The Window of Opportunity for Curbing Iran is Gradually Closing
By Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead and Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | November, 2022
The aggravating threat
The continuous dragging of heels in the nuclear talks, and the military aid to Russia harbor potential for aggravating the Iranian threat to Israel on two central tracks – the development of the nuclear program, and improvement of offensive capabilities. The massive aid Iran provides to Russia with the supply of Shahed 136 attack drones and training for the operation thereof, as well as the possibility of supplying SSM and other warfare within the next few weeks significantly augment the Russian army’s force, and serves as a crucial component in the attacks recently carried out in Ukraine against military and infrastructure targets.
The step up in the collaboration between the two countries has strategic and operative implications. First and foremost, it creates growing Russian indebtedness to Iran and its willingness to assist it in a wide range of areas. On the military level, Russia could seek to provide advanced weapon systems (fighter jets, air-defense systems and technological know-how), and broaden ties into sensitive areas (such as intelligence and cyber). On the nuclear level, U.S. intelligence agencies have reported that Iran has asked for Russia’s help in the acquisition of nuclear materials, as well as the production of nuclear fuel, which could assist in the operation of nuclear reactors. At this stage, Russia’s answer remains unclear. Meanwhile, Russia has expressed its support for Iran’s positions in the negotiations over a new nuclear deal. On the economic level, both countries could learn from the other’s experience in coping with western sanctions, and identifying ways of circumventing them (e.g., with regard to using USD/Euro).
Moreover, it is likely that Iran is using Ukraine as an experiment field for upgrading the technical capabilities of its drones, and the perception of their operation against western defense systems so as to improve its abilities to strike targets (whether directly or via its allies) across the Middle East, including ones that are American, Saudi, or Israeli.
On the nuclear track, Iran continues to develop its capabilities in this area. Thus, , while taking advantage of the stagnation in negotiation over the last two months following its demand that the open IAEA inquiries against it on the remains of uranium found on three sites, which may indicate an engagement in a weapons-grade program, be shut down. According to the most recent quarterly report issued by the IAEA, Iran has considerably increased its quantities of 60%-enriched uranium. In fact, the current state of affairs, whereby, on the one hand, there is no deal, while on the other hand, the west has no desire to declare the talks a failure, is the most dangerous and problematic for Israel, since Iran can keep progressing with its nuclear program, particularly with regard to the accumulation of highly-enriched fissile material, and with no fear of punitive measures imposed by the West. Should Russia agree to meet Iran’s nuclear requests, such a step could help Tehran reduce the time required to develop a bomb as part of a breakout scenario.
It seems that the Iranian aid to Russia (particularly if missiles will be provided), and the brutal suppression of riots in Iran (alongside the latter’s demands as part of the negotiations) have significantly reduced the chances of reaching an agreement in the foreseeable future. It is hard to see how President Biden, who waves the banner of fighting human right violation, and has recently been harshly criticized domestically for his attitude toward the Saudi Crown Prince, would adopt a forgiving approach toward the Iranian regime, and willingly return to the negotiating table in the absence of a fundamental change in Iranian conduct. A manifestation of this view may be found in the statement made by U.S. Special Envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, whereby the administration has no intention of “spending time” on the nuclear talks, although he did leave an opening when he said that the president has yet to give up on the diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement.
The required response
To address these processes, the new government should prioritize the need to formulate a comprehensive strategy for curbing the aggravating threat posed by Iran as soon as possible, since the time to stop the nuclear program is running out. It should do so while utilizing the military aid to Russia and violent suppression of Iranian riots, both of which infuriate the U.S. administration (as well as Europe), presenting Israel with an opportunity to promote a range of activities vis-à-vis the Iranian regime.
Nevertheless, the new government, which, at present, is a cause for concern for both the West and Arab world, will have to show sensitivity and caution in potentially implosive issues (primarily its attitude toward the Palestinians and Temple Mount) in order to focus its relations with the United States and gulf states on collaborations designed to curb Iran, instead of on conflicts that will increase distrust, and project on the attention given to the Iranian issue, as well as the willingness to join forces with Israel.
From a practical perspective, Israel should take action in several circles. In the broader circle vis-à-vis the United States, the new government should actively preserve and even deepen its strategic and security coordination with the White House, which is crucial to any plan designed to curb the Iranian nuclear program. While doing so, it should ensure that trust is built, disagreements discussed behind the scenes, and oppositional steps that could project onto the U.S. administration’s willingness to agree to Israeli demands in general, and in the Iranian sphere in particular, avoided.
In the regional circle, Israel should seek to broaden its security ties with the gulf states, and deepen its multilateral partnerships with them as well as the United States against the threat posed by Iran. While doing so, it should, of course, realize that an escalation of its relations with the Palestinians could also project onto its ability to promote collaborations with the gulf states, certainly those with public visibility.
Vis-à-vis Ukraine, Israel should promote a clandestine partnership that would enable it to gain thorough knowledge of the drones’ capabilities (as well as those of any other weapons provided) from both a technological and operative perspective in order to improve both countries’ ability to defend themselves. At the same time, the new Israeli government should employ a cautious policy, and refrain from supplying air-defense systems to Ukraine, for fear that its relations with Russia be considerably impeded, since Russia could cause severe damage to Israeli national and security interests (primarily, the freedom of action in Syria, that has not been limited despite Russia’s growing closeness with Iran). The warnings conveyed by senior Russian officials whereby the supply of air-defense systems to Ukraine would cause significant detriment to the bilateral relations demonstrate the existing combustibility.
Meanwhile, Israel should promote a cognitive and economic campaign against the Iranian regime that would lead to a considerable exacerbation of the economic distress, and aggravate the internal threat to the regime’s stability. The campaign should focus on exposing the regime’s viciousness and lies, as well as the war crimes it has been perpetrating with Russia against the Ukrainian people, circumventing western sanctions. It should also convey the message whereby no country in Europe or the Middle East is immune to Iranian aggression, and therefore, they should all collaborate determinedly to curb the growing threat it poses.
To conclude, Israel currently faces a series of strategic and security challenges, primarily Iran’s pursuit of threshold nuclear capabilities, and the combustibility of the Palestinian arena, which pose a tangible threat to its national security. These challenges do not allow for a “time out”, requiring the formulation of an all-encompassing strategy as soon as possible. The new government is beginning its term in office at a problematic starting point, as the West and Arab world are wary of it. Thus, it must exhibit political wisdom combined with military might to successfully navigate itself in view of the approaching storms. First and foremost, it is required to avoid steps (particularly vis-à-vis the Palestinians) that would lead it to clash with the Democratic administration and gulf states in a way that could render it difficult to join forces against the aggravating threat posed by Iran. In addition, due to the concern over an Iranian breakout scenario or Russian-assisted shortcuts on the way to achieving nuclear capabilities, the IDF should accelerate its force buildup and growth, which also rely on financial aid from the United States and a close collaboration with it, thus further honing the new government’s need to build trust with the U.S. administration.
Authored by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) and Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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