US-Israeli dilemma as window for diplomacy with Iran closes swiftly
At the beginning of this month, the US and Israeli air forces conducted a joint drill at the Nevatim air force base in southern Israel. US F-15 fighter jets, together with Israel’s F-35 stealth fighter jets, simulated what were described as strikes on targets deep in enemy territory. In light of the stalemate in reviving the Iran nuclear deal, this phrase is nothing more than a euphemism for both air forces practicing an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and other strategic sites in that country.
In recent months, tensions between Iran and other sectors of the international community, especially the US and Europe, have been accelerating, and not only around the nuclear issue. This leads to the conclusion, a dangerous one, that the window for diplomatic negotiations is closing swiftly and is being replaced by a trajectory of continuous collision. The only question that remains concerns the magnitude of the conflict, and whether it will end with a direct military confrontation.
In a recent press conference, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was categorical in stating that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, is not a priority for Washington in terms of timing or context. But there was also a warning to Tehran that the Washington administration’s position is clear — “that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.” To underline Biden’s determination to stop Iran’s march toward a nuclear military capability, Sullivan visited Israel last week and met with the country’s political and military leadership to discuss strategies to not only avert Tehran’s evolving nuclear threat, but also counter its other menacing activities in the region.
Iran is increasingly positioning itself as a pariah state, with brutality at home against its own people, the supply of “kamikaze drones” to Russia for use against Ukraine, and its damaging role in places such as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A central factor in settling international conflicts through negotiation is the establishment of mutual trust and goodwill. During the years of the more pragmatic presidencies of Mohammed Khatami and especially Hassan Rouhani, when the nuclear deal was agreed, the international community, especially the West, was prepared to take risks with its Iranian interlocutors, as it was assessed that in the complex political realities in Tehran the agreement had also received the blessing of the more radical elements in the leadership, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
There was also a subtext among the UN Security Council’s P5+1 that for the regime in Tehran the deal not only supplied the bait of removing the international sanctions against it, but also that such a development was another step in empowering the more pragmatic elements within the regime, as the removal of sanctions and the resulting improvement in the country’s economic situation would be credited to them.
The US and Israel would like to see the current demonstrations across Iran develop into a full-blown revolution that ends in toppling the regime.
This second assumption is hard to either corroborate or disprove, because America’s short-sighted withdrawal from the JCPOA during the Trump administration changed the dynamic of this agreement and led to the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear project. This sorry saga left both the US and Israel with a crucial dilemma: Did their commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons merit the use of direct military force, or could it be achieved by sanctions, diplomatic pressure and clandestine operations?
In Israel there is a new government, the most hawkish in its history, which is already facing a deep constitutional crisis. With the exception of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Middle East outlook concentrates on containing Iran and especially its nuclear ambitions, the rest of the government is more interested in Israel’s domestic politics and its relations with the Palestinians. This should allow Netanyahu more freedom to set the strategy vis-a-vis Iran, and not only on the nuclear issue. Israel is very likely to confront Iran and its Hezbollah ally in Syria and Lebanon in order to prevent them from further strengthening their stronghold in Syria and continuing to arm their Lebanese ally with more sophisticated weapons, which is a source of grave concern that it will encounter these weapons in due course in a confrontation with Hezbollah with the encouragement of Tehran.
Similarly, the “war between the wars,” which entails a wide range of covert operations, including assassinations and cyberattacks, is expected to continue, but the question is whether these are expected to intensify, not only as Iran gets closer to a nuclear military capability, but also as a result of Netanyahu’s efforts to deflect from his own domestic difficulties, in particular his corruption trial.
Biden and his administration have little trust in Netanyahu. The president was Obama’s deputy when the JCPOA was signed, and as Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, made a blunt intervention in US domestic politics in an attempt to stop that 2015 nuclear deal. Yet, if the US decides to sanction a military operation against Iran, Israel’s capabilities in the air and in intelligence could be very useful. However, this might also complicate the regional political scene, especially if the anti-democratic elements in Israel should further strengthen their hold on the society and politics of the country, and their government moves closer toward the annexation, albeit de facto, of the West Bank.
Tehran at the same time is underestimating the antagonism it is creating by supporting Moscow in its unjustified and brutal war against Ukraine and by its own brutality against those who participate in legitimate protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, hundreds of whom have been already killed by the security forces or executed after summary trials. The hanging earlier this week of Iranian-British dual national Ali Reza Akbari — labelled by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly as “a barbaric act that deserves condemnation in the strongest possible terms” — is a further push for the international community to respond decisively.
The US and Israel would like to see the current demonstrations across Iran develop into a full-blown revolution that ends in toppling the regime. But this is unlikely to happen soon, as the protests have failed to gather sufficient momentum and critical mass. This leaves the US and Israel, and many others, wondering how to deal with the regime, and not only on the nuclear issue. For now, it remains unclear whether either or both have an adequate answer beyond a few tweaks at the margins that might not be enough.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.