature.”
A military strike remains, of course, a high-risk strategy for Israeli decision-makers. It remains to be seen how much damage an attack could inflict and if such an action would result in more than a temporary halt to Iran’s nuclear program. Even if Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz and Fordow are destroyed, the technical knowledge already obtained by the regime remains intact.
The likelihood of a massive Iranian response, both directly and via H\ezbollah forces in Lebanon, must also be taken into account.
“The best strategy now would be to further intensify the economic sanctions on Iran and to build up a military option not only of Israel,” Kohavi said. “Then maybe the total of these pressures would bring them to a situation as in 2003, when they decided to suspend the military aspect of the nuclear program.”
The violent suppression of the protests in Iran and Tehran’s military support for Russia following the invasion of Ukraine have created a rare opportunity for Israeli diplomacy. In the past, Israeli calls for stepped-up sanctions and to declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ideological arm of Iran’s armed forces, as a terror group have been met with indifference in the international community.
European Union foreign ministers are now ready to endorse tightening sanctions on Tehran, and the European parliament has moved to place the IRGC on a terror blacklist. The parliament cited the IRGC’s “terrorist activity, repression of protesters, and supply of drones to Russia” in its blacklisting call.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed support for listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization to respond to the “trampling of fundamental human rights” in the country.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen praised the parliament’s decision, describing it as an important step in the struggle against the Iranian regime. “Iran exports terror to the entire globe, and the Revolutionary Guard is the largest terror organization in the world. I’ve raised the issue in policy discussions with foreign ministers and leaders since entering this role,” he tweeted.
The sea change in EU policy on Iran was also reflected in several European capitals, where moves are underway to act against the IRGC.
The Biden administration has pledged that it will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb, and President Biden has also stated that the US will not hesitate to attack Iran “as a last resort.” However, the administration to date has largely avoided Middle East issues, and Washington’s foreign policy priorities remain the Ukraine war and China. The last thing it needs at this juncture is the possibility of a military confrontation between Israel and Iran. Despite the growing willingness of the international community to step up sanctions on Tehran, the world still believes that diplomacy is the best option in dealing with the Iranian nuclear danger.
Netanyahu’s challenge at this juncture is to ensure that the international community, led by Washington, is on board when it comes to building up a credible military threat to stop Iran’s race toward the bomb.
But the new government’s radical domestic agenda may make it difficult to enlist the support of the overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community and traditional allies within the Democratic party.
The attacks on the judiciary, possible measures against the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism, discrimination against the LGBT community, expanding settlements, and tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem will only make it more difficult for Netanyahu to generate the international backing he seeks for his Iran strategy. ■