Israel, the US and the Iranian nuclear project: Back to basics

It is not in America’s interest for Israel to be perceived as an obedient lapdog. On the contrary, keeping Israel’s options open, or even enhancing them, will ultimately prove of value to the U.S.

World powers and Iran in Vienna for talks discussing the Iran nuclear deal, November 2021. Source: E.U. delegation in Vienna/Twitter.
World powers and Iran in Vienna for talks discussing the Iran nuclear deal, November 2021. Source: E.U. delegation in Vienna/Twitter.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

As Iranian leaders call for the destruction of Israel and Tehran’s nuclear program accelerates, talks in Vienna about a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran have so far led nowhere.

It is time for Israel to re-assert two fundamental principles that were recognized as valid a decade ago, even by the Obama administration.

First, there must be no containment of Iran as a nuclear power, or even acceptance of it as a nuclear-threshold state. And second, there must be no constraint on Israel’s right to defend itself.

It must be made clear that Tehran’s goal of attaining nuclear weapons will be denied, either through diplomacy or by force; there is no contradiction between the two. During the ongoing negotiations in Vienna, Iran has boldly asserted that it can lay down the rules—and even deny the United States the right of participation unless it complies with Iran’s conditions. The American eagerness for a deal, the Biden administration’s reluctance to use force and the debacle in Afghanistan are perceived by Iran as signs of weakness.

Still, the likelihood of the talks ending in a successful deal—even a dangerous one—remains low. The Iranian mindset does not seem conducive to a workable compromise. There may also be a limit to the concessions the United States can offer without actively bringing about a regional arms race and the ultimate collapse of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And Iran’s adamant insistence on an ironclad guarantee that no future U.S. administration will walk away from a renewed agreement may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle. The U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to ratify any binding treaty, and no such approval is likely.

No containment  

The Biden administration and the British government are formally committed to ensuring that Iran will not become a nuclear power. However, this must not remain an empty promise. Any notion of containing the impact of Iran obtaining the bomb, or even settling for it becoming a nuclear-threshold state, is delusional.

The revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran is not like isolated North Korea, for whom the bomb is little more than an insurance policy for the survival of its bizarre ruling family. On the contrary, Tehran harbors regional and even global ambitions, and is openly and ardently committed to the destruction of Israel. Possession of the bomb, or even threshold status, would signal regional dominance and American failure to uphold its commitments to its allies. The inevitable outcome would be a nuclear arms race, undoing all efforts since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to curb proliferation and sustain global stability. At the regional level, Iran’s aggressive provocations would hereafter be made worse by the implicit threat of nuclear escalation.

The regime is not a status quo power for whom the bomb is essentially a means for remaining in power. On the contrary, it is a revolutionary power seeking to upend the established order, which includes eliminating Israel and undoing any U.S. regional influence.

No constraint

The present Israeli government has made it quite clear that, if necessary, it would take military action to disrupt the Iranian nuclear project. This is in line with the “Begin Doctrine,” promulgated 40 years ago in the context of the preventative strike against the Osirak facility in Iraq, and implemented again by Ehud Olmert’s cabinet in 2007 at Deir al-Zor, to prevent hostile regimes from developing a nuclear military capability.

Former president Barack Obama affirmed the U.S. recognition that Israel has the right to defend itself. The sense that an Israeli attack was imminent may have done much to bring Iran to the table in the first place.

Over the years, Israel’s leaders have often upheld a policy with the U.S. based on “no surprises” regarding military action against Iran. Indeed, as long as Iran threatens that any retaliation for Israeli actions will encompass American targets, Israel has no choice but to alert its ally. However, this must not be used to tie Israel’s hands. It is not in America’s interest for Israel to be perceived as an obedient lapdog. On the contrary, keeping Israel’s options open, or even enhancing them, will ultimately prove of value to the United States.

During the internal debate in Washington in 2007 on whether to respond to the Syrian nuclear project, president Bush decided to let Israel act—against the advice of senior figures in his administration. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reluctantly admits in his memoirs, this turned out to have been the right call. It would still be the right call today.

Many observers assume that Israel seeks to derail any chance of a successful negotiation by keeping open the option of extensive military action against Iran. This is wrong for three key reasons:

First, the famous dictum of Carl Von Clausewitz about war being the continuation of politics by other means. The occasional use of force is required to lend credibility to diplomacy. Even Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns, an avowed diplomacy-first advocate and practitioner, approvingly quotes—in the Iranian context—George F. Kennan: “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.”

Second, the use of sanctions and other economic pressure does not negate the need for a credible military option.

Israel should inform Russia and China that the choice is not between their present course of giving Iran significant leeway and imposing severe sanctions, but rather between the latter and the much darker prospect of a significant, destabilizing war.

As Israel conveys these messages, it is crucial to understand that words alone will not suffice.

Heightened preparedness and a demonstrated will and ability to act far from Israel’s borders would serve to underline the importance of what is at stake.

IDF Col. (res.) Eran Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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