Two weeks ago, Foreign Policy magazine published an interview with Defense Minister Benny Gantz. In it, Gantz said that Israel has dropped its opposition to the Biden administration’s plan to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. With Gantz’s statement, the full expanse of the Lapid-Gantz-Bennett government’s strategy for contending with Iran’s nuclear program has come into view. And it is deeply alarming.
Over the past several weeks and months, the discourse about Iran’s nuclear program has been dominated by the question of how far Iran is from “nuclear breakout.” Nuclear breakout is the point at which a state has the independent capacity to build a nuclear weapon at will, within a relatively short time. Such states are referred to as “nuclear threshold states.”
Soon after he took office in January, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Iran was three to four months away from nuclear breakout. Now, eight months on, the Biden administration says Iran is as close as a month away from nuclear breakout.
These alarming claims are nothing new. In February 2020, for instance, the United States assessed that Iran was up to four months away from nuclear breakout. In 2015, on the eve of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (i.e., the nuclear deal with Iran), the United States and its partners said that without the deal, Iran was three months from nuclear deal.
With the deal, the Obama administration and its partners said that it would take Iran a year to reach nuclear breakout. Outside experts disagreed. Former senior United Nations nuclear inspector Olli Heinonen said that in the best-case scenario, Iran’s breakout time under the deal was seven months.
For his part, then-President Barack Obama said that at the end of the JCPOA’s lifespan in 2025, Iran’s breakout time would be reduced to zero. That is, Obama admitted that the deal itself enabled Iran to become a threshold nuclear state.
The contradictions and disputes about when Iran would be able to build atomic bombs at will don’t mean the assessments are worthless. They are important guideposts for policymakers. The disparities between where Iran’s nuclear capabilities stood at the time the assessments were made and where it supposedly stands today don’t mean that the assessments were necessarily wrong. Instead they indicate that something has been happening over the past decade or so that has slowed down Iran’s nuclear progress and blocked it from reaching nuclear breakout, despite its efforts and apparent progress towards the nuclear finish line.
What was that something?
In a word, that something was Israel. For the past decade, Israel implemented a multi-dimensional strategy whose goal was to harm Iran’s nuclear, military, diplomatic and economic capabilities.
On the nuclear level, both in cooperation with the United States and on its own, Israel worked to undermine Iran’s nuclear advances. Iran’s nuclear scientists were assassinated. Through cyberattacks, Israel was reportedly repeatedly damaging Iran’s centrifuges and other components of its nuclear program. Frequent sabotage operations allegedly carried out by Israeli officers and agents on the ground in Iran have caused massive, and in some cases, sustained damage to Iran’s nuclear installations.
Israel’s non-nuclear focused military operations against Iran were directed toward diminishing Iran’s military forces and capabilities in Syria. Israel reached an unprecedented agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that enabled Israeli forces to freely operate against Iranian military targets and weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Syria. Outside Syria, Israel conducted a naval campaign against Iran’s naval assets in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and beyond.
Diplomatically, Israel’s unflinching opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal and more generally to every diplomatic effort that strengthened Iran, enabled it to build alliances with Arab states threatened by Iran in the Persian Gulf and North Africa. These alliances in turn formed the basis of the Abraham Accords. Israel’s alliances with Iran’s other enemies served as a force multiplier for Israel and its Arab partners in their joint and separate operations against Iran and its proxies in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Sinai and Africa. Israel’s unrelenting diplomatic offensive against the JCPOA rendered the nuclear deal controversial. Rather than feeling free to pat themselves on the back, supporters of nuclear appeasement of the ayatollahs were forced onto the defensive.
At home, the same Iran that was just months or weeks from nuclear breakout was also just months or weeks away from an internal revolution that with the support of Iran’s neighbors could have brought down the regime of the ayatollahs.
Gantz’s statement to Foreign Policy that Israel’s new government has dropped its predecessor’s opposition to the administration’s plan to return to the JCPOA means that Israel is no longer pursuing the economic component of its previous strategy. After all, the first consequence of a U.S. return to the JCPOA will be the abrogation of all U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. Unencumbered by sanctions, Iran will quickly reach a level of economic prosperity which, at a minimum, will stabilize the internal political situation in Iran in a manner that secures the regime’s survival.
Gantz’s announcement that Israel is walking away from the economic component of the previous government’s Iran strategy followed earlier moves by the government that rolled back the strategy’s other components. Just days after the Lapid-Gantz-Bennett government came into office, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid put an official end to Israel’s direct actions against Iran’s nuclear installations with his announcement that the new government would not surprise the Biden administration through independent and uncoordinated actions against Iran’s nuclear program.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has made clear repeatedly that its only policy towards Iran is appeasement. Consequently, there is no way the administration will either work with Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear installations, or approve any Israeli plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear installations on its own. So by giving the administration veto power over Israel’s actions on that front, Lapid—followed by Gantz and Naftali Bennett—effectively ended Israel’s own operations. It comes as no surprise then that there have been no reports of damage to Iran’s nuclear installations in recent months.
Russia took an axe to Israel’s military operations against Syria when it announced that Putin had cancelled his agreement not to interfere with Israel’s operations against Iranian targets in Syria. But Syria isn’t the only battlefield the government has abandoned.
In late July, Iran attacked an Israeli-managed cargo ship docked off the Omani coast. Two crew members were killed. Aside from a bit of huffing and puffing, Israel failed to retaliate. Likewise, Israel failed to retaliate when Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, launched a missile strike against northern Israel. And earlier this month, Israel did nothing to block Iran from supplying fuel to Hezbollah in Lebanon, despite the fact that the Iranian operation constituted a major breach of U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Israel’s diplomatic campaign against Iran had two audiences: the Arab regimes threatened by Iran, and the western powers—including the Democrat Party—that embraced nuclear appeasement. The Arabs responded to Israel’s staunch diplomacy by embracing the Jewish state as an ally.
As for the western powers, by rejecting nuclear appeasement, Israel rejected the legitimacy that the western powers were providing to Iran’s nuclear weapons program through the JCPOA.
The JCPOA didn’t merely preserve Iran’s nuclear capabilities and enable it to expand them while producing a missile arsenal capable of launching nuclear warheads. The 2015 nuclear deal also gave international legitimacy to an illicit nuclear program advanced in material breach of Iran’s signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
On a practical level, Gantz’s announcement that Israel no longer opposes the Biden administration’s plan to restore the United States to the JCPOA means that Israel has dropped its objection to the West’s decision to legalize Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
So what is the Lapid-Gantz-Bennett government’s strategy on Iran?
By cancelling all four components of Israel’s longstanding, successful strategy for containing and undermining Iran, the government has made clear that its strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is to raise the white flag of surrender.
Rather than present a new strategy for preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, the government has focused its efforts on selling its strategy of lying down and doing nothing. The government justifies its decision to let the clock run down by casting the blame for its failure to act on the person who conceived and implemented the Israeli strategy that blocked Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold until now. Although everyone knows who it is they are scapegoating, Bennett has opted to refer to him only as “my predecessor.”
Caroline Glick is an award-winning columnist and author of “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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