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The US and Israel have vastly different tolerances for Iranian ambitions

Washington might not act until Tehran trots out a bomb.

The Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor in Iran. Credit: Nanking2012 via Wikimedia Commons.
The Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor in Iran. Credit: Nanking2012 via Wikimedia Commons.
Shimon Sherman

The Islamic Republic has crossed “every red line possible” in its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Professor Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), tells JNS. And the U.S. Department of Defense reports that Tehran “has the capacity to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear device in less than two weeks.”

But despite the strong reaction that the Department of Defense report received, it is unclear whether it signifies any kind of significant shift in Iran’s capabilities.

“The Iranians have been months away or weeks away from a nuclear stockpile for years already,” Robert Silverman, a former top U.S. diplomat in Riyadh and a lecturer on Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem, told JNS.

“Iran is and has been a threshold nuclear state for a long time; currently they are avoiding some final steps that would set off warning lights in the U.S. and Israel,” he added.

Alexander Greenberg, an expert on Iran at JISS, told JNS, “This must be seen as rhetoric, it doesn’t mean that Iran can build a weapon in two weeks. There are still technical obstacles in their way, but the fact that they are close has been known for a long time.”

Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, told JNS, “There are three components that a country needs to achieve to have a functional nuclear weapon: a sufficient uranium stockpile enriched to 90%, a functional nuclear military device, and long-range missiles that are technically proficient to carry such a device.

“They have for a long time been weeks away from achieving the first objective, but according to various estimates, it would take them between six months and two years to achieve the other two. The Defense Department report confirmed that Iran is on the threshold of a nuclear stockpile, but almost more importantly it also said that they have not renewed their weaponization program,” he added. 

Inbar confirmed this evaluation, saying, “We gained intelligence from the Iranian nuclear archive that they made efforts to develop a nuclear device but these efforts were largely unsuccessful.”

Greenberg called Tehran’s long-range missile program “far from complete.”

“The Iranians can only be developing intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry nuclear weapons—they are crucial to presenting a credible nuclear threat, and currently the program is not advanced enough,” he continued.

The major obstacle now facing Iran’s ICBM program is increasing the precision of its rockets from the current 87% accuracy to 95% or more, he explained.

Greenberg noted another obstacle to the Islamic Republic‘s nuclear ambitions, saying, “Any country that has nuclear weapons must perform a nuclear test. Without this their nuclear program is incomplete.”

Zimmt, however, challenged this position, saying, “We already have the example of a certain Middle Eastern nation that has nuclear capabilities without an official test,” in an apparent reference to Israel.

Greenberg rejected this example by referencing unconfirmed reports of an Israeli nuclear test in the Indian Ocean in 1979.

“Future red lines”

“Israel needed to react earlier, even much earlier, to the Iranian advances. At this point every red line has been crossed,” Inbar said. “The strategy of covert operations has failed and must quickly be switched to kinetic actions like strikes with planes.”

Zimmt, on the other hand, said that currently, there is likely a lack of agreement between Jerusalem and Washington regarding what an appropriate future red line may be.

“For Israel, it is reasonable that 90% enrichment will be a red line, but it is unclear that the U.S. agrees and for them, it is possible that they won’t feel a red line was crossed unless the Iranians try to break out to a nuclear weapon,” he said.

This conflict was thrown into sharp relief when Gen. Mark Milley, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until a few days ago, told a House of Representatives hearing last March that the U.S. “remains committed as a matter of policy that Iran will not have a fielded nuclear weapon.”

This statement raised broad concerns that the U.S. and Israel have vastly different tolerances for Iranian nuclear ambitions.

It is unclear whether Israel has the technical capability to carry out a strike that curbs Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program unsupported by the U.S.

“There is a major problem of refueling due to the great distance and a very advanced defense system including very deep bunkers,” Inbar told JNS. “That being said, with enough ingenuity there is no such thing as an uncrackable target,” he added.

Greenberg said, “This is not like when Israel took out the Syrian or Iraqi nuclear targets, this is a much more advanced operation and there is very little hope of fully destroying the program, you can only hope to delay it.”

A nuclear Iran would threaten the Jewish state not only directly but also because it would embolden Iran’s proxies.

Greenberg said, “If Iran has nukes the threat isn’t that [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei will reach for the red button but that it will unlock Hezbollah’s aggression, and we will have to take the Iranian nuclear umbrella into account when considering a response.

“A nuclear Iran will leverage its weapons as a geopolitical factor to increase the threat and significance of its proxies against Israel and America,” he said.

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