The Iranian Challenge
Threat & Response at a Crossroad


Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead   |  Gideon Frank

Dr. Shay Har-Zvi                       |  Dr. Ephraim Asculai


March, 2023 | Updated Virsion


Photo: | CC BY 4.0


The Israeli government has been facing the Iranian challenge since its first day in office due to the aggravating threat it poses to Israel. This threat is based on extreme ideology calling for Israel’s annihilation, alongside the development of capabilities designed to put this vision to practice, primarily the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the development of long-range missiles. In view of this challenge, we are required to explore what the government must do to curb Iran.



The nuclear program – Progress coupled with the aversion to a breakout


Iran has several assets that enable the progress it is making in the nuclear program. Teheran enjoys the fact that this issue does not rank high on the West’s priority list, for the latter is currently focused on more pressing matters (such as Ukraine, China, and energy), in a way that contributes to the West’s avoidance of escalating relations to the point of direct conflict. At the same time, there is also no extensive organized oversight mechanism in place over its activity since the United States had withdrawn from the JCPOA, leading Iran to cease its compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol.


The understandings on the inspection issues reached by the Director General of the IAEA, Grossi, during his recent visit to Tehran, should not significantly affect Iran's capabilities in the nuclear field or the project schedules.


As for enrichment, Iran currently possesses an amount of enriched uranium sufficient to produce one bomb in 12 days, as claimed by the US Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, Colin Kahl. Moreover, according to the IAEA inspectors, uranium particles were found in Iran to an enriched level of almost 84% (which is comparable in all respects to the "military" level of 90%). This is the highest level of enrichment found so far in Iran and the shortest period of time that has been estimated.


Iran has also announced that it had begun 60% enrichment at its underground Fordow facility, while continuing to enrich at this level in Natanz. Furthermore, the old centrifuges have been upgraded to newer ones, capable of enriching larger quantities of uranium faster.


At the same time, Iran is also continuing to develop a wide range of launch vehicles, and improve its ballistic missile capabilities, including the advancement of a space program. This program could allow Iran to use satellite launch vehicle technology in the manufacturing of ballistic missiles, which, according to reports, could be equipped in future with nuclear warheads. Moreover, the strategic axis with Russia could lead to the transfer of Russian systems and technologies, enhancing Iranian air-defense and missile capabilities.


However, Iran must also grapple with several constraints that are projecting, at least at present, on its ability to decide to break out in the nuclear field.


First among them is the combination of economic difficulties coupled with the concern over the magnitude of U.S. response. In addition, it is feeling stressed by the growing ties between Israel and its neighbors (the Gulf states, Azerbaijan, and Turkey). For now, it seems that the Iranian regime believes that the disadvantages that could stem from a direct conflict with the West outweigh the potential advantages of breaking out to nuclear capabilities. Evidence of this view may be seen in the fact that, Tehran refrains from announcing the start of the enrichment to 90% (even though the enrichment to 84% can be considered from a military point of view as an enrichment to 90%) and even claims that this is a mistake.



The current estimate for the development of nuclear weapons – Two years from an Iranian decision


Officials in Israel and worldwide repeatedly claim that the period of time Iran needs to develop nuclear weapons capabilities is approximately two years. Alongside the enrichment program, the key question involves the rate of progress made in other crucial aspects of military nuclear capability development, primarily the development of the explosive mechanism and launch vehicles. Unlike enrichment, these activities should be performed extremely cautiously and discreetly, for, in the event that they are exposed, their purpose cannot be denied.


Iran has adopted a policy designed to develop the potential that would enable it, subject to its leader’s decision, to break out and attain nuclear weapons capabilities within the shortest timeframe, without being dependent upon technological or material constraints. Thus, we assess that, under a stringent scenario, the Iranians would be able to carry out a nuclear test within a relatively short timeframe once the decision has been made, by cutting schedules short in several areas, as the Iranian archive materials published have shown. These areas are, first and foremost, the possibility of engaging in preparations for a nuclear test, perhaps underground, that would be difficult to locate; the assembling of the explosive mechanism, and so on.


It is our understanding that, at present, the chances of reaching a new and effective nuclear deal that would disarm Iran of the abilities it has attained, and turn the Iranian nuclear program back many years, are very low. To a large extent, the reason for that is Iran’s distrust of the U.S. administration, the possibility of gradually making progress with its nuclear program without fearing any significant punitive measures by the West, as well as the possible lesson learned from the war in Ukraine with regard to nuclear weapons serving as a form of insurance.


