A few weeks ago, the Israel Defense Forces held a closed-door meeting in which Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi ordered the preparation of a new operational plan to “handle” Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Actually, not a single plan, but three options, to be prepared soon and presented to the top political echelon.
The background is clear: Iran’s nuclear program is at a critical junction, and it has three choices. The first, which it would prefer, would be to return to the 2015 nuclear deal in its original form in exchange for a full removal of U.S. sanctions. The second, which appears more realistic, would be to strike a temporary, partial deal with the United States under which Iran would freeze any progress on its nuclear program in exchange for certain easings of the sanctions, especially those affecting its oil industry. The third and most worrying to Israel would be for Iran to make the breakthrough to a nuclear weapon.
Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told us that “In the past few years, Iran has made advances in research and development, both in terms of amassing enriched material and in terms of offensive capabilities, and it has a regime that truly wants nuclear weapons.”
According to Gantz, “It’s clear that Israel needs to have a military option. That demands resources and investment, and I’m working to ensure that happens.”
The aforementioned nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in July 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France), as well as Germany (a group known as P5+1). The deal marked the apex of a controversial diplomatic move that the Obama administration spearheaded, and which caused an open rift with Israel.
The crux of the dispute was the correct way to deal with Iran. The United States thought that a deal that would take a major part of Iran’s capabilities away from it, put oversight in place and instate long-term restrictions was the right way forward. Israel thought that the only way was to bring Iran to its knees by putting such heavy pressure on the regime that the leadership would have to give up on nukes if it wanted to stay in power.
Iran agreed to a series of steps designed to keep it from developing a nuclear bomb. The main ones were entirely giving up its stores of uranium enriched to 20 percent and reducing its stocks of low-enriched uranium (3.67 percent) to some 300 kg. (661 pounds). Iran also promised to reduce by two-thirds the number of its uranium-enrichment centrifuges, and only to operate first-generation models. Iran agreed not to enrich uranium at its underground Fordow nuclear facility near Qom.
Iran took on a number of other obligations under the deal. One major one is to agree to closer oversight by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors than that to which it had been subject to prior to the deal. In exchange, the deal allowed it to resume selling oil on the international market and using global trade platforms. Gradually, sanctions applied to Iranian organizations and individuals were to be removed.
Even at the time that the deal was presented, Israel pointed out its many holes. One of the biggest was its end date, or “sunset,” as professionals called it—10 to 15 years later, after which Iran would be able to do nearly anything it wanted. There would no longer be any restrictions on the amount of uranium it could enrich, the extent to which it could be enriched, the number of centrifuges in use or its research and development processes. The deal only partly restricted R&D in any case and did not even address two other major issues: Iran’s comprehensive ballistic missile program, and its destructive influence on the Middle East resulting from its policy of “exporting” the Islamic Revolution.
Laying down paths for Biden
Many in Israel think that the deep disagreement between former President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which developed into a real rift, made it more difficult for Israel to secure a better deal. This still reverberates today—nearly everyone interviewed for this article, both on and off the record, said explicitly that Israel should quickly lay out paths to the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to make sure that any future deal rectifies the mistakes of the past.
This job will likely be handed to Mossad head Yossi Cohen. Netanyahu has already made it clear that he intends to appoint someone to head Israel’s efforts against Iran, apart from the work that goes on in the National Security Council and the Defense Ministry. Cohen, who in June will finish a five-and-a-half-year term as head of the Israeli intelligence agency, would be a natural choice for the job, and not only because he is so close to Netanyahu. He is well versed on the Iranian issue and led the battle against Iran’s nuclear program in his years as Mossad leader. What’s more, he is very well respected in Washington and it is likely that as an experienced agency director he will find a way to work with the new administration.
Last week, Cohen visited Washington. He was photographed at a local café with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A day later, Pompeo divulged the deep links between Iran and Al-Qaeda, whose senior leaders are welcomed in Tehran. In August 2020, al-Qaeda No. 2 Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who was behind attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, was assassinated. According to foreign reports, the Mossad carried out the killing at the request of the Americans.
That killing was apparently more proof of the deep security ties between the Trump administration and Israel. Cohen was a key player on that axis, along with Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, and of course, Netanyahu. In their eyes, their biggest achievement was convincing the outgoing president to withdraw from the “bad, dangerous nuclear deal,” as they called it, and then place Iran under paralyzing sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.
According to Institute for National Security Studies director IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, “Israel and the Americans had three hopes. The first, that the regime would collapse as a result of the sanctions and the economic pressure. The second, that the regime would panic and join a new, better deal and third, that Iran would make a major mistake, like trying to make a breakthrough toward a bomb, and then the U.S. would attack it.”
