Iran’s nuclear prowess: Still Israel’s number one problem?

Last week’s announcement by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), that it had shot down what was alleged Israeli drone, was drowned in the sounds of sirens and explosions from the war between Israel and the Gaza-based Palestinians. The incident took place near the nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz. Predictably, Israeli military and diplomatic officials refused to comment on the incident. However, unofficial reports from Israel, based on Iranian news agencies’ supplied footage, suggested that the vehicle looked like one that is used by the Israeli Air Force. It is understandable that the Iranians would like to reap the diplomatic and public relations benefits from capturing an Israeli spy drone. Nevertheless, one should not be surprised by the notion that Israel, as other countries, could be investing efforts in collecting intelligence aimed at getting a clearer view of the progress and nature of Iranian nuclear ambitions.

For years, Israel has contended that Iranian foreign policy and particularly her nuclear ambitions are an existential threat to the Jewish state. There is somewhat of a consensus in Israel that an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons would put Israeli security in jeopardy. Opinions, however, differ on what the best approach is to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear military capability. There is a general agreement within Israel that it would be best for the international community to deal with this issue, either through diplomacy, sanctions or even military force. Nonetheless, the declared Israel policy is that if no one else will stop Iran, it retains her right to keep her military option open.

Israeli strategy

Israeli strategists have devoted more than a decade to developing military options to respond in case Iran acquires military capability which can potentially be directed at Israel. Yet, an Israeli military attack remains very unlikely for various reasons. Thus far, the Israeli policy of keeping her military options open has proved successful. It engaged the international community in proactive endeavors to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Beside a genuine concern among the international community of Iran joining the exclusive nuclear club, there are equally deep concerns regarding the consequences of an Israeli military attack on Iran. Israel is mindful that her threat of taking military actions is more effective than executing the threat. Years of diplomatic pressure and sanctions yielded an interim agreement in November last year with the P5 + 1, in which Iran - for all means and purposes - publicly gave up her ambitions of gaining nuclear military capability. These are ambitions which she was very careful to deny all along, even in the face of a very skeptical international audience. In exchange for gradual relief from the economic sanctions imposed on her, Iran agreed to stop enrichment of uranium to weapon grade level.

The sources of potential threat to Israel security right now are much closer to home than Iran

Yossi Mekelberg

Israel was far from being satisfied, and accused Tehran of deception and the Western negotiators of naivety. From the perspective of the Israeli government, the negotiations have acted as nothing more than a smoke screen to conceal the uranium enrichment as part of a nuclear military program. Interestingly enough, it was reported only last week that Iranian experts have started altering a reactor in the city of Arak to limit the amount of plutonium it produces.

For years, it has been suggested by some that Israel was not only spying on Iran, but was also involved in clandestine attempts to assassinate key Iranian scientists and create computer viruses to destroy Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Gathering information, even by drones, does not necessarily signal preparation for an imminent and comprehensive military attack on Iranian’s nuclear installations. If it is happening, it might well be in hope of exposing Iranian violations of the interim agreement.

Cripple the Iranian nuclear program

Even if an Israeli military operation to cripple the Iranian nuclear program is technically possible, it is not feasible or probable, especially when international negotiations on a deal with Iran are taking place. Without the consent of at least the United States, this would be in utter defiance of the international community as a whole, and Israel’s closest ally and supporter. Considering Israel’s image in the world following the war in Gaza, aggravating relations with the international community might cause tremendous and long term harm to Israeli military, political and economic interests.

Even if the Israeli government reaches the conclusion that it would be best to ignore the will of the international community, because eliminating the Iranian nuclear program is an existential priority, there is no guarantee that such a complex operation will achieve its aims. Also, the nature and magnitude of the Iranian retaliation for such an attack is hard to predict. Undoubtedly, Iran has the military capacity to harm Israel directly or by proxy, and an unprovoked attack will be seen by the regime in Tehran as legitimizing a retaliation against Israeli targets at home and abroad. The war in Gaza proved that even under conditions of complete military superiority, the desired military and political consequences are hard attain. The Iranians possess far greater military capabilities than the Palestinians in Gaza, and military aggression against them are bound to provoke reprisals against Israeli interests and most possibly Western ones as well.

Moreover, Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot rely on Israeli public support in taking military action against Iran’s nuclear installations. There is a solid majority among Israelis against it. Operation Protective Edge already shows that the general public in Israel is gradually becoming more cautious before rushing to support another military adventurism from the school of thought of Netanyahu’s government. The war in Gaza exposed that rhetoric and military plans aside, the dynamic of modern war produces inconclusive outcomes at best.

The sources of potential threat to Israel security right now are much closer to home than Iran. Not resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, or developments in the wider Middle East, especially the border with Syria, pose much greater strategic threats. Israel has good reasons to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and her support of the Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet, both sides need to keep the vitriolic and threatening rhetoric under control in order to avoid an unintended escalation and even war. The diplomatic negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 are far from over, but there are positive signs. The negotiators should be allowed time and space to continue their efforts without interference until they are able to reach a conclusion. Hopefully such an agreement will be long term and ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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