As Iran vows revenge, Israel worries it could get even by going nuclear

While Israel and US brace for retaliation after a strike on the Revolutionary Guard in Damascus, rhetoric in the Islamic Republic hints that Ayatollah Khamenei may have other ideas

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leads Eid al-Fitr prayer marking the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leads Eid al-Fitr prayer marking the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The past couple of days have been characterized by a significant escalation in mutual threats between Iran and Israel. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted on Wednesday that Israel’s alleged strike on a building in an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus constitutes an attack on Iranian soil, and therefore Israel “must be punished.”

The Israeli response came a few hours later with a tweet in Persian by Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who said explicitly: If Iran attacks Israel from its territory, Israel will attack inside Iran. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant made similar remarks in the afternoon without explicitly mentioning Iran.

This kind of back-and-forth isn’t new. It’s very similar to the threatening messages exchanged by the two countries after the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in December 2020. However, unlike then, this time almost all of the Iranian leadership is united in broadcasting its threats. And when they come from the supreme leader, that is effectively an order to act.

Israel has made sure to convey messages to Iran in the past week that it will not hesitate to respond to an Iranian attack, and such a message also reached the United States. Until Wednesday, Washington kept mum on the subject, although it did significantly tighten military cooperation with Israel.

A senior security official told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, that since the killing of top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi in Damascus last week, relations between the US military and the IDF have grown significantly stronger. The closer cooperation will result in the creation of a mechanism designed to give Israel as early a warning as possible about missiles headed its way.

The US possesses radar systems in the Persian Gulf that can track aerial movement in and around Iran. Although it isn’t often mentioned in Israel, the US, Israel and other regional allies have built what is essentially a chain of radar systems that enable very broad coverage of Iran.

Emergency personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes that hit a building next to the Iranian embassy in Syria’s capital Damascus, April 1, 2024. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

After a week of being very careful regarding statements directed at Iran, the US gave Israel something to be satisfied about on Wednesday. US President Joe Biden said America’s commitment to Israel’s security, amid the threats from Iran and its proxies, is “ironclad.”

Biden’s statements are aimed directly at Iran, and it’s certainly possible that they’re the result of a worrying intelligence assessment Israel presented to the US. There’s no doubt the Biden administration is very concerned by the possibility of a war breaking out between Israel and Iran.

Nonetheless, it’s assumed that neither Iran nor Israel are interested in a major, direct military conflict.

Israel is already at war in the Gaza Strip and busy dealing with the northern border and Hezbollah.

At the same time, Iran’s regime views war as a last resort, worth launching only to save the ayatollahs’ rule should it be in danger, or possibly to protect its nuclear program. Otherwise, Tehran has a network of proxies it can activate to do its bidding for it.

Earlier in the year, Iran strayed from this principle and almost got burnt. After the ISIS attack at Qassem Soleimani’s grave, Iran bombed Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Pakistan didn’t blink and quickly returned fire, sending a clear message: Don’t mess with us. The Iranians quickly retreated in the face of the nuclear power to its east.

The nuclear option

But Iran could also respond in another way — by ramping up enrichment activity and making a dash for a nuclear weapon.

At two separate events recently, senior Iranian figures called on Khamenei to do just that.

Technically, Khamenei maintains a fatwa – an Islamic legal ruling – against the assembly of nuclear weapons because they are contrary to “the spirit of Islam.”

Whether or not Iranians take the ban seriously, during Friday Ramadan prayers last week, the regime’s main imam gave a sermon calling on the supreme leader to cancel the fatwa and order the Iranian nuclear agency to build a bomb.

This remark raised eyebrows in the West because it had the optics of a senior religious figure challenging the supreme leader, which prompts the yet-to-be-proven suspicion that Khamenei is preparing the ground for such a decision by inviting “pressure” from religious figures.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, visits an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, at his office compound in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 11, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Via AP, File)

Suspicions increased later in the week when Mahmoud-Reza Aghamir, chancellor of Shahid Behesti University in Tehran, said in an interview on Iranian television that the supreme leader can certainly retract his fatwa.

Aghamir, a professor of nuclear physics who is considered to be well-connected to the regime, added that at the nuclear program’s current stage, “it would be a lot easier to build a bomb than to keep holding so much enriched uranium at high levels.” As far as we know, Iran currently holds 150 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, enough to build three bombs.

Israel is tracking this possible development, and if it happens, then the US will be pushed to enter the picture with a significant military threat that leaves the Iranians no doubt as to the US’s intentions.

In this picture released by the Iranian Defense Ministry on Thursday, May 25, 2023, a Khorramshahr-4 missile is launched at an undisclosed location in Iran. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

The danger is that Khamenei can give the order discreetly, and then the only indications that Iran is assembling a bomb will be through intelligence.

Israel has said in the past it will know when Iran is about to reach the final stages of building a nuclear warhead. But after October 7, all the assumptions in Israel regarding intelligence are being reexamined, including those concerning Iran.

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