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The Iranian Threat and Israeli Response

Eran Lerman Spring 2022
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There is a monument in Israel to Israeli-Iranian friendship as it was until the late 1970s: It is 200 kilometers long and it leaks from time to time. It’s called the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline and it was built to carry Iranian crude to Mediterranean shores. 

The problem of Iran has to do with the ambition and self-perception of the Iranian Revolution under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – and now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the inheritor of the former’s mantle as Supreme Leader. Their ambition was/is to lead Muslims, and then the world, in a revolution that will finally validate their side of the ancient debate on the future of Islam between Shia and Sunni.

Today the Iranian revolution, which redefined what it means to be Shia, is in the business of destroying Israel. Being in a position to do what the Sunni “cowards and traitors” decided not to do from Sadat onward is central to who they are. This is not about doing; this is about being. This is identity politics, which, in the Middle East tends to overturn the logic of cost and benefit.

The higher the cost of making Iran the one player left pursuing the destruction of Israel when everyone else in the region has more or less succumbed to the idea that Israel is a fact, makes the leadership in Tehran – in their own mind – claimant to a historic role of the first order. And that justifies for them the immense cost of what they, and their allies, proxies, and dependents have been trying to do.

Israel has not pursued a rivalry or enmity with Iran. Israel’s Directorate of Military Intelligence dismantled the Iranian Section after the Iran-Iraq War because we thought Tehran would settle into a more normal existence. But the exact opposite happened. To justify all the inequities and failures of the Iranian revolution, not to mention repression, torture and death the Iranian revolutionary leadership had inflicted on its own people, Israel became and continues to be central. And central to the Iranian nuclear military project. 

Which is a second point. We are past the time at which anyone can still latch on to that nonsense about a fatwa [religious injunction] by the leader saying Iran is not interested in a bomb. This is a military project; it was always a military project. Even before we stole Iran’s nuclear archive [in 2018], we knew that. The program is not big enough to be civilian and it’s not small enough to be research. It is not an accident that it is the size of the Pakistani enrichment program, which was military from day one. And it was A. Q. Khan, head of Pakistan’s nuclear effort, who sold the Iranians the technology that they’re now using and improving. 

They are committed to our destruction, and they’re committed to getting the bomb. Nobody enriches uranium to 60 percent, let alone 90 percent for any other purpose.

The Begin Doctrine

This creates a fundamental question for Israel. Do we apply the so-called Begin Doctrine enunciated by Menachem Begin in 1981, after the bombing of the Osirak facility in Iraq just short of it going hot? And applied by Ehud Olmert’s government in 2007 in Syria? The doctrine obliges Israeli governments of all colors to prevent a sworn enemy of Israel from having the capacity to destroy us.

And in the background, central to the ultimate question, is a typical F. Scott Fitzgerald situation, in which you have two contradictory ideas and try not to lose your capacity to act. The contradictory idea is that this is not our business alone.

It is Not North Korea

This is not only about Israel. Iran breaking the barrier, Iran becoming a threshold nuclear power, let alone a military nuclear power is a catastrophe for the region and for the future of the world. Iran is not North Korea.

North Korea is an isolated hermit colony with no followers of its creed anywhere beyond its tightly shut borders. Iran is a different story. Iran has apologists in important places in American academic life and it has proxies, allies, and agents in and across the region and beyond – all the way to Venezuela and the triangle in the south between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. And the West African seaboard, where Shia Lebanese families have been established for generations.

In the immediate region, Iran is in possession or partial possession of four Arab capitals. Beirut is in the deadly grip of Hezbollah, which is a fully-owned Iranian proxy. Damascus is a condominium of Iranian and Russian influence. Baghdad, under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi, is struggling to shed total dependence on violent pro-Iranian or Iranian-sponsored factions and proxies.

And in Yemen, more than half the country is under the control of the Houthi uprising, which is a Shia movement with nowadays a deep and abiding affiliation with Iran. There are, as well, subversive elements on the eastern seaboard of the Arabian peninsula. 

An Iranian bomb will drive Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Egypt has been able to live in its own way with the perceived capacity of Israel, but Cairo will not tolerate a Shia challenger to Muslim leadership.

So, the region, and then the world would be thrown into a nuclear arms race, exactly what the entire international community has been trying to prevent since the Cuban missile crisis led to the promulgation of the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] in the late 1960’s.

 North Korea cracked the dam, but the dam did not fail. But the Iranian cross crack will be the end of the NPT system as we know it. 

Pressuring Iran

Iran is vulnerable to sanctions. This is a society historically integrated in the regional economy, in the global economy. Its isolation hurts and has led it before to come to the negotiating table.  It is a country vulnerable to pressure and pressure should be applied effectively.

We have the Iranians over an empty barrel. And that leverage should be used to the hilt instead of being thrown away to regain some kind of symbolic agreement. Israel is not opposed to an agreement, but the current and previous Israeli governments have believed no agreement is better than a bad agreement. And this one is a bad agreement.

For Israel, a military option is preferable to Iran having the bomb. We would have to contend with the consequences, including facing Hezbollah’s 120,000 rockets in Lebanon aimed at our civilians. We are willing to do it if this is only way to prevent Iran from having the bomb.

No Containment, No Constraint, No Contradiction

There can be no containment of a nuclear Iran in the way the Soviet Union or even Mao’s China were contained.

There can be no constraint. The American commitment over the years – and by the current administration as well – is that Israel is entitled to defend herself by herself. And I would add, according to her own lights based on Israel’s reading of the level of danger and the nature of the challenge.

Any constraint on that would be a mistake. 

