IDF chief's Iran remarks do not signal war - analysis

Kochavi's message was more directed at Tehran than Washington.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi at a graduation ceremony of naval officers at the Haifa naval base in March (photo credit: FLASH90)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi at a graduation ceremony of naval officers at the Haifa naval base in March
(photo credit: FLASH90)
No one is going to war tomorrow.
In fact, very little is likely to happen decisively on the Iran issue before Israel’s March 23 elections.
Even if some partial or initial warming of relations between the US and the Islamic Republic starts after March 23, sanctions are not going to be fully lifted before Iranian elections in June. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines have been surprisingly explicit that any deal is far off.
For one, it will take time for Tehran to restart its compliance to the deal even once a decision is made, and the same is true about the highly complex sanctions regime.
So what is all of the fuss about the speech given by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi on Tehran last week? And might many observers have misunderstood that the main target could have been the ayatollahs even more than US President Joe Biden?
Most of the excitement seems to be about style.
Many were irked that the IDF chief made such strong comments, seemingly against the Biden administration, before talks between Jerusalem and Washington have even gotten off the ground.
There is an ongoing debate about whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his surrogates should confront Biden directly and publicly with their opposition to the US returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, like they did with former president Barack Obama, or whether they should try to focus privately on influencing the terms of any deal.
Ostensibly, Kochavi’s speech harmed attempts to go the quiet, private and cooperative influencing route. Except that Netanyahu abandoned that route before Biden took office. He has given numerous speeches since Biden was elected against any return to the deal.
The prime minister and his associates have on record and through leaks literally issued around a dozen statements loudly opposing US policy.
Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen has said it on record repeatedly, and Tzachi Hanegbi, nominally community affairs minister but viewed as a longtime confidante of Netanyahu, has essentially threatened almost certain war. Former Netanyahu national security adviser Yaakov Amidror has said the same.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that current National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat was deeply fearful of the impact of a Biden win on the Iran issue, and it is no coincidence that Mossad director Yossi Cohen, and not Ben-Shabbat, has been put forward as the public face of the talks.
The above are not the statements recommended by officials, such as former Mossad Iran desk chief Sima Shine and former IDF Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, who would have suggested saying nothing or almost nothing in public.
New Hope Party head Gideon Sa’ar has also spoken critically to the Post about Netanyahu’s public head-butting with Biden.
A leak to Israel Hayom a couple of weeks ago that the IDF was planning new attack operations against Iran’s nuclear program was not subtle, and it was obviously coordinated with Netanyahu, if not dropped by him.
Biden still has not spoken with Netanyahu directly.
According to a remarkable leak by Yediot Aharonot reporter Yossi Yehoshua on Sunday, even Cohen was upset by Kochavi’s style and his going public.
The Post has learned that Cohen was not happy about this leak against Kochavi.
But what is so bizarre about all of this is that Kochavi’s position is not nearly as hard-core against the ayatollahs as Netanyahu’s and Cohen’s.
He and his top generals, including recently retired IDF Intelligence analysis chief Dror Shalom, have repeatedly said publicly that they view Iran as still being two years away from a nuclear bomb, as opposed to Netanyahu and Cohen, who view the timeline as a matter of months up to just over half a year.
Former Israel atomic energy official Ephraim Asculai and Yadlin even wrote an extensive paper explaining how Kochavi, Netanyahu and Cohen could be so far apart about the timeline (though there is also some disagreement about whether Kochavi may be shifting his timeline).
So why did Kochavi deliver the speech the way he did?
It seems that he thought he had Netanyahu’s backing to do so, even if there was no formal coordination.
Further, it seems he was concerned to get the full budget to maintain a constant potential operational capability for hitting Iran, even as the coronavirus cuts everyone else’s budget to pieces.
Moreover, he did not want any of the parties involved in the nuclear issue to see daylight between him and Netanyahu as there was between Netanyahu a decade ago with the triumvirate of former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, then IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi and former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin.
All of these defense figures were willing to attack the Islamic Republic, but only if it was much closer to being able to fire a nuclear weapon, as opposed to the earlier point of if it was close to having developed enough uranium for a bomb, but still unable to launch a nuclear weapon.
So really the main argument between them and Netanyahu was about timing. As explained, this argument still exists.
In that case, what was the point of Kochavi’s speech?
Sure, it was all of the above issues and a general signaling to the US that Kochavi opposes returning to a slightly improved deal as much as Netanyahu.
But really the speech was probably directed even more so to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Regardless of the debates about timing, Kochavi wanted Khamenei to know that the same guy who has been bombing his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials and militias in Syria and Lebanon will not hesitate to bomb the nuclear program at some point if Iran gets too close.
This may have a greater impact on the negotiations than any attempt to pressure the US.
Iran had already given Biden an ultimatum about timing to pressure him to rush to a deal, and it has already backed off that first ultimatum.
It appears ready to back off of its ultimatum related to ordering the IAEA inspectors out by February 21 – an ultimatum nominally backed by a law from its own parliament.
The more the Islamic Republic’s redline positions are exposed, and the more it worries about being attacked by Israel for real, the more an improved nuclear deal might actually be improved in substantive ways.
It will not be anything close to what Israel or the Saudis would like.
But if even two of the five or so major loopholes Jerusalem and Riyadh want plugged from the 2015 deal are dealt with – say, limiting ballistic missiles and advanced centrifuges – Israel will be in a much better position.
In some ways, Kochavi’s threat to Iran could make a bigger difference than coming from Netanyahu, even if it ruffled feathers in Washington.