None of these hopes materialized. Two years ago, Yadlin assessed that “the Iranians won’t be suckers,” as he put it. He said at the time that the regime wouldn’t fall, wouldn’t seek a new deal and certainly wouldn’t make a fatal mistake. So what does he think will happen? “The Iranians are traders. They will try to get the maximum now, in exchange for the minimum on their part,” he said.
From patience to resistance
The time that has passed since Iran pulled out of the nuclear deal can be divided into two parts. The first, from May 2018-May 2019, researchers are calling “strategic patience”; Iran sat back and for the most part did nothing. It tried to accept the sanctions, worked with Europe in an attempt to develop ways of getting around them, and mostly counted down the clock, hoping Trump would not be reelected.
“That year, Iran discovered that it was paying a heavier economic price than it thought it would,” said Dr. Raz Zimmt, an INSS researcher and Iran expert. “They were surprised by the sharp drop in their oil exports (from 2.5 million barrels to 500,000), and mostly by the fact that Europe really couldn’t, and possibly didn’t want to help them.”
As a result, Iran changed its policies and in May 2019 moved to a “strategy of resistance.” First, it began carrying out unusual actions in the Persian Gulf, which began with an attack on American oil tankers and shooting down an advanced U.S. drone and peaked with attacks on a Saudi oil facility. That attack, which was perpetrated using cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), was a great success for Iran. Both the damage caused to Saudi Arabia and the fact that the attack went unanswered whetted the Iranians’ appetite.
The person behind most of these actions was the former head of the country’s elite Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He paid the price in early January 2020, when he was killed in a U.S. drone strike shortly after arriving in Baghdad. That killing was the most significant deterrent action the Trump administration carried out in its four years, and most likely the administration’s greatest contribution to regional security, along with the agreements to normalize relations between Israel and a number of Arab and Muslim countries.
When it came to the nuclear issue, Washington was less successful. As Iran’s activities in the region became increasingly audacious, they began moving away from their obligations under the nuclear deal. They did not withdraw from the deal, but took steps designed to serve them in two ways: collecting assets in anticipation of renewed negotiations with the US and the other world powers, and moving ahead toward a nuclear bomb should those negotiations fail.
The IAEA documented Iran’s violations of the agreement and even published them. Iran announced many of them itself in an attempt to deter the west and bring it back to the original deal.
The most egregious violations included enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, and amassing much more than it was allowed under the JCPOA—nearly three tons; installing advanced centrifuges in its Natanz and Fordow facilities (and at Fordo they were banned from enriching uranium entirely); expediting research and development on even more advanced centrifuges; and, two weeks ago, renewing the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.
‘The weapons group’
To produce a single nuclear warhead, Iran would first need 1,400 kg. (3,086 pounds) of low-enriched uranium (3.5 percent). This would then need to be processed into 220 kg. (485 pounds) of 20 percent enriched uranium and then finally into 40 kg. (88 pounds) of 90 percent enriched uranium.
The enrichment mostly takes place at Natanz, and now Fordow. Both facilities use older IR-1 centrifuges, though at Natanz, newer centrifuges (IR2+4) have also been installed. Iran is also making progress on more advanced centrifuges (IR-6), despite the damage done to the Fordow complex some six months ago in an attack attributed to the Mossad. The advanced centrifuges are expected to allow Iran to enrich more uranium in less time, and thereby cut down on the time needed to create a bomb.
Iran currently has enough low-enriched uranium (about three tons) to create two bombs. The processes of enriching it to 90 percent take time, and even when it has enough high-enriched uranium, there are still a number of steps from there to a weapon that Iran has yet to complete.
The person responsible for producing the weapons was Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated in Tehran in November—according to foreign reports, by the Mossad. Fakhrizadeh was responsible for what was known as the “weapons group,” responsible for overseeing the final and critical stage of assembling a nuclear weapon and making it operational.
Iran swore it had shut down the weapons group in 2003 when it was still part of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea; after the Americans invaded Iraq the Iranians were afraid they’d be next. A trove of evidence collected since, however, casts doubt on that claim and proves that Iran certainly hadn’t revealed the truth about what it had achieved prior to that date. The Iranian nuclear archive that the Mossad smuggled out of Tehran in 2008 and brought to Israel shed light on the processes and activities Iran had been secretly pursuing, and the extent of its progress in a number of fields—primarily the weapons group. Israel shared the information from the archive with world powers and the heads of the IAEA to prove that Iran had lied, was still hiding things and could not be trusted in the future.
