As Israel’s general elections draw near, the ongoing political conflict revolves around several issues, chief among them Israel’s security. It is this issue that puts Iran and its proxy militias at the center of this internal electoral struggle. This was clearly reflected in Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The Iranian file has taken hold of important parts of the speech.
Among these parts stands out the statement, “It is a murderous dictatorship that is making every effort to get a nuclear weapon. If the Iranian regime gets a nuclear weapon, they will use it. The only way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is to put a credible military threat on the table. Then and only then to negotiate a longer and stronger deal with them. It needs to be made clear to Iran that if it advances its nuclear program, the world will not respond with words but with military force. Every time a threat like that was put on the table in the past, Iran stopped and retreated.”
These lines clearly signal two important things. First, the Israeli prime minister was clear about the need to reconcile the carrot-and-stick approach in any negotiation strategy with Iran. That is, a credible military threat ups the chances of serious negotiations on Iran’s nuclear activities.
This is one of the shortcomings that the current United States negotiating strategy suffers from.
Second, Lapid is convinced that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will use them. This assertion may include some overstatement, necessary in this regard, to increase pressure on the international community and to convey Israel’s real sense of insecurity, along with the Iranian nuclear threat, to others, especially those who believe in the limitations inherent in having a nuclear deterrent.
They believe that there are precise calculations in the matter that prevent even the thought of resorting to it under any circumstances other than an existential threat to the states. Here Lapid wants to draw attention to the different nature of the Iranian regime, which thinks in unusual ways and to which traditional theories of nuclear deterrence do not apply.
Lapid did not stop at the previous limit. Rather, he clearly considered resorting to a preemptive strike that would undo any Iranian nuclear threat.
“Israel does not have this privilege. This time we are not standing empty-handed against those who want to destroy us. The Jews, today, have a state. We have an army. We have great friendships, first and foremost with the US. We have capabilities and we are not afraid to use them. We will do whatever it takes: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. We will not stand by while there are those who try to kill us.”
I cannot take the political threat of a preemptive strike seriously, although it is analytically possible to assess the operational capability to carry it out.
But in all cases, it sounds a sensible diplomatic proposal, whether to preserve Israel’s right to defend itself and protect its people or to convey to others a sense of the gravity of the situation and to take the Israeli proposal as seriously as it deserves to be taken.
That is, does the recurrence of this threat push Iran’s nuclear efforts forward or does it help to reduce the hard line of Iranian negotiations in pursuit of an umbrella nuclear agreement and delegitimize (from Tehran’s perspective) Israeli military action?
Israel's strategy against Iran
THE ANSWER is that Israeli threats have not and will not have the desired effect on Iranian political planners unless they are accompanied by a parallel US threat or even indications of implicit US approval or green light for a scenario of a possible Israeli preventive strike. That hasn’t happened, yet.
One could argue that the Biden administration cannot free Israel’s hand to strike Iran because of several overlapping considerations and factors, some of which have to do with the fear that the cycle of international conflict will widen due to the crisis in Ukraine.
Alas, the White House perhaps doesn’t want to be dragged into a new Middle East war if pro-Tehran proxies and militias retaliate against an Israeli attack against Iran.
To be objective, we must say that a US entry into any level of military conflict with Iran at the moment is a disastrous scenario for Washington, whether in terms of timing, consequences or outcome of that conflict and perhaps, a free gift to the US strategic adversaries and an ideal opportunity to respond to US support for Ukraine against Russia.
Israel, for its part, is certainly well aware of these calculations, as is Iran. The problem here remains that this makes Tehran perceive Israeli threats with a huge dose of coldness and, perhaps, derision.
This shows up in the continued provocation of Israel, which in turn traps it in a vicious circle of escalating threats, bringing it closer to the trap of being discredited by both internal and external public opinion. So what can be done? Israel finds itself in a bit of a critical strategic position.
It does not have much room to maneuver in order to prove its reliability and convey a threatening message to the other side (Iran), and to make sure that Iran receives it in the desired shape and seriousness. But the current regional and international environment dictates that Israel must wait for an official announcement on the fate of the negotiations on the nuclear deal.
But this waiting inevitably requires a Plan B, whether in case of a post-failure phase or even a freeze in negotiations. Iran will invariably keep beefing up its nuclear capabilities in anticipation of any reaction. I believe that Israeli threats to strike Iran are taken into account by Tehran, despite my previous assertion that they do not achieve the desired or targeted impact by Israel.
But its impact on Iran’s strategic planning often depends on an analysis of the US position, requiring Israel to focus on examining possible post-strike scenarios more than on calculating the strike itself. Iran thinks more about what it will do in a second strike than about the consequences and losses of a first strike.
The writer is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.