A Likud minister close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday the US will never attack Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel will have to decide whether to launch such a strike alone or come to terms with a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic.
The statement came as tensions heated in the Middle East, with Iran ramping up its nuclear program with ongoing violations of its 2015 deal with world powers, and the US and Israel issuing threats and warnings.
Some of the activity is tied to the changing of the guard at the White House. The Trump administration stepped up its pressure on Iran as its tenure drew to a close, while the Biden administration is expected to take a softer approach, despite opposition from Israel and its other regional allies.
“The United States will never attack the nuclear facilities in Iran. Israel must decide whether it will accept a nuclear Iran,” Tzachi Hanegbi told the Kan public broadcaster. “Israel will be forced to act independently to remove this danger.”
“It’s possible that in the future there will be no choice [but to attack Iran militarily],” Hanegbi said. “I hope that when our leadership is met with this dilemma, it won’t accept [a nuclear-armed Iran].”
Hanegbi said the Iranians have proved to have a “very limited” capacity to retaliate against Israel. The Jewish state has waged an air campaign against Iranian-linked targets in Syria in recent years without any serious repercussions. Tehran also swore revenge for the killing of its top nuclear scientist last year, blaming Israel for the assassination, but has not yet followed through on the threat.
A minor bomb blast at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi this week was being treated as a terror attack, but Israel has not blamed Iran.
Hanegbi, who started his Knesset career in 1988, serves as minister of settlement affairs and previously served as minister of justice, internal security, intelligence and nuclear affairs, health, environment and transport, and as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for overseeing Israel’s intelligence services.
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.
Hanegbi made similar comments last month, when he threatened that Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear program if the United States rejoined the nuclear deal, as US President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he plans to do, in one of the most forceful recent statements on the issue by an Israeli official.
“If the United States government rejoins the nuclear deal — and that seems to be the stated policy as of now — the practical result will be that Israel will again be alone against Iran, which by the end of the deal will have received a green light from the world, including the United States, to continue with its nuclear weapons program,” Hanegbi said.
“This of course we will not allow. We’ve already twice done what needed to be done, in 1981 against the Iraqi nuclear program and in 2007 against the Syrian nuclear program,” he said.
Hanegbi made the statement after massive airstrikes in Syria targeted over 15 Iran-linked facilities, the latest in a spate of such strikes.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in an interview broadcast Sunday that Israel is still keeping open the possibility of taking action against Tehran’s nuclear project if necessary.
“The IDF and Israel’s defense establishment are holding onto the option of taking action against Iran’s nuclear project if that is what has to be done,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
The interview was broadcast hours after Gantz visited the Depth Corps, the Israel Defense Forces unit tasked with conducting operations far beyond the country’s borders, reviewing operational plans, his office said, in an apparent threat to Iran.
IDF chief Aviv Kohavi issued a rare public criticism of the US attitude toward the Iran deal last week, and said that he had ordered the military to develop operational plans for striking Iran’s nuclear program.
The Biden administration has said repeatedly it is willing to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, if Iran first returns to compliance. Tehran has said the US must first remove all sanctions it placed on Iran after withdrawing from the treaty.
Last month, Tehran announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent — far beyond the 3.5% permitted under the nuclear deal, and a relatively small technical step away from the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran also said it was beginning research into uranium metal, a material that technically has civilian uses but is seen as another likely step toward a nuclear bomb.
The United Nations’ nuclear agency said Iran has continued to ramp up its nuclear program in recent weeks by further enriching uranium and installing new centrifuges at its underground Natanz plant, according to a Tuesday report.
Iran insists it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a position repeated last week by its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that Iran was currently months away from being able to produce enough material to build a nuclear weapon. And, he said, that timeframe could be reduced to “a matter of weeks” if Tehran further violates restrictions it agreed to under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Biden administration officials have indicated that Israel will be involved in its decision-making process regarding Iran’s nuclear program.