The deal reached in Vienna on Tuesday positions Iran, while under supervision, near the edge of becoming a nuclear military power. This has several far-reaching implications for Israel’s defense establishment.
In the long term, the Israeli intelligence community will be saddled with arguably the greatest challenge in its history — to track the moves of a highly sophisticated regime, religiously devoted to playing the long game, in a country more than four times the size of Germany.
In the short term, the army believes, the threat of a sprint to the bomb is decreased, but the likelihood of an emboldened Iran bringing the ethnic and religious strife in the region to a boil – including the possibility of a Sunni bomb – is increased.
A senior army officer said in a briefing several weeks ago that the non-conventional threat in the region is on the wane, on account of Syria having been stripped of nearly all its chemical weapons and Iran succumbing to the parameters of the deal.
“The penetrating oversight and the roll back [of the nuclear program] allow us to assume that in the short term [span] of years, the threat is in decline,” he said.
In other words, the prevailing theory at the top of the IDF is that, having achieved an agreement with the world powers, Iran, which will not be allowed to enrich uranium above 3.67 percent and will allow IAEA inspectors access “where necessary, when necessary,” according to President Barack Obama on Tuesday, is unlikely to violate the parameters of the deal during the early stages of its implementation.
But the cash flow of hundreds of billions of dollars and the embrace of the international community, granting Iran what Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Tuesday called an “unfathomable” legitimacy, will both increase Tehran’s regional standing and enable it to more readily and lavishly fund terror organizations like Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and others.
This will aid Iran’s efforts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and will help it spread terror internationally, increasing Israel’s efforts at prevention and perhaps destabilizing some of its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, which may pursue a bomb of its own.
The army and the other agencies will have to be braced to feel the first ripples of Iran’s triumph in the near future.
Also in the long term, Israel’s intelligence agencies will be asked to fulfill a historically pivotal role. To be sure, the effort has been ongoing since the mid-1990s, when Israel first declared, to widespread international incredulity, that Iran was in pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But the clandestine game, often deadly, enters a new and more crucial phase with the signing of the deal in Vienna.
Assuming that the IAEA inspections are helpful but not hermetic, Israel, in facing a world that may not want to hear about or seriously address Iranian violations, will need to remain particularly attentive and will, as the language of the agreement makes clear, need to provide evidence well in advance in order to jump-start a long chain of investigatory events.
“If the IAEA has concerns regarding undeclared nuclear materials or activities,” the language of the agreement states, “the IAEA will provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification.” Iran, having received the concerns in writing, will then be able to investigate and return with “other means of resolving the IAEA’s concerns.” This is followed by further clarifications and votes and, though the process is meant to be confined to several weeks, it could, without burdening anyone’s imagination, take a very long time.
All of which boils down to the option Israel was reportedly forced to exercise in Syria in 2007, when Bashar Assad pursued a nuclear weapon – the military option.
Over the years, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has adopted a standard refrain – a mishmash of Talmudic maxims – when asked about how best to defang Iran’s nuclear threat. “The work of the righteous is done by others,” he has said repeatedly, “but if I am not for myself then who is for me?”
There is a chance that the deal, which opens the gates of Iran to foreign cash and influence, will, like acid, eat away at the foundations of the Islamic revolution. If that is the case, and over the next several years a more moderate regime emerges, the first half of Ya’alon’s statement will have been fulfilled in Vienna. More likely, however, is that the second phrase, attributed to Hillel the Elder, will prove relevant.
Internationally, there seems to be a sense of near unanimity regarding Israel’s inability to carry out a debilitating strike in Iran. Former CIA director and commander of US forces in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus practically ridiculed the notion in a recent conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg in Aspen. Patiently, as though to a group of school children, he noted that Israel lacks the 30,000-pound bomb that the US has and possesses no plane capable of carrying it. Therefore, he left unsaid, Israel has no way to thwart militarily Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But neither did Israel have any business winning the War of Independence or the Six Day War or the battle on the tarmac in Entebbe. Furthermore, the eight F-16s that buried Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor were said to be unable to reach Iraq, over a string of enemy countries, without being noticed, and were too heavily weighted to carry enough gas to return.
The army and Mossad spy agency are far from perfect. They have known the taste of failure. But like the negotiations, which were deemed too big to fail, the implications of an Iranian bomb are too severely large to accept or contain. Israel’s military option may not be ideal, and it may only be worthy of execution when the knife is already cutting the flesh, as former Mossad head Meir Dagan once said, but when Ya’alon said Tuesday that, if necessary, “we will know how to protect ourselves with our own power,” one got the impression that it was not a hollow statement.
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