The Israel Defense Forces general tasked with countering Iran gave the military’s first-ever interview to a Bahraini newspaper on Sunday, hailing the ties between the two countries and discussing the threats posed by Tehran and its nuclear program.
In his interview with Bahrain’s al-Ayam, Maj. Gen. Tal Kelman said Israel preferred a diplomatic solution to halt Tehran’s nuclear ambitions despite Iran’s current intransigence on the matter, but warned that Israel was “preparing for other scenarios” should those negotiations fail, apparently alluding to a possible military strike.
Kelman said that Iran’s nuclear program represented a threat not only to Israel but to the entire world.
“There would be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East because other countries would also want to obtain an atomic weapon,” Kelman said. (According to foreign reports, Israel maintains the Middle East’s sole nuclear arsenal, which it is said to consider an imperative for its continued survival in a historically hostile region.)
In recent months, Iran has dragged its feet on returning to indirect negotiations with the United States about a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which then-US president Donald Trump abrogated in 2018 and Iran abandoned a year later. Last week, Iranian officials said they planned to return to the talks by the end of November, but US President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed growing impatience and threatened to explore “other options” should the negotiations fail.
“We still believe in the need for a diplomatic solution and we believe that with the correct moves, which must be rigid — some of which have not yet been tried and some of which are diplomatic efforts — it is possible to return Iran to the negotiating table,” Kelman said.
But he reiterated that Israel was preparing for alternatives, should Iran and the West fail to reach a deal.
“Part of my job is building Israeli plans and capabilities for a conflict with Iran. We don’t want conflict, we don’t want war. We want to resolve this issue diplomatically. But when you have in front of you a side that is aggressive, which is building military capabilities, we have to be preparing for other scenarios,” he said.
Kelman commands the military’s Strategy and Third-Circle Directorate, an outfit that was created last year to focus specifically on the threat posed by Iran. Its name comes from the IDF practice of identifying threats by their geographic proximity, with those of an immediate nature — like Hamas in Gaza, right on Israel’s border — being referred to as the “first circle,” slightly farther-flung enemies like Iranian proxies in Iraq being in the “second circle,” and yet more distant threats like Iran itself being in the “third circle.”
In January, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi announced he had instructed the military to begin drawing up fresh attack plans for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and earlier this month the government reportedly allocated billions of shekels toward making those plans viable.
Kelman, in his interview, also lauded the so-called Abraham Accords, the series of normalization agreements between Israel and a number of Arab countries, saying they represented a significant opportunity for a “new Middle East.”
Kelman said that in light of the accords, as well as previous peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, Israel no longer feels it has to shoulder the burden of fighting its enemies alone.
“If in the past, Israel relied on the principle that we must defend ourselves by ourselves, now we have changed our strategy in order to cooperate with our partners because we have partners in the region,” he said.
The accords “open the way for a moderate alliance of Israel, Bahrain, the Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and other countries that may join in the future against the extremist axis in the region led by Iran, which has proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq,” he said.
Kelman said that in the short term he hoped to work more closely with his Bahraini counterparts and others in the Gulf to counter Iran.
In the longer term, he said, Israel hoped to expand that alliance to include other countries in the Gulf, including Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, “to create a series of countries with the same goals, which seek peace, stability and prosperity for the Middle East.”