Is a nuclear Iran an existential threat?

A selection from Haim Ramon’s upcoming book provides his inside look into history as a longtime minister

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin  Netanyahu delivers a statement to the  press regarding the Iranian nuclear  program, September 2019. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press regarding the Iranian nuclear program, September 2019.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The following story is an excerpt from Haim Ramon’s upcoming book in English, Gambling on Israel’s Existence – A Cabinet Minister’s Inside Account of Israel’s History.

Haim Ramon was born in 1950 in Jaffa to parents who were Holocaust survivors from Poland. After serving as secretary of the Labor Party youth wing, he became an MK in 1983 and remained there until 2009, serving as minister of health, minister of interior and justice minister.

Iran’s nuclear program has topped Israel’s security agenda since the early 2000s. When I returned to the government in the summer of 2007, I joined the forum of ministers dealing with the issue. During a meeting of the forum, the possibility of a strike on Iran’s uranium enrichment plants to thwart its plans to develop a nuclear bomb was discussed.

Looking at a map of the Middle East hanging in the room, I asked myself where, in view of Iran’s enormous size, in the world there was a power capable of causing the regime to give up its nuclear program. From time to time the argument is made that one cannot but think what Iran is doing right under the noses of the world’s powers. I recalled the rumor – one that everyone is familiar with – that a young and tiny country, located about halfway between Morocco and Oman, had, against all the odds, developed a nuclear potential after its leader vowed to ensure it had a deterrent capability against external threats. One of the motivations that had driven the leader of that small country to obtain nuclear capabilities was the holocaust that had befallen his people just a few years earlier.

The leader of this rebellious country managed to stand up to all the pressure and achieve his goal. He was helped by his belief in his country’s urgent need to deter its enemies, deterrence that would only be significant if it held the nuclear capabilities attributed to it.

As every Israeli knows, foreign sources swear that the tiny country is none other than Israel. So, while looking at the map, I thought to myself that despite various differences, a comparison between Israel and Iran is not unreasonable.

Can we really ensure that Iran, whose territory is 80 times larger than Israel’s, and which has a population some 10 times bigger, won’t be able to hide its activities in such a wide area; that it won’t be able to go “under the international radar,” hide operations at one of its many sites, and achieve its nuclear ambitions? Once a country has decided to develop nuclear weapons, it is almost impossible to prevent it doing so. All the more so when we are talking about a country the size of Iran, which has a developed economic and technological infrastructure.

Following that meeting, I spoke with the then-director of Mossad [from 2002-2001], Meir Dagan, who was concerned about the progress Iran was making with its nuclear program. I asked him whether he believed Iran wouldn’t be able to hide its nuclear expansion.

“So, what do you suggest?” asked Dagan.

“Israel has made three cardinal errors concerning the nuclear armament of our enemies,” I replied. “The first: Mossad had no idea about Libya’s nuclear program. The second: Military Intelligence made a big mistake claiming that Saddam Hussein has sufficient unconventional weapons to commit genocide, when, in truth, Iraq had no such weapons. The third: It was only toward the end of 2006 that Military Intelligence and Mossad discovered Syria’s nuclear reactor – some five years after work on it had commenced.

 HAIM RAMON: Inside account.  (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90) HAIM RAMON: Inside account. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

The conclusion is that Israel and the West’s information on Iran’s nuclear reactor is partial at best.”

I will talk more about Dagan’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue later. In that conversation I told Dagan that the lesson to be learned is that some things are “too big for Israel.” It cannot prevent them because the toll in blood for doing so will be too heavy. Therefore, we should completely reject the idea of a direct attack on Iran, and focus on ways of indirectly undermining its nuclear program and deterring the regime in Tehran from using nuclear weapons that it may possess in the future.

My statement supported the policy led by Ariel Sharon and later adopted by Ehud Olmert. This policy was based on creating a strategic alliance with the US on the Iranian nuclear issue. An alliance that would enable Israel to better promote its interests.

From the Israeli perspective, the alliance was aimed at achieving three main goals: First, to ensure that the international community imposed strict sanctions against Iran to deter it from advancing with its nuclear program. Second, to ensure that the Americans would give backing to covert operations aimed at delaying Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold country. Third, to ensure that the US compensated Israel strategically, diplomatically, militarily and economically on the day Iran reaches the nuclear threshold, and that the Americans accept the principle that a nuclear attack on Israel will be considered an attack on the US.

