In his article, “Looking Straight in the Eyes of the Iranian Reality,” former prime minister Ehud Barak correctly analyzes the status of the Iranian nuclear project. His conclusion, however, according to which we have reached the point of no return, is wrong.
I am familiar with the Iranian nuclear project and have followed it since my tenure as the head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman) in the 1990s. There’s no doubt it is in an advanced phase, mainly due to the erroneous policy of former US president Donald Trump and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was signed in 2015, was a severe mistake. Unfortunately, this is not just wisdom in retrospect – since I have warned against this problematic decision even before it was taken in 2018. In the case that Trump made the decision with the encouragement (and some say – “push”) of Netanyahu, then Israel has responsibility for this mistake as well.
The US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA enabled the Iranian regime to unleash itself from the constraints of the agreement, accelerate its uranium enrichment and accumulate more than 3,000 kg. (6,615 lb.) of enriched uranium at different levels (20% and 60%). Consequently, it got as close as one month from accumulating an amount of enriched material that will enable the production of a nuclear bomb (according to The New York Times, which quoted a respected American think tank). Moreover, this move was made against the clear understanding between the P5+1 countries, as well as the strong coalition that former US president Barack Obama’s administration formed.
Let me be clear. The 2015 agreement was undoubtedly worse than what we have aspired to and believed is in reach, in light of the Iranian plights. It was a historical mistake in this sense. But a historical mistake is preferable to entirely unleashing Iran from its constraints. Such a move was understandable, though, if Trump and Netanyahu had prepared an alternative plan in case the Iranians would break (as they did) the agreement. However, reality proved they had not.
Indeed, the Iranian nuclear project is in its most advanced phase since its inception in the 1990s, but I do not accept the notion it reached the point of no return, as Barak argues. Accepting that argument is to accept the idea of an Iranian bomb as an irreversible reality, fait accompli, against which there is nothing do to. Had the Iranian regime ignored the pressure it faced during those years, it likely would have already acquired military nuclear capabilities – but that was not the case.
To reach military nuclear capabilities, the Iranians must decide to produce a bomb. However, in two crucial points in the current regime’s history, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decided to suspend the project’s progress: in 2003, Khamenei did so for fear that the third target of the US following 9/11 – after Afghanistan and Iraq – would be Iran (simultaneously, Muammar Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear project, without a single shot fired, for fear that Libya will be attacked). In 2012, Khamenei reached the “bomb or regime survival” dilemma due to substantial financial, political and military pressure. His willingness to negotiate with the American government (the “Big Satan”) required some apologetic explanations on his end, but it seemed he had no choice. Unfortunately, poor management of the talks by the Obama administration yielded the above-mentioned bad agreement.
Thus, the Iranian regime should be brought to the same “bomb or regime survival” dilemma. But how exactly?
First, Israel should maintain strong coordination with the American government, as the current Israeli government – unlike the previous one – does.
While doing so, we must cease talking about returning to the old agreement, which was wrong and is no longer relevant. Gladly, it seems that US President Joe Biden’s administration begins to grasp this notion.
Moreover, the American administration must be convinced to restore the coalition Trump broke and concentrate its efforts in forming a three-tiered policy: (1) political isolation of the Iranian regime; (2) severe economic sanctions (primary, secondary and tertiary); (3) preparing a credible military option.
The challenge of forming a coalition is not a simple one; however, it is not impossible. Russia and China, too, were convinced back in 2010 it would better for them to partner with the pressure and sanction Iran. They must be convinced that the American administration is currently determined to execute a similar move and they should join it, otherwise, they will suffer a heavy economic price. The superficial discussion between a full-fledged military offensive or a nuclear Iran, is sinful to the point, in this sense.
Unless forfeiting basic interests, the State of Israel cannot accept a nuclear Iran, nor can the Middle East, Europe and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, in the past five years, different regimes and governments had postponed the “decision” to their successors instead of dealing with the challenge themselves. The government of Israel must discuss this urging matter with the American administration as soon as possible.
The author is an IDF lieutenant-general (res.), past IDF chief of staff and former defense minister.