'Plans must be on the table, in existence and trained for'

IDF chief says he’s ordered fresh military plans to thwart Iran’s nuke program

Kohavi warns US against rejoining 2015 nuclear deal or even a slightly improved version, calling it ‘a bad thing to do’ that would lead to an Iranian bomb, which Israel won’t allow

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank's annual conference on January 26, 2021. (Screen capture/INSS)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank's annual conference on January 26, 2021. (Screen capture/INSS)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Tuesday said he has directed the military to prepare fresh operational plans to strike Iran to block its nuclear program.

“Iran can decide that it wants to advance to a bomb, either covertly or in a provocative way. In light of this basic analysis, I have ordered the IDF to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to the existing ones. We are studying these plans and we will develop them over the next year,” Kohavi said.

He added: “The government will of course be the one to decide if they should be used. But these plans must be on the table, in existence and trained for.”

According to Kohavi, due to its improved centrifuges and growing stockpile of enriched uranium, Iran, were it to now “rush ahead,” could be “months, maybe even weeks” from a bomb.

Israel has twice conducted military strikes against the nuclear programs of its enemies — Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 — under what’s become known as the Begin Doctrine, which maintains that Jerusalem will not allow an enemy country to obtain an atomic weapon.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference on January 26, 2021. (Screen capture: INSS)

Kohavi made his remarks during a livestreamed speech at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference, which was held this year entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a rare public comment on American foreign policy, the IDF chief warned that US President Joe Biden should not rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement, as the American leader has indicated he plans to do provided Tehran returns to compliance with the deal.

Left: US President-elect Joe Biden on January 14, 2021, in Wilmington, Delaware (AP Photo/Matt Slocum); Right: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran, December 9, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

“With the changing of the administration in the United States, the Iranians have said they want to return to the previous agreement. I want to state my position, the position that I give to all my colleagues when I meet them around the world: Returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement or even to an agreement that is similar but with a few improvements is a bad thing and it is not the right thing to do,” Kohavi said.

Due to the close relationship between the American and Israeli militaries, as well as the IDF’s general preference to keep out of political arguments, it is highly uncommon for military officials to criticize allies’ foreign policy.

In his speech, Kohavi spoke out harshly not only against the possibility of the United States rejoining the 2015 deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but also against the original agreement. Kohavi’s predecessor, as well as other senior Israeli defense officials, were not devout champions of the agreement, but described it as an imperfect way to take the Iranian nuclear issue off the table for at least a few years, allowing them to focus their attentions more on other issues.

Kohavi denounced the deal entirely, specifically for its so-called “sunset clauses,” the terms of the agreement limiting different aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that end after a certain number of years. Critics of the JCPOA see these as allowing Iran to eventually develop an accepted nuclear program, while proponents of the deal argue that these could have been pushed back further with additional agreements.

The consensus view among Israeli defense officials opposes a return to the exact terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement, under the belief that the leverage from recent sanctions would allow for a stronger deal to be negotiated. But Kohavi’s speech marked the first time an improved version of the deal has also been described as wholly unacceptable from an Israeli security standpoint.

This photo released November 5, 2019 shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

“If the 2015 nuclear deal were carried out, Iran would be able to get itself a weapon because the agreement did not include limits to prevent this when [the agreement] ended. As of today, Iran has increased the amount of enriched material beyond what was permitted. It enriched it to levels beyond what was permitted. It developed and manufactured centrifuges that will allow it to rush ahead and produce a weapon at a much faster rate, within months, maybe even weeks,” Kohavi said.

Earlier this month, Tehran announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent — far beyond the 3.5 percent permitted under the JCPOA and just a small technical step away from the 90 percent needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran also said it was beginning research into uranium metal, a material that technically has civilian uses but is overwhelmingly seen as a step toward a nuclear bomb.

Iran said Tuesday it would also move to restrict short-notice inspections of suspect nuclear facilities from late February.

“No one has any doubt. Iran hopes, wants, identified and built the capabilities necessary to be a military nuclear power. And maybe even use them when it decides it wants to,” Kohavi said.

The military chief warned that a return to the Iran deal would also likely prompt a “nuclear arms race” in the Middle East as other countries in the region — like Saudi Arabia, which also sees Iran as a major threat — would also seek to obtain an atomic weapon in order to maintain the balance of power.

In his speech, the IDF commander called for the United States to use the leverage over Iran gained during the presidency of Donald Trump through his so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of financial sanctions on Tehran, which has crippled the already-weak Iranian economy. Kohavi said the US should use this situation to negotiate a better deal that would end Iran’s nuclear program entirely, not just its military aspects.

“There needs to be serious effort so that by the end, there won’t not only not be a bomb but there won’t be an ability to rush to a bomb,” he said.

Iranian police officers take position while protesters gather in front of Amir Kabir University in Tehran, Iran, to remember victims of a Ukrainian airplane shot down by an Iranian missile; during a rally on January 11, 2020. (AP Photo/File)

“The Iran of today is not the Iran of 2015 when the deal was signed. Iran now is under enormous pressure — financial pressure, massive inflation, bitterness and unrest in the population, whose salaries have tanked — because of the American sanctions. These pressures must continue. No matter what happens. Anything that releases that pressure gives them oxygen, gives them air and will allow them to continue to violate the current agreement,” Kohavi said.

Biden administration officials have indicated that Israel will be involved in its decision-making process regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a Channel 12 report, the head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen is expected to travel to the United States shortly to meet with Biden and lay out Israel’s demands for a future Iran deal, which would include not only Tehran’s nuclear program, but also its missile program and support for proxies throughout the Middle East.

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