Iran itself has no visible reason to launch a nuclear attack on Israel or against any other country. It knows full well that the consequences will be grave if it does. Like other countries that have joined the nuclear arms race since the Second World War, Iran’s nuclear activities serve primarily to strengthen its standing and to create a balance of terror with its neighbors and other countries. For that purpose, Iran does not even need a bomb. As a nuclear threshold country, it will have achieved its goal. Therefore, as long as the balance of power is maintained and Iran knowns that it will pay a heavy price if it challenges the nuclear status-quo, there is no reason to assume it will.

Meir Dagan knew how to read the map, and had a decisive contribution to the policy developed by Sharon and Olmert.

During my term as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as a minister in Sharon’s second government, and during my term in the Olmert government, I too was exposed to the Dagan doctrine.

Dagan was opposed to bombing Iran’s uranium enrichment plans, and argued that it was possible to delay the maturation of Iran’s pre-nuclear activities by pinpoint covert operations.

This, he believed, was the desired course of action. Both Olmert and Sharon supported this point of view. However, throughout Dagan’s term as Mossad director, Israel never once confirmed that it had been behind actions against Iran.

Beginning in 2007, foreign sources reported a series of incidents that hit Iran’s nuclear program. These included mysterious explosions, computer worms and viruses that infected Iranian centrifuges, and the deaths of several nuclear scientists in accidents, plane crashes and other strange occurrences.

 ‘LOOKING AT a map of the Middle East, I asked myself where in the world there was a power capable of causing the regime to give up its nuclear program. (credit: GOOGLE MAPS) ‘LOOKING AT a map of the Middle East, I asked myself where in the world there was a power capable of causing the regime to give up its nuclear program. (credit: GOOGLE MAPS)

Dagan never once admitted that Israel was involved in any of these incidents, but when I asked him from time to time if he could say with certainty how long the Iranians could be kept from developing a bomb, he would answer: “Divine intervention will make sure that the Iranians won’t have a bomb for at least the next two years.”

The doctrine of “divine intervention” was supported throughout the senior levels of the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment, as well as by Israel’s allies. It proved its efficacy and led to repeated delays in the Iranian nuclear program.

AFTER RETURNING to power in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu reshaped Israel’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue. Unlike his predecessors, who adopted a pragmatic and sober approach, making sure to nurture the alliance with the US, Netanyahu saw Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat. Defying logic and common sense, he damaged Israel’s supremely important strategic alliance with the U.S.

Immediately after being elected, Netanyahu declared that if the world couldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear program, Israel would bomb its uranium enrichment plans. From 2009-2011, the IDF received instructions to prepare for a strike, and on two occasions – in 2010 and 2011 – Netanyahu was on the verge of giving the order and convened the security-political cabinet to authorize the operation.

The idea was completely unrealistic, and publicly threatening to strike Iran’s nuclear sites harmed Israel’s interests. As the entire defense establishment made clear to Netanyahu, bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would not eliminate its nuclear program, but at best would put it back by a year to 18 months, and certainly not more than two years.

What’s more, an Israeli strike would have disastrous consequences.

First, Iran would be highly unlikely to contain a strike without a harsh response of its own, one that could lead to a war that would claim a heavy price. Second, an Israeli strike would give the Iranians legitimization to publicly declare that they are developing a nuclear bomb as a deterrent against aggression. The greatest disaster from Israel’s perspective would be an international consensus that Iran has the right to nuclear weapons. Netanyahu’s constant threats did nothing but harm to Israel.

In the summer of 2012, Netanyahu and [then-defense minister Ehud] Barak created the unequivocal impression among the public and the media that they were about to order a strike on Iran. Then-president Shimon Peres, who was vehemently opposed to the idea, did the best he could, given the limitations of his position, to thwart the strike plans.

On a Friday afternoon in July 2012, Peres asked to meet with me. He expressed his fears about Netanyahu and Barak’s intentions. “Don’t worry, Shimon,” I said. “I’ve known those two for a long time and there is no way they are going to strike.”

“What makes you so sure,” Peres challenged me.

