‘US, Israel stepping up deterrence campaign against Iran’

Recent threats of a joint U.S.-Israel strike against Tehran's nuclear program are part of a "complex" American messaging campaign, experts tell JNS.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Israel, March 9, 2023. Photo by Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Israel, March 9, 2023. Photo by Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.

U.S. and Israeli officials have made multiple threats in recent weeks regarding the possibility of a joint strike on Iran’s nuclear program. According to experts spoken to by JNS, these declarations are part of a complex American messaging campaign.

Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University and a Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that many of these messages have more than one  intended audience.

“I think first of all that we are seeing a kind of escalation in psychological warfare, involving the conveying of messages and quotes by officials. Those involved in this deterrence campaign each have their own, independent objectives,” he said.  

One of the messages being sent here is intended for Israel, according to Gilboa.

He noted similarities between now and periods in 2009 and 2012 when the United States suspected that Israel was on the cusp of striking Iranian nuclear sites. Then, it sent frequent envoys to Israel to ensure that it wouldn’t be surprised.

“We know that without U.S. support, military action cannot be carried out against Iran,” said Gilboa. At the same time, “The United States does not trust Netanyahu, and so its goal is to send two signals,” he continued. “One signal is a reminder to Israel—don’t move without us, and I think the second message is directed at Iran,” he added.

That message, he said, is that Tehran must slow down or face the consequences.

According to a May 17 Axios report, the Biden administration has recently proposed to Israel joint military planning regarding Iran. The report cited American officials as describing the proposal as unprecedented, representing an important upgrade in American—Israeli cooperation.

“Israeli officials have so far treated the proposal with suspicion, fearing it is an attempt to ‘tie Israel’s hands’ from taking action against Iran,” said the report. It also cited an American official as denying that the proposal is about planning a specific joint attack on Iranian nuclear sites.

U.S. and Israel Air Force F-35 jets take part in an exercise. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

According to professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, Iranian decision makers are always concerned about the scenario of being struck by Israel and the U.S. jointly.

“The advantage of a joint threat is clear. It’s really not what the Iranians want to hear,” said Rabi.

Such threats also come with a certain risk, he said, since they can cause Iran to seek to lash out by creating “centers of instability” in the Middle East, through the activation or encouragement of proxies—a familiar Iranian pattern.

Such a response would form part of Iran’s own deterrence campaign, and could involve any member of Iran’s proxy network, from the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and even Hamas, which is a client of Iran, said Rabi.

“The proxies are intended for this purpose,” he noted.

Gilboa stressed that the United States has made it clear that it still prefers the option of a renewed diplomatic agreement, despite the fact that Iranian conduct is the reason that no such solution has been reached to date.

World powers and Iran in Vienna for talks discussing the Iran nuclear deal, November 2021. Source: E.U. delegation in Vienna/Twitter.

“The Iranians did not want to reach an agreement, and then efforts hit complications due to Iranian assistance to Russia in Ukraine, and because of protests in Iran,” said Rabi.

“But the Americans say it’s still the preferred outcome, while even Israeli officials have said here that the diplomatic way is the preferred path,” Gilboa said.

Yet neither country can ignore the alarming progress being made by Iran with regard to the enrichment of uranium. This includes enrichment to the 20 and 60 percent levels, with sufficient uranium in Iran’s possession for some five nuclear bombs if enriched further, according to a number of estimates. 

As such, both the United States and Israel want to slow Tehran’s progress.

On Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi warned that “Iran has made more progress in uranium enrichment than ever before. We are also closely examining other aspects of the way to nuclear capability.

“Without going into details, there are possible negative developments on the horizon that could prompt action. We have abilities and others have abilities. We have the ability to hit  Iran. We are not indifferent to what Iran is trying to build around us, and it is difficult for Iran to be indifferent to the line we are taking.”

Those comments appeared to refer to the weaponization stage of the nuclear program, which comes after the uranium enrichment stage, said Gilboa.

Meanwhile, a battle of images also seems to be underway. Satellite imagery of a new underground facility at the Natanz uranium enrichment center, reportedly 260-295 feet underground, have surfaced, just as has a first photograph of the U.S. Air Force’s “bunker buster” GBU-57 bomb, Gilboa noted.

Uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. Credit: Tehran Times.

As this was happening, Israel and Hezbollah are trading messages of deterrence at the local level.

“We have here a combination of statements and actions in the field. This combination gives clues to what each side wants, and what they can do. I think it’s a dangerous situation because there is the possibility of error, for someone to make a mistake,” Gilboa cautioned.

View of a Hezbollah tunnel that crosses from Lebanon into northern Israel, Feb. 14, 2023. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.

“There is always a danger that someone will incorrectly assess the other, resulting in a multi-arena war that no one is interested in at this time,” he added.

On May 22, IDF Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gan. Aharon Haliva warned that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was close to making just such a mistake.

Meanwhile, according to Rabi, Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni Arab Gulf state, will be glad to see determination to stop Iran from going nuclear, a scenario that “is their biggest nightmare, as far as they are concerned,” he said.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (left) with U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael E. Kurilla during the “Juniper Oak” joint exercise in Israel, January 2023. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

At the same time, the Saudis understand that in the event of a strike on Iranian nuclear sites, Tehran could lash out, making them potential targets, he added. 

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu received an in-depth briefing on the efforts being made in various fields regarding the Iranian threat, according to a statement from his office.

On May 4, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, during an address to the Washington Institute, said, “But what I will simply say is that on the deterrence side, working with our partners—including working very closely with Israel, including through that military exercise that I described before, but also through intensive sessions that I have personally participated in with everyone from the prime minister to the national security adviser to the minister of defense—we will continue to send a clear message about the costs and consequences of going too far, while at the same time continuing to seek the possibility of a diplomatically brokered outcome that puts Iran’s nuclear program back in the box.”

In January, the United States and Israel held their joint Juniper Oak exercise in and around Israel, which saw military cooperation between the two militaries practicing a range of strikes that appeared to simulate conflict with Iran.

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