The United States and Israel are publicly battling over the future of Iran policy again, yet Israeli security officials admit that the previous “maximum pressure” policy championed by the Trump administration has not succeeded in forcing Tehran to capitulate or dented its support for its militia proxies in the Middle East. Such an apparent policy failure has not, as of yet, forced a rethink of Israel’s fierce opposition to the Biden administration’s stated goal of rejoining the Iran nuclear accord — even at the risk of regional escalation.
The new U.S. administration has made clear it intends to engage Iran diplomatically in a bid to turn back Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal was called, originally signed under the Obama administration. With Israeli support, Trump left the agreement and instituted a policy of escalating economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, known as “maximum pressure.”
According to an Israeli military intelligence assessment shared with foreign journalists in Tel Aviv earlier this month, the Trump approach has so far not forced Iran back to the negotiating table on terms more favorable to the West.
Moreover, despite the heavy toll that the renewed sanctions regime has had on the Iranian economy over the past three years, Tehran’s active support for a multitude of proxy militias has not diminished. According to the assessment, Iranian funding to Lebanon’s Hezbollah has remained the same, while even more money has been sent to the al-Houthi fighters in Yemen, as well as to Shiite militias and allied groups in Syria.
The prospect, held out by former Trump officials and some in Israel, that the Iranian regime would collapse from within due to economic pressure and public discontent is remote, according to two senior Israeli security officials.
“Countries don’t collapse so quickly,” one told me, adding that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khamenei “doesn’t have to answer to anyone, and he is still advancing towards his goals.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held out the prospect of the U.S. returning to the nuclear deal, and relieving sanctions, in exchange for Iran’s reversing multiple recent violations of its commitments under the agreement — a policy referred to as “compliance for compliance.”
Israel believes this is the exact wrong approach.
Even prior to Biden’s inauguration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned darkly of any return to the JCPOA. After Blinken met with European counterparts last week in a bid to get Iran back to the negotiating table, Netanyahu issued a statement saying Israel’s position on the deal had not changed and that “going back to the old agreement will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.”
The Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, late last month took the unprecedented step of publicly blasting any return to the JCPOA, saying, “anything similar to the current agreement or even an improved agreement would be unacceptable and should not be allowed,” adding that he had instructed the military to prepare operational plans to attack the Iranian nuclear program.
Israeli officials seem unperturbed by the evident failure of the Trump-era policy to force Iran to its economic knees, as well as Tehran’s escalating nuclear work of recent months: expanding uranium stockpiles to higher enrichment levels, additional provocative research and development, and threats to limit international inspections.
Israeli military intelligence describes this Iranian strategy as the accruement of nuclear bargaining chips ahead of any renewed negotiation with the U.S., which has gone hand-in-hand with Iran’s sowing of instability in the region via its allied militias.
“The proxy threat in Iraq and Yemen is an inexpensive, effective, and a ‘deniable’ solution for Iran to carry out attacks without risking war,” said a senior Israeli military commander.
Just this month, rockets have been fired at a U.S. military base and the embassy in Iraq by militias thought to be affiliated with Iran. (The Biden administration said it is still investigating who the perpetrators are and reserves “the right to respond at the time and place of our choosing.”) Taken together with the nuclear violations, Iran’s goal is to create a sense of urgency and crisis in Washington — which Israel also rejects.
“Superpowers shouldn’t be pressured. What’s the rush?” a senior Israeli defense official stated flatly. “The Iranians are pushing the envelope and looking for a deal, how — by killing Americans?”
Israeli military intelligence describes a “deterrence deficit” on the part of Iran and its “Shiite Axis,” stemming in part from the January 2020 assassination (by the U.S.) of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the November 2020 assassination (thought to be by Israel) of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. This, the Israelis assess, will require a response at some point, likely from countries to its north — that is, from Lebanon and Syria.
In recent weeks, the Israeli military has conducted two large-scale exercises, on land and in the air, modeling a full-scale war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet Israeli military intelligence now believes any such escalation need not be total and could be limited to a few days — possibly a key factor in any analysis of what may be acceptable brinkmanship vis-à-vis Iran.