According to former IAEA deputy director general for safeguards Olli Heinonen, investigations into the matter are ongoing.
“There are questions that remain open. We must ascertain that all Iran’s capabilities have been destroyed or taken away, and later on instate a system of close oversight that will guarantee inspectors direct and immediate access to all [Iranian] facilities and scientists,” said Heinonen.
A shortcut to a breakthrough
Israel and the West are worried about what is happening in Iran. The main question is whether or not it has some secret program that Western intelligence agencies don’t know about or a secret facility where work is underway to shorten Iran’s path to a bomb whenever it decides to move ahead.
“We don’t have a full, updated picture about Iran’s current nuclear program and its plans for the future,” said Heinonen. “The burden is on its shoulders to prove that it really wants peace, but we need to make sure of that through effective oversight measures.”
In an article published on the INSS website recently, Yadlin and Ephraim Asculai, a former member of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, ask the key question of just how far Iran is from building a bomb. They agree that the decision to start enriching uranium to 20 percent was meant to serve as a bargaining chip in future negotiations, but will also serve to cut down the “breakout time” from the moment Iran decides it wants a bomb to the time it has one.
Breakout time is critical because it is a window in which Iran can activate all its avenues of pressure, from diplomatic and PR moves to economic activity, and even a military offensive. This is exactly what Gantz means when he talks about the need for an available, reliable military option against Iran, and that is what Kochavi meant when he ordered the IDF to prepare one.
The outgoing head of IDF Military Intelligence Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom puts Iran’s breakout time at two years. Yadlin and Asculai wonder how that could be possible if Iran has already collected enriched uranium and even installed more advanced centrifuges than it used to have. Their answer: some of the advanced centrifuges were installed but have not yet been filled with uranium gas. Mostly, they say, the time to an Iranian bomb should not be calculated strictly according to its amounts of enriched uranium but also based on the development of a weapons system, particularly the mechanism.
“A nuclear weapon requires three main elements: fissile material, a weapons system, and a platform to carry the bomb,” they said. “Iran already has a platform, missiles that can carry nuclear weapons, and it can produce fissile material by enriching uranium supposedly for civil purposes, but [that] can be used for dual purposes, including a bomb,” they explained.
The questions pertain to the weapons system. If Iran really hasn’t worked on one since 2003, it has a long way to go to a bomb. But if it has managed to dupe the world and make progress in secret and develop the system, calculations of breakout time need to be adjusted.
Yadlin and Asculai presented three hypotheses regarding when Iran will achieve its first nuclear bomb. All rest on the assumption that Iran is taking shortcuts, but has no secret enrichment program the west doesn’t know about.
According to the worst-case scenario, Iran has already developed most of the elements of the weapons system in secret and has enough centrifuges to enrich enough uranium for the core of one bomb. The conclusion: From the moment a decision is made to break out, Iran can develop a bomb in four to six months.
A more reasonable scenario suggests that work on the weapons system is not complete and will take another six months. Since Iran still hasn’t activated advanced centrifuges and will need time to install them, the process of enrichment will take more time. In this case, it would take Iran eight months to a year to develop a nuclear bomb.
In the least severe scenario, Iran has been very careful not to touch the subject in recent years for fear of having to pay a heavy price and would need about a year and a half to finish a weapons system. This scenario, which researchers say depends on the intelligence view that Iran has not worked on a weapons system since 2003, puts the time for Iran to develop a nuclear bomb at two years.
In closed-door talks, Netanyahu, Gantz, Kochavi and Cohen take an uncompromising stance on Iran and do not believe a word the regime says.
“In the years since the nuclear deal was signed, everyone realized that Iran has been lying the entire time,” said one senior defense official. “It was exposed in the nuclear archive and a bunch of other things Iran tried to hide, and of course by its regional terrorist activity, and at the very least demands great caution to ensure it won’t lie again in the future.”
According to Kochavi, the west shouldn’t think of Iran in terms of 10-15 years, but 50 years or more. If that doesn’t happen, he said, we will wake up one morning to an Iran free of almost all restrictions and with the ability to work on a nuclear bomb without any interference.
Officials in Israel think that the Obama administration’s mistake was treating the Iranian nuclear issue like a sprint in which it had to invest the maximum effort and finish quickly. (Though it’s debatable to what extent the administration’s efforts could be characterized as “maximum.”) The Iranians, they believe, think about the long term.
“Supreme Leader Khamenei has already realized he likely won’t live to see a nuclear bomb,” said another senior defense official. “Still, it’s his life’s mission, and he won’t give up on it. Anyone here who thinks that in Iran there is a camp that supports nuclear weapons and a camp that opposes them in wrong. There is also consensus about the path to a bomb—the argument is about how Iran should behave, and when and how it would be best to progress.”