 IRANIAN PRESIDENT Ebrahim  Raisi visits the Bushehr nuclear  power plant, October 8 (credit: Official Presidential Website/Handout via Reuters) IRANIAN PRESIDENT Ebrahim Raisi visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant, October 8 (credit: Official Presidential Website/Handout via Reuters)

“Neither of them is cut from the right material. Neither of them will be ready to take responsibility for such a daring and dangerous operation. Certainly not when the whole world opposes it.”

Being so familiar with the personalities, my evaluation was clear cut: “They won’t act.”

Nevertheless, Peres asked me to do my best to recruit public opinion against a strike. That was what I did.

Netanyahu and Barak didn’t pull the trigger. Israel didn’t attack. My intuition was based on their stand on previous occasions.

AFTER BEING elected for a third term [as prime minister] in 2013, Netanyahu dropped his threatening rhetoric, and appointed Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon as his defense minister.

Ya’alon was, to say the least, not enthused with the idea of Israel launching a strike on Iran. It was clear to all that Israel wasn’t going to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and that the enormous resources invested in preparing for a strike, even if some were diverted to other security needs, had gone down the drain. Nevertheless, while he may have stopped making direct threats against Iran, Netanyahu had not been exorcised of his Iranian dybbuk. It was simply channelled elsewhere: A superfluous and destructive clash with the US over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear accords signed with Iran in 2015.

From 2013 to 2015 the international community, under the leadership of the US, negotiated with Iran to achieve an agreement that would require the regime to pare back its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of the sanctions that were imposed on it in the first decade of the 21st century, and severely tightened in 2010. Reality proved that even when the Iranians were hit hard by sanctions, they didn’t stop their nuclear quest, and so the powers decided to reach an alternative solution. Netanyahu may have liked to boast that his firm opposition along the years to the agreement with Iran led to tighter sanctions against it, but in 2009, when he came to power for a second time, the Iranians had three tons of uranium enriched at a low level, and by 2015, on the eve of the JCPOA agreement, they already had 14 tons. In 2009, Iran had 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges, but by 2015 it had 19,000 centrifuges, most of them far more sophisticated than the previous generation.

In 2009, Iran wasn’t a threshold nuclear state, but according to various intelligence reports, including by Israeli intelligence, by mid-2015 it was already three to six months away from the point of no return where it could manufacture a nuclear bomb.

The sanctions regime didn’t force Iran to stop its nuclear program. The nuclear accords on the other hand required Iran to stop working on a bomb for a period of at least 10 years. It promised Iran that if it kept its part of the agreement, it wouldn’t be subject to sanctions, and created an incentive for it to halt its nuclear program.

However, instead of Israel playing a part in the international effort to reach an agreement and attempting to shape it in a way that would best serve its interests, Netanyahu ruled out the idea from the start. His conduct was impractical as it was clear from the start that all countries, in particular Israel, had an interest in the agreement being signed – and that it was the best means possible for putting the brakes on the Iranian nuclear program. Despite that, during the period of the negotiations, Netanyahu declared that no agreement was better than a bad agreement.

 MEIR DAGAN [left, at a 2008 Knesset  Security and Foreign Affairs Committee  meeting] knew how to read the map.’  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) MEIR DAGAN [left, at a 2008 Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting] knew how to read the map.’ (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

In early 2015, the key points of the accords were agreed upon, and it became clear they would be signed. The months that passed until the formal signature in July of that year gave time for amendments.

Even though it was already apparent to Netanyahu that he wouldn’t be able to prevent the agreement, he decided – as part of his election campaign for the 20th Knesset – to travel to Washington and rally against the agreement in a speech to Congress, over the objections of US president Barack Obama, who saw the move as a grave breach of trust. The trip to Washington was the peak of a march of folly on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Netanyahu’s arguments against the agreements were baseless, and the measures he took cost Israel heavily – politically and economically.

In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu chose to stress that the accords would only limit Iran’s nuclear program for a period of 10 years, and give it license to manufacture a nuclear bomb at the end of that period.