As for the possibility of returning to the original agreement – ostensibly conflicting considerations are at play that must be examined according to the various possible actions available to Israel. On the one hand, the agreement will allow for a period of approximately 8 years that could be used to build up capabilities until it expires in 2031. It will also allow any Iranian violation under the agreement’s limitations to be discovered quickly. On the other hand, the agreement would lift all sanctions, leading to a flow of tens of billions of dollars into Iran, which would enable its economy to recover, and its involvement in the Middle East to deepen, while Tehran bolsters the capabilities of its allies and proxies. Yet, while the current state of affairs continues, Iran, to a large extent, is in control of how quickly progress is being made in its nuclear program, and (at least to date) is not really afraid of any punitive measures employed by the West.



Implications and recommendations


The point of departure for any future plan made by the Israeli government should be that Iran is determined to obtain military nuclear capabilities, and that the nuclear program schedule may be shorter than two years. An Iranian nuclear test would be a gamechanger, and, following it, Iran would be considered a nuclear weapons state for all intents and purposes. Such a development could lead to a nuclear arms race both in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey) and Asia (South Korea, and Japan); cause detriment to the international nuclear treaties; destabilize the region, and increase Iran’s confidence to take action against Israel and the Gulf states.


In view of the understanding that the window of opportunities for curbing the Iranian nuclear program is about to close, the Israeli government must form a comprehensive strategy based on two main approaches. The first is on the military level by accelerating force buildup processes with the help of the United States so as to demonstrate Israel’s intent to thwart the Iranian nuclear program at all cost, and using all means available to it.


The second is on the diplomatic level in collaboration with the international community. Israel should take decisive action to ensure that it is not grappling with the Iranian threat alone, for it is a shared challenge endangering the entire international community, and the only way to address it is by joining forces and efforts. Israel should therefore take advantage of the negative sentiment toward Iran felt by the U.S. administration and Europe following the help extended by Tehran to Moscow, as well as Iran’s brutal response to local riots, to promote a range of activities vis-à-vis the Iranian regime together.


A crucial condition for curbing the Iranian nuclear program is the preservation of Israel’s strategic alliance and special relations with the United States. The Israeli government is therefore required to ensure that the strategic and security coordination with the U.S. administration remain intact, while actively building trust and avoiding oppositional steps. However, the strained relations with the administration regarding the promotion of the antidemocratic coup and the policy towards the Palestinians, and the fact that the prime minister has not been invited to visit the US so far, may cloud the intimate discourse and make it difficult to promote a joint strategic response.


Regionally, Israel has been presented with the opportunity to take advantage of the shared concern over the aggravating threat posed by Iran to broaden the scope of security ties forged with the Gulf states, inter alia using multilateral collaborations with the U.S. central command (CENTCOM). At the same time, Israel would do well to avoid taking oppositional steps vis-à-vis Russia, particularly with regard to the provision of air-defense systems to Ukraine, in order to maintain optimal freedom of action against Iran in the region. Israel should also invest special efforts to convince China to use its influence over Iran, explaining that Iran’s nuclearization would have a global negative effect that would impact China too.


Israel must actively aggravate the internal constraints on the Iranian regime. To do so, Israel must convince the United States and other western countries that the only option left on the table before resorting to a military campaign is imposing additional, comprehensive and extremely painful sanctions on Iran, similar to those that have been imposed on Russia this past year. Such sanctions would sever Iran’s ability to be in any form of contact with the West (including in areas such as civil aviation, culture and sports), and would isolate it much like Russia and North Korea are being isolated. By doing so, the West would illustrate the price of confrontation to the Iranian regime, and perhaps even force it to reconsider its conduct, and agree to a new, far more stringent, nuclear deal.


Finally, Israel should take into account the possibility that a military campaign against Iran would lead to direct conflict with it, as well as its allies and proxies in the region. Israel should therefore actively enhance its ability to defend the home front and vital facilities. One of the critical conditions for doing so is to ensure the continuation of military and economic aid from the US and avoid dragging the IDF into high-intensity activity in the Palestinian arena, affecting its ability to properly prepare for scenarios of escalation vis-à-vis Iran, Hizballah, and other nefarious organizations in the region.





Gideon Frank, Chairman of the Executive Council of the Technion, former head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission

Dr. Ephraim Asculai, senior visiting researcher, former senior official at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, Head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at Reichman University

Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at Reichman University


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