“When was the last time there was a major war in the Middle East?” the senior defense official posited, belying the region’s popular (and tragically earned) image. “The 2006 Israel-Lebanon war began as a miscalculation. But other than that, it was the U.S. who initiated two wars in Iraq. … There are lots of ways to avoid war.”
The Biden administration appears less sanguine and clearly hopes that diplomacy can head off any new crisis, whether military or nuclear (or both). The Israeli government, aside from the public bromides against rejoining the JCPOA, has yet to formulate its official position with respect to renewed talks with Iran.
According to several Israeli sources, the length of any new deal (so-called sunset provisions), increased inspections, research and development on crucial parts of a nuclear weapons program like advanced centrifuges and uranium metal, underground infrastructure, and other military dimensions of such work are all major areas of concern that the original JCPOA did not adequately address.
More worrisome for Israel than the actual physical material is the technological knowledge Iran has been accruing. Knowledge, unlike stockpiles of enriched uranium, is less easily reversible, per these sources.
And yet, crucially, Israeli military intelligence rates the chances of any new deal including Iran’s malign regional activity as nonexistent and Iranian missile development as extremely unlikely — contrary to some demands put forward by officials and analysts in both the U.S. and Israel. According to one senior Israeli military commander, there may be some flexibility on Tehran’s part, but not on the big issues.
The Biden administration and Israel may differ on many of the above details, but no one issue may be as open to disagreement as the wider strategic lens through which Washington and Jerusalem (and Jerusalem’s regional Arab partners) view the Middle East.
“The Biden team needs to see the positive side of what’s happening in the Middle East, and it shouldn’t let emotions dictate policy,” the senior defense official said, citing last year’s Trump-brokered peace deals between Israel and four Arab states (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan). There is also, he added, the future prospect of peace with Saudi Arabia on the table, which could be added to long-standing peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, and even Qatar’s helpful role in the Gaza Strip.
“All of these countries are tied through the U.S. umbrella; someone needs to connect them. … You can’t approach it like you left in November 2016 and now you’re back like nothing has happened in four years. The Middle East has changed.”
Israel, for its part, does seem to realize that Washington itself has changed: The years of Trump’s carte blanche support for Israel are gone, replaced by more skeptical Democratic Party rule and a Middle East much lower on the list of priorities for an administration battling the pandemic and economic crisis at home and China abroad.
Israeli officials appreciate the frustration toward their Arab allies, both old and new, by the U.S., especially on domestic human rights and the war in Yemen. The Biden administration has already signaled its intent to “recalibrate” relations with Saudi Arabia, a move Israel views with alarm. Yet Israeli officials who deal regularly with their regional counterparts insist that the Arab states understand they will also have to change to account for the new winds blowing out of Washington.
“(The Arabs) need to grow up. They don’t need to arrest every activist, and they don’t need to pick a fight with Congress,” the senior Israeli defense official stated.
Even within Israel, there is an appreciation that a replay of the highly public clashes between Netanyahu and former President Barack Obama are not in its interest. According to a report in Axios, Israel and the U.S. will resurrect a strategic working group on Iran, with an eye to engaging at lower technical levels, and at a lower volume, than in the past.
According to one senior source familiar with Israeli government thinking, Israel “needs to understand how to work and communicate with the new administration. (Netanyahu’s) approach didn’t help last time, and it won’t help this time.”
The source added, in an acknowledgement of the changed political reality, that renewed talks with the Palestinians should now be on the table, as it is an issue likely to be important to the Biden administration. “At some point someone will have to give an accounting of the Palestinian issue. It won’t help us in 30 or 50 years … you can only put it on the back burner for so long.”
Perhaps self-servingly, from the Israeli point of view the Biden administration’s rumored goal to “downgrade” the Middle East makes little strategic sense. There is the Iranian nuclear program, and the burgeoning Israeli-Arab alliance system, and Iraq, and Syria, and the fate of U.S. military bases in the Gulf — to say nothing of the U.S.-Israel relationship itself.
“It’s a complicated neighborhood,” the senior Israeli defense official said. “The U.S. needs to go slowly so that it doesn’t lose influence and power. Frustration isn’t a work plan, and there are no vacuums in the Middle East.”