This was nothing more than pure demagoguery, as postponing for a decade the fruition of Iran’s nuclear program was the best alternative available. To make the point clearer, if Israel were to have bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities, its nuclear program would have been delayed by only a year to a year-and-a-half. Netanyahu’s claim that an agreement shouldn’t be signed with Iran because it is a state that supports and instigates terrorism was also no more than an attempt to mislead. The agreement did not in any way prevent the fight against Iranian terrorism, and did not limit the powers, or Israel, in this respect.

The gravest impact of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was the harm it dealt to Israel’s relations with the US. Had Netanyahu acted wisely and in line with his country’s interests, he would have seen in the agreement being formulated a golden opportunity for Israel to improve its relations with the American administration. Instead of opposing the agreement, Netanyahu should have leveraged it, and in exchange for his support demanded from president Obama billions of dollars in increased military aid for Israel, and tighter cooperation in the battle against terrorism, and against Iranian terrorism in particular.

WITH THE change of administration in the US in January 2017, Netanyahu launched a campaign of pressure and persuasion aimed at influencing Donald Trump to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. In May 2018, those efforts paid off and Trump announced the US would withdraw from the nuclear accords and reimpose the sanctions lifted within the framework of the agreement. But Netanyahu’s “success” had disastrous consequences, pushing the situation back to that which existed prior to 2015. The American withdrawal led to the renewal of the Iranian nuclear program. As a result, the IDF senior staff is once again seeking resources for a possible strike on Iran.

In an article published on the Ynet website in May 2018 titled “The Return of the Bomb,” I wrote that the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA could lead to the renewal of the Iranian nuclear program from the point at which it had been stopped. Unfortunately, it was a prophesy that came true: An IAEA report from August 2021 determined that since Trump had withdrawn from the nuclear accords in May 2018, Iran had produced 200 grams of uranium metal that can be used in the core of a nuclear bomb and also produced more than 120 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium and 10-15 kg of 60% enriched uranium.

In May 2021, Israeli intelligence sources had assessed that Iran has enough uranium for three bombs once it makes the short step from 60% enrichment to 90%. In August, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Iran was now just 10 weeks away from breakout to acquiring weapons-grade materials necessary for a nuclear weapon.

Israel, without a doubt has reason for grave concern.

 BURNING PICTURES of then-US President-elect Joe Biden and US president Donald Trump during a demonstration  against the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, November 2020. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS) BURNING PICTURES of then-US President-elect Joe Biden and US president Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, November 2020. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS)

But we should take note, that just a few years ago, in 2016, Military Intelligence stated that the Iranian nuclear issue had been “put to sleep” for a long time.

Anyone who deludes themselves that starvation will cause the Islamic regime to renounce the nuclear option, has learned nothing from the harsh sanctions imposed on Iran from 2010-2015. Dr. Raz Zimmt, one of the leading experts on Iran, wrote in May 2020 that “despite enormous economic privations, Iran is sticking to its main strategic goals, primarily the advancement of its nuclear program, development of long-range missiles and expanding its regional influence.

In the perception of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, threshold military nuclear capability and long-range missiles constitute a vital ‘insurance policy’ for the continued survivability of the regime.

Khamenei is aware of the economic distress suffered by his country, but is firm in his belief that the solution to the crisis lies in the ‘resistance economy.’” It is a pity that members of the security establishment who believe that the American withdrawal from the accords is bad for Israel did not make their voice heard and did not warn of the inherent dangers.

It is clear to all today that Netanyahu’s ploys to get the US to leave the agreement led to Iran today being closer than ever to becoming a nuclear threshold state. This was Netanyahu’s greatest security failing.

But it was not only Netanyahu’s failing. The new government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which replaced him in June 2021, blamed Netanyahu for his strategic shortcomings in dealing with Iran. However, Bennett stood enthusiastically behind the prime minister when he pushed Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018. And many of those who now criticize Netanyahu remained silent at the time.

The Bennett-Lapid government should work to get the US to renew the agreement beyond its original scope. This is the only policy that can prevent the continuing and dangerous deterioration in the region with regard to the nuclear issue that commenced with the US withdrawal from the accords. There must be a return to the policy of Sharon and Olmert, namely that when it comes to the Iranian question, Israel works with the international community and not against it – so that a return to status quo ante of May 2018 prior to the withdrawal from the agreement is renewed and Iran returns to meet the conditions of the JCPOA.

And of course, Israel should continue with a policy of “divine intervention.”