A senior Israeli defense official said that there currently exists no deterrent against Iran’s nuclear program.
“The problem with Iran’s nuclear program is that, for the time being, there is no diplomatic mechanism to make them stop,” said Zohar Palti, the former intelligence director in the Mossad who now heads the Defense Ministry’s political-military bureau, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine.
“There is no deterrent,” he added. “Iran is no longer afraid.”
“We don’t want to reach a point where we will have to ask ourselves how Iran was allowed to enrich to 90%,” Palti added.
On Monday, world leaders and Iran resumed talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. The latest round of talks in Vienna, the eighth, reconvened after a more than five-month gap prompted by the arrival of a new hardline government in Iran.
In the in-depth New Yorker article published Monday on the ongoing talks with Iran and Tehran’s history of belligerence, journalist Robin Wright spoke with a wide range of Israeli and American officials about the looming threat of a nuclear Iran and its other malign activities in the region.
US special envoy on Iran Rob Malley said Tehran is “playing with fire” in the region and that reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement is far from a done deal.
“We’ve seen Iran’s nuclear program expand, and we’ve seen Tehran become more belligerent, more bellicose in its regional activities,” Malley said of Iran’s activities this year. “They are miscalculating and playing with fire.”
By the time the latest round of talks began, said Malley, Iran had “blown through” the limits imposed by the nuclear deal. Malley is the senior American delegate to the talks, but the US is only participating indirectly in the negotiations, at Iran’s behest.
“As they’re making these advances, they are gradually emptying the deal of the nonproliferation benefits for which we bargained,” he said.
“We’re not going to agree to a worse deal because Iran has built up its nuclear program,” Malley added. If negotiations do not advance, he said, trying to revive the deal will become “tantamount to trying to revive a dead corpse.”
A senior US administration official said that Iran’s breakout time is “really short, and unacceptably short… every day they spin centrifuges, and, for every day they stockpile uranium, the breakout time continues to shrink.”
Without a return to the deal, a senior State Department official said, it is “more than plausible, possible, and maybe even probable” that Iran will try to become a threshold nuclear state.
Many officials quoted in the article also noted that Iran’s missile activity in the region could potentially pose a larger — and certainly more immediate — threat than its nuclear activity.
They “can strike effectively across the breadth and depth of the Middle East. They could strike with accuracy, and they could strike with volume,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, known as CENTCOM.
“Iran’s strategic capacity is now enormous,” he said. “They’ve got overmatch in the theatre — the ability to overwhelm.”
McKenzie said that Iran has equipped Hezbollah with at least 14,000 missiles and more than 100,000 rockets. “They have the ability to strike very precisely into Israel in a way they’ve not enjoyed in the past,” he said.
“Iran has proven that it is using its ballistic-missile program as a means to coerce or intimidate its neighbors,” Malley said. “Even if we can revive the JCPOA, those problems are going to continue to poison the region and risk destabilizing it,” the special envoy said, vowing that if Iran continues to do so, “the response will be robust.”
Malley said that no matter the outcome of the nuclear talks, Iran’s regional activities will have to be addressed soon. “If not, it will be a perpetual diversion from the US shift to China,” he said, and “a cauldron always being one step or misstep away from a much more dangerous conflagration.”