When Iran decided to switch tactics in May 2019, it opted for continual, small-scale violations of the deal. It didn’t want to go too far, though made it clear it would not sit on its hands. It never stopped its involvement in regional terrorism, or its missile development program. According to current estimates, Iran has some 1,100 missiles that can reach Israel—a major threat to the Israeli home front—as well as missiles capable of equipping nuclear warheads.
“The Iranians intentionally reduced their obligations to the nuclear deal,” said Zimmt. “In effect, they took steps that put them back where they were before the deal was signed, and significantly shortened their road to a bomb, should they decide to break out.”
Tehran is not compromising
The decision to raise the level of enrichment to 20 percent passed in the Iranian parliament after Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. Supposedly an act of revenge, in reality, it was another asset to take into future negotiations, that could be given up easily in exchange for other gains that are important to Iran.
Although the decision was made a few weeks ago, practical steps were only taken a week ago. The Iranians apparently wanted to wait until Trump’s final days in the White House to make sure he wouldn’t use it as a pretense to attack. Like the rest of the world, they were reading the reports in the American media about a meeting the outgoing president held last month on the possibility of striking Iran.
The Iranian parliament’s decision is very detailed. It states that within a month from the day the decision was made, enrichment to 20 percent would begin (that deadline has already passed), within two months all cooperation with IAEA inspectors will stop and within three months the additional protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which gives inspectors broader authority and allows surprise visits and use of advanced technology, will be frozen. Later, advanced centrifuges will be installed and 120 kg. (264 pounds) of uranium will be enriched to 20 percent.
Zimmt believes the decision was the result of internal political battles in Iran. In June, Iran is scheduled to hold presidential elections, and right now it appears as if the moderates under President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will find it difficult to win again. The two, who helped create the prior deal, are seen as having failed to bring the fruits of it to the people. Instead of the growth they promised, Iran is in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in its history. The Iranian public, which sees the leadership’s failure to address the COVID crisis, wants change. Experts think that the conservatives, led by Khamenei, will use that to recapture the presidency.
It’s hard to exaggerate the economic crisis in Iran. Ballooning inflation has been partially checked, but is still rising at about 40 percent a year. The GDP dropped by about 5.3 percent in 2020, an improvement over 2019 (when it fell 8.2 percent) but light years from the 13.4 percent growth the country saw in 2016.
The rise in unemployment and falling value of the Iranian rial is stirring up disquiet and making it a matter of urgency for Iran to throw off the crippling sanctions, particularly when it comes to oil exports and releasing Iranian assets frozen all over the world, namely bank accounts.
Tehran’s position is uncompromising: it wants a return to the original nuclear deal and compensation for the damage done by the sanctions, as well as an explicit American apology. The Iranians are saying that if the Americans agree to come back to the deal, “There will be no need to change it by so much as a comma.”
In a series of remarks and interviews in the last few months, Biden has made it clear that he intends to return to the deal. This is also what his inner circle is saying, including Tony Blinken, who has been tapped for Secretary of state, and Wendy Sherman, who headed the American team in the negotiations for the 2015 deal and who could wind up serving as assistant secretary of state. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, and former Secretary of State John Kerry say the same thing.
This group will have a decided influence on Biden’s policies. One would have to be an incorrigible optimist to believe that their views have changed by 180 degrees since the 2015 deal was signed. It’s likelier that they will try to get it done quickly, mostly to get the issue off the agenda; Biden has bigger headaches than Iran, and it’s unclear how much attention he’ll be willing to pay to the Middle East muddle.
‘A global problem, first of all’
It would appear that there are three options: go back to the original deal, leave things as they are or reach an interim agreement. Iran, of course, is demanding a full return to the 2015 deal, without reservations. Israel opposes that vigorously, and has voiced that objection on every possible platform, to every possible ear, and presented proof that Tehran is not to be trusted.
As the United States was poised to pull out of the deal, many in Israel believed it would be a mistake. Opponents of the move argued that since the Iranian regime would not cave, a limited Iran under oversight was better for Israel than an unrestrained, desperate Iran. Now it looks like the disagreements on the Israeli side have been reduced to what steps should be taken with the new U.S. administration. Should Israel challenge it, like it did the Obama administration, or should it seek out other avenues, even at the price of certain concessions, especially since Israel will need Biden’s help on a number of other security and defense, economic, diplomatic and international issues?
