There is a fundamental disconnect at the heart of the Biden administration’s strategy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The United States has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to persuade Iran to resume compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), and is more than ready to reverse that deal afterwards. the Trump administration’s withdrawal in 2018. But he also says he’s looking for a longer, stronger deal that would fill the gaping gaps in the JCPOA.
In other words, he finds it very difficult to persuade an emboldened Tehran to return to a lousy deal, and yet he ostensibly hopes that he will eventually be able to convince the ayatollahs to agree to a more effective deal.
That the 2015 agreement was an Iranian victory and a Western catastrophe was clear from the start.
Foremost among its many shortcomings were its “sunset clauses”: after 15 years, it allows Iran to enrich as much uranium as it wishes to 20%. And after 10 years, it allows Iran to manufacture and use advanced centrifuges. It also allowed Iran to continue R&D on advanced centrifuges – which the regime hastily did – and other items that would accelerate the bombing. He did not even claim to be trying to curb Iranian advances in ballistic missile launch systems. Far from dismantling Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, the JCPOA falls short of even the much more limited goal of effectively freezing and inspecting it.
Since the withdrawal of the Trump administration, Tehran has openly broken the deal – including producing advanced centrifuges, enriching fast-growing amounts of uranium to 60%, and storing (in August) some 85 kilograms of uranium. 20% enriched.
The US approach, and that of the other P5 + 1 countries party to the 2015 agreement, reflects their particular priorities and assessments. Certainly, when it comes to the US, UK, France and Germany, the combination of the Ayatollahs and a devastating nuclear weapons capability is seen as a strategic danger.
For Israel, however, a nuclear Iran is an existential threat.
For perhaps three years after signing the JCPOA, Israel essentially abandoned its operational planning and ability to decimate Iran’s nuclear facilities. Just a few years ago, extremely robust military attack plans were in place and arguably on the verge of being implemented. But with the international community, led by the United States, locked in a diplomatic arrangement, Israel admitted that such an operation was unthinkable.
Lately, however, in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal and Iran’s overt violation of the deal, such extremely serious planning is once again on the agenda.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that “Iran’s nuclear program has reached a turning point, as has our tolerance. Words do not stop the centrifuges from spinning … We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, with rather dramatic frankness, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi publicly stated (in January) that the IDF was preparing new “operational plans” for a powerful military strike; (in August) that Iran’s nuclear progress prompted the IDF to “speed up its operational plans,” with a new budget to do so; and (in September) that the IDF “dramatically accelerated” preparations for action against Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel has not seen any signs that Iran is about to explode with a bomb. Notably, while Iran said in July it could enrich 90% military-grade uranium, it has not budged. Such a move, he probably calculates, would be seen as close to a declaration of war.
And even amassing enough fortified material for a bomb, which Iran is now able to do in 2-3 months, is absolutely not the same as getting a deliverable nuclear weapon. It’s still a long process – perhaps eight months to a year from a decision to bust, according to an assessment by former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.
What the recent repeated public statements underline that Israel is preparing operational attack plans, however, is the recognition that while Biden assured Bennett in the White House in August of the “United States'” commitment to ensure that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, “Tehran is clearly unfazed and unfazed.
“We prioritize diplomacy and see where it takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we are prepared to look to other options, ”Biden said. But this vague wording – delivered as the US essentially pleads with Iran to revert to a leaky, deeply violated deal that allow to close in on the bomb – is not seen in Israel as constituting a credible military threat. Especially since the American president is grappling with a host of other priorities, is on the defensive after the fiasco of his withdrawal from Afghanistan and, once again, does not view a nuclear Iran with the same degree of worry that Israel.
And therefore, Israel is stepping up both its rhetoric and its concrete practical preparations.
It’s confessed preparing to strike, with the added credibility of a track record of recent successful actions against the Iranian program. And he does so, genuinely ready for action, in the deep hope that the very candid sincerity of this planning will deter the rapacious extremists in Tehran, rendering such a strike unnecessary.
** This editor’s note was sent Thursday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as soon as they are released, join the ToI community here.