The strategic implications of the damage at Natanz

The United States should be appreciative of any significant delay in Iran’s breakout timetable towards a nuclear weapon. The time gained can and should be used to negotiate a “longer, stronger” agreement.

A building at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran after being damaged in a fire on July 2, 2020. Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
A building at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran after being damaged in a fire on July 2, 2020. Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
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.

The Iranian regime is eager to generate a sense of urgency in the West, pushing the Biden administration to give up its sanctions leverage and return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement. The recent damage caused to the Natanz enrichment facility can change this equation. In any case, as Munich 1938 taught, it is dangerous to try to buy time at the cost of mollifying an ambitious totalitarian regime.

The Iranian regime blames Israel for the blast, that seriously damaged the facility. It decided to “retaliate” by commencing enrichment to the level of 60 percent uranium 235. The IAEA has confirmed this, putting the Iranians one step closer to the goal of enrichment to 93 percent (military-grade fissile material). The decision was made in the context of ongoing “indirect” talks with the United States, and direct talks in Vienna with the other five signatories to the JCPOA. The talks seem headed toward an agreed mechanism for a return to the JCPOA and the removal of sanctions on Iran.

Iranian conduct reminds us of three basic realities:

1. The Iranian nuclear project has one and only one purpose: the production of a nuclear bomb. Lame excuses aside, there is no other reason to enrich uranium to 60 percent (or even to 20 percent, given that Iran does not have and will not have nuclear-powered submarines or other vessels). Sixty percent is simply a declared way-station to the stockpiling of military-grade fissile material.

Iran also is working on tooling metallic uranium and has been in possession of basic bomb-making technologies for nearly two decades (as the captured Iranian nuclear archives prove). In effect, the false Iranian pretense of “civilian purposes” has been dropped. There never was a “fatwa,” or Islamic religious ruling, by the Supreme Leader against the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The world knows, and the Iranians hardly bother to hide, that this is a military project. Nevertheless, the JCPOA rests upon the bold assertion (as spelled out on page one of the accord) that the Iranian nuclear project is civilian in nature; an outright lie.

2. Accuracy and truth are not high priorities for the Iranian leadership. Indeed, one of the ways in which they have contended with severe setbacks—and in fact, this has served Israel well—is simply to invent a major achievement where there was none, so as to soften the blow. Thus, Iran falsely claimed to have inflicted heavy losses among Israeli soldiers in response to the massive Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria on May 10, 2018 (“Operation House of Cards”). This may well be the case now, too. Iran’s claim to enrichment at 60 percent may be accurate, but it will not be easy to accumulate large amounts of fissile material in the next few months given the damage to Natanz.

3. The regime’s main goal at present is to generate a sense of urgency in the West (the Biden administration, specifically). Senior American officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, already have quoted alarmist assessments as to Iran’s breakout time to justify a quick return to the JCPOA as it was in 2015, and only then to negotiate a “longer, stronger, broader” agreement. But with U.S. leverage frittered away (following the easing of sanctions), what will motivate the Iranian regime to compromise? Should the United States succumb to the arguments of urgency, which are manipulated by Iran, the prospects of achieving the goals Biden himself has set will be next to nil.

This highlights the supreme importance of the serious damage inflicted upon the enrichment facility at Natanz. This facility has been the target of several attacks in the past (including, as David Sanger relates in his book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, systemic cyber-attacks planned during the Bush years and carried out under Obama in close cooperation with Israel). If the battle is for time, then every moment is of the essence. Therefore, the United States should be appreciative of any significant delay in Iran’s ability to break out toward a bomb, and certainly of a setback measured in months. The time gained should be used to sustain the pressure on Iran toward a better agreement—one without the current “sunset clauses.”

The Biden administration may well resent independent Israeli actions and has made manifest its preference for diplomacy over the use of force. (See the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance document). Events such as the blast at Natanz “muddy the waters” in Vienna and may disrupt the negotiations led by the State Department and European allies. But at the end of the day, Israel’s right to “defend herself by herself”—a right formally recognized by former President Barack Obama—is an asset for U.S. diplomacy, if used in the right manner. Israel’s independence could provide American negotiators and their European partners with key cards as the talks evolve.

In any case, the effort to “gain time” is legitimate and worthy. In the face of a determined, ambitious and totalitarian Iranian regime, the United States must not concede key principles or forfeit decisive tools of leverage, nor should it abandon loyal allies.

Alas, the European appeasement of Hitler is the historical analogy that comes to mind. Chamberlain, who probably understood what sort of villain he was dealing with, wanted to gain time and was tempted to believe that his concessions to Hitler in 1938 bought him a couple of crucial years. (They did not. War came within 11 months). The sad truth is that had Chamberlain been willing to fight Hitler right then, World War II could have been avoided since the German High Command was ready to overthrow Hitler. The time supposedly “bought” by Chamberlain’s weakness at Munich came at the cost of 60 million lives, the devastation of Europe and Asia, and the Holocaust.

The two cases are not quite similar, except for this one central lesson. Once the wish to gain time drives a willingness to accept the demands of a ruthless, totalitarian regime hell-bent on subversion and destruction, the tragic consequences are inevitable. It is this insight that should be imparted to friends in American politics and diplomacy.

IDF Col. (res) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. 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 Strategic Studies.

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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