Finally, there’s no contradiction between Israeli parties in our government. Having a credible military threat does not contradict negotiations or the use of other levers, including sanctions. It enhances the prospects of success in both cases. If the Iranians assume that they can get away with their nuclear project, then they will use negotiations to waste time. They will tell their own people that the sanctions are worth suffering because, ultimately, they will be in a position to make the rules and, finally, make Iran not only a hegemonic religious superpower, but also a prosperous place.

That is the promise of the Iranian leader – unless they understand they will never have the bomb. Unless they understand that all the suffering from sanctions and playing games with negotiations will avail them nothing. Therefore, a clear and credible military threat gives the negotiators a better position and gives sanctions a much more effective imprint on the mind of the people on the other side of the table. 

Israel and U.S. vs. Iran

The present Israeli government is interested in coming to practical terms with any American administration. The professionals on both sides understand the issues and have been able to have a serious conversation. There are still major differences as to what is an acceptable agreement. The gaps have not entirely closed. And we may face a situation where even with the best intentions of an American administration eager to come back to an agreement with Tehran, the United States will have to walk away. 

And at that point we all will be looking at the range of options from sanctions through the full spectrum of non-kinetic measures (i.e., derailing the Iranian project without sending aircraft to bomb), all the way to the possibility of military action. Interestingly, when Israel’s defense minister was in Washington, the American side leaked that an exercise simulating an offensive joint operation would be on the table.

This kind of leak indicates that people in Washington also understand the utility of a credible military threat. Where this takes us depends on whether the Iranians get the message and relent at Vienna, or we are headed toward the collapse of negotiations and the need to rethink strategy, both in Israel and in Washington.  

Will America Back Israel?

There is a saying in Hebrew that he who is always afraid is better off.  And we are afraid that the United States will not be there when we need it. Israel has been building its own homemade capacities with the help of Washington, but ultimately there is no question that they are inferior to what America can bring to bear. 

That’s not to say Israel cannot attack, but we cannot act as extensively and as effectively. We are not sure the United States would be there, given the growing reluctance about use of force on both sides of the American aisle. We’ve heard some very dispiriting things about the folly of military action.

The only thing that may balance this is the understanding, forced upon all of us by Iranian arrogance or miscalculation, that the alternatives are worse. There has to be a credible threat of action, either by the United States or by Israel – preferably together.

Sanctions

There are those who propose to rely only on sanctions. But sanctions have to be backed by a credible military threat. Nothing happened to Iran after the downing of an American drone, and nothing happened after its attack on Saudi oil facilities. Questions began to arise as to whether US-imposed sanctions were a cover for not doing anything military. There must be a complementary arrangement between sanctions and the credible military threat.

What did change the deterrent equation was the Jan. 3, 2020 elimination of Islamic Revolutionary Guyard Corps-Quds Force commander Qassim Soleimani, which came as a shock to the Iranian system.

Potential for Retaliation

The Obama administration made the decision in 2015 not to bring Iran’s regional subversive activities into the nuclear negotiation. Israel believed at the time this was a mistake. It still is a mistake, and we are not the only ones who know it: the Saudis, the Emiratis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and everyone else who feels the brunt of Iranian’s subversion believes it as well. 

Israel deals with it the best it can, and the Saudis are doing what they can to move Iraq’s Prime Minister Khadhimi and others away from Tehran. Iraq has made some progress and there are important anti-Iranian Shiites, including Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Al-Sadr won the last elections at the expense of pro-Iranian Shiite politicians in Iraq. So, the Iraqi game is open. 

As for Syria and Lebanon, there’s something going on called the “campaign between the wars” (CBW), an ongoing, intense campaign to destroy the Iranian bid to turn Syria into an Iranian stronghold and to supply Hezbollah with significant technological advantages.

Israel released figures showing that in 2021, more than 1,000 fighter sorties were flown, not all in the Gaza conflict in May. Hundreds were flown in Syria. Israel never admits to any single specific action in Syria unless it comes in a response to a very specific provocation from Syria. However, we do own up to the fact that in a general sense there have been some significant results.

One result is that the Russians, and maybe even Assad, have come to understand that the survival of the Syrian regime may be threatened if Assad turns the country into an Iranian playground.  We’ve seen some indication recently that both the Russians on the ground and Assad at a certain level are curbing Iranian activity. 

In the process, we are also signaling to our overt friends in the United Arab Emirates, and our less overt friends in Saudi Arabia, that we mean what we say.

Are we prepared for a full-scale war with Hezbollah? Much depends on the resilience of the Israeli rear – because the Israeli rear is going to suffer. This is not a technical question; it is a question of morale and purpose. If it is understood that this is not a war that’s going to be fought to another bloody draw, as in 2006 – that this war would end in the elimination of Hezbollah as a major fighting force in Lebanon – then the majority of Israelis would be willing to endure what it takes until it’s done. 

The war will require a much larger IDF ground operation than anything we’ve fought since 1982’s war against the PLO in Lebanon. But the consequences for Hezbollah would be devastating because Lebanon is full of Sunnis and Christians, and even frustrated Shias, who know what this organization has done to their country and to Syria over the last 10 or 20 years. Once Hezbollah is terminally enfeebled by Israeli military action, the Lebanese people will come after them with rusty knives. This may prove a deterrent when the day comes that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has to decide whether he and his community are willing to commit suicide on behalf of Iranian interests.

Sharing

Historically, there have been problems with Israel and the United States sharing intelligence, but right now we are looking at a fairly close, intense dialogue. Some of the illusions of the past are no longer relevant. I sat in meetings 12, 15, 20 years ago in which Americans tried to argue that the Iranians just basically need a deterrent because they live in rough neighborhood. I think we’ve moved past that point.

Eran Lerman is Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.