According to Israeli Defense Minister Gantz, “the moves when it comes to the Iranians should be diplomatic, as well as economic and military. In Israel’s case, we are developing defensive and offensive capabilities at the same time. The ones who should lead the moves are the United States and other countries because Iran is, first of all, a global problem, then a regional one, and then an Israeli one.”
“You need to remember that Iran has a lot to lose from international pressure, and its citizens stand to gain from cooperation. So Israel will step up pressure, along with the United States, and try to get results that will stop the nuclear program as well as [prevent] Iran from gaining a foothold in the region,” he added.
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, however, disagrees that this is a political issue: “Iran openly threatens to annihilate Israel,” he said last week. “It poses a direct threat [to Israel] through its nuclear program and an indirect threat through Hezbollah’s missiles, its military entrenchment in Syria and Hamas’s capabilities. Israel won’t accept the dangerous combination of an enemy state that intends to destroy us and is developing capabilities of doing just that,” he said.
“In any solution that is found, Israel will have to make sure that Iran does not retain the capability to break out toward a nuclear weapon. We’re in 2021, not 2015, and it’s clear to everyone today that the deal didn’t fully answer defense and security needs,” he added.
Gantz and Ashkenazi support talks with the Americans to try and secure a better deal, one that will place greater limits on Iran than the JCPOA, and for a longer period. They also support having a reliable military option, like the one Israel had at the start of the last decade when the possibility of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was on the table. An option like that has more than a few ramifications, including economic ones, as intelligence, arms and training cost a fortune. Billions were spent preparing the former option, which was never executed.
The IDF used the first years of the deal to focus on other needs, especially upping the readiness of the ground forces. Now it will need to find the resources to implement Kochavi’s latest orders. Last decade, most of the funding for the military option came from the defense budget, and we can assume the army will demand the same thing this time. Given the condition of the Israeli economy after the COVID crisis, and the cries for help from so many sectors, we can expect a fierce battle for money.
Preventing the nightmare
But even before that, Israel has to deal with the diplomatic arena, mostly in Washington. Israel has already declared that it will demand that a new deal, that differs from the previous one on a number of points and puts Iran’s nuclear program back to zero. Israel is demanding that the sunset clause be removed to ensure perpetual and uncompromising oversight of Iran’s nuclear projects—sites, facilities, research institutes and scientists, including ones who were suspected of working on nuclear weapons in the past.
Another demand is that Iran’s nuclear research and development be severely restricted, mostly when it comes to high-tech centrifuges. The matter of Iran’s missile program also needs to be addressed, especially when the country is developing missiles with a range of thousands of kilometers, which should worry not only Jerusalem but the capitals of Europe.
Israel also wants a deal to limit Iran’s attempts to entrench itself in the region via its satellites, which it arms with advanced weapons. Yadlin thinks that Israel should not insist on adding this to the deal, as by leaving it out it may retain freedom of action for strikes in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
According to INSS researcher Zimmt, there is very little chance that Iran will agree to such demands.
“Iran won’t agree to give up the progress it made this past year unless the sanctions are fully removed and the original deal is re-adopted. I also think it won’t be willing to negotiate on all the other things that are important to us—not on the sunset clause, not on the missiles, and not on its activity in the region. The Iranians will say—first return to the deal, then we’ll talk,” he said.
“But if the deal is renewed, the Iranians won’t have any reason to discuss anything. The expiration date will approach, and with it their freedom of action. Even worse, they’ll recover economically and be able to step up their activities in the region and reach the sunset clause strong, determined and more ready than ever to rush toward a bomb,” he added.
Zimmt finds it hard to imagine any way of bridging the gap between Iran, Israel and the United States. Biden will have to decide, and it’s not certain he’ll decide in Israel’s favor.
“The assumption that the Iranians will fold in the face of maximum pressure hasn’t proven itself. The situation there is hard, but they’re not on the verge of collapse, and they have a certain amount of wiggle room,” he said.
In this case, the better option could be an interim deal: Iran would receive certain easings of the sanctions in exchange for concessions. If that doesn’t happen, Iran could keep making slow progress toward a nuclear bomb until it decides to go for it, hoping to make itself into North Korea 2.0.
This time, Israel’s new partners—the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—both of which are also afraid of Iran and will demand that it be kept under close watch to hamper its capabilities in a variety of fields. If they fail, some of these countries could wind up joining the nuclear arms race.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and possibly other countries, too, all marching toward nuclear weapons would be a nightmare scenario. So Israel will want to do everything, absolutely everything, to make sure that doesn’t become a reality. That road goes through the White House, but anyone who listens to the domestic discourse in Israel can already hear the voices that are once again talking about the day when Israel will have to act alone against Iran.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.