Israel’s first female Prime Minister Golda Meir famously observed that being “parlor Zionists” is an unimpressive option if the Jews are in danger. This creates a duality in Israel’s approach toward Iran. Israel is unclear if avoiding war is better than starting one in order to halt Iran’s nuclear program, given that the program could threaten the Jewish state. Even as the Israeli military prepares for war options with Iran, doubts persist that a war can be effective.
However, Iran is not a “parlor” state either and it insists on retaining a strong nuclear program even as it says it will not develop nuclear weapons. Its decision-makers try to dismiss Israel’s threats to resort to military action or to encourage the United States to do so, in order to halt the rapid advancement of the Iranian nuclear program. They insist that Israel has no control over Tehran’s behavior or the outcome of such an attack.
Israel is pressuring Washington to stop the latest nuclear talks with Tehran as they will not prevent the country from possessing nuclear weapons.
This complicates Israel’s next move toward Iran. Israel is pressuring Washington to stop the latest nuclear talks with Tehran as they will not prevent the country from possessing nuclear bombs or missiles to carry nuclear warheads. The United States was a party to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, after Washington pulled out of the accord during the Trump presidency in 2018, claiming that it was not strong enough, Iran has rejected any alternative arrangement with the Biden administration even as it held seven rounds of nuclear talks with other world powers in 2021.
Israel’s attempt to avert a bad deal with Iran seems to promote war as a better alternative, but it comes as the United States is downsizing the number of American military forces in the Middle East. In early December, the New York Times reported heated exchanges between American and Israeli officials that pointed to Washington’s reluctance to support the idea of a war, despite reviewing military options to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan even went to Israel on December 22 to work out an understanding over Iran’s nuclear program.
In carefully worded terms, Iranian sources try to discourage war. Iran’s English daily, Tehran Times, warns that Iran can operationally hit any target within Israeli territory, but that it does not want to from a strategic point of view. Major General Gholam Ali Rashid, the head of Iran’s Khatam al-Anbiya Central Headquarters, which is the combatant command headquarters of the Iranian Armed Forces, says that if Israeli threats against Iranian nuclear and military centers materialize, Iran will retaliate militarily as well.
Without getting into details, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, warns that Israeli threats will alter the Iranian response to the ongoing tensions between Israel and Iran, the normalization of relations between Israel and Iran’s Arab neighbors, and the realignment of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that pushes Israel within its area of responsibility in the Middle East through joint military and naval exercises.
The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, warns that Israeli threats will alter the Iranian response to the ongoing tensions with Israel.
Shamkhani also strikes a conciliatory tone by saying that Iran’s new government led by President Ebrahim Raisi seeks to de-escalate regional tensions by expanding economic, defense, and security ties with neighbors, believing that the U.S. decision to downsize its forces will create opportunities for collective regional engagement to resolve conflicts in which the distribution of power favors Iran, including in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
It is not clear how Iran will reach these lofty goals without a nuclear agreement as it encourages its Gulf Arab neighbors not to take sides against it. The 42nd Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh in early December highlighted the importance of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Oman and the United Arab Emirates sent delegations to Iran, and Tehran and Riyadh held direct talks (despite Saudi Arabia’s view that Iran is playing “games” in the talks), all with messages of appeasement or additional security guarantees for Iran if it were to limit its nuclear program.
The Iranian response signals Tehran is playing hardball while emphasizing the need to avoid war, with a strong message to its powerful Arab neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, that they cannot expect Iranian cooperation if they are not serious about engaging with Tehran peacefully. Tehran also insists that its nuclear file is not the business of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Iranian foot-dragging to reach a nuclear deal is designed to buy time to test the patience of America’s Arab allies, as well as Israel, as they scramble to get Iran to accept a strong arrangement. But Iranian policy analysts remain concerned that without a nuclear treaty in place very soon, the U.S. will support covert and overt Israeli sabotage attacks against Iranian nuclear sites and interests that could lead to Iran’s internal break-up and regime change. According to these analysts, buying time, as Tehran plans to do, could also weaken the Iranian economy under a tight U.S.-led sanctions regime that Israel encourages.
Iran says it is serious about reaching a diplomatic agreement, but one that does not end up weakening its security.
While Raisi’s government sees this approach as Iran’s only option forward, it may not work unless Iran finally commits to a nuclear deal. Iran says it is serious about reaching a diplomatic agreement, but one that does not end up weakening its security. Israel disagrees, believing that Tehran is not serious about a diplomatic solution and that they want to turn into a nuclear state, in light of Iranian attempts to run advanced centrifuges in its underground nuclear facilities, and enrich uranium to over 60 or even 90 percent grade levels, well over the 3.67 percent cap under the terms of the JCPOA.
Iran’s Fars News Agency says evidence that the country has reached 90 percent enrichment levels is not substantiated, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the agency argues that only countries making nuclear bombs enrich uranium at these high levels. As such, the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program leaves Israel in a state of limbo with regard to its own security.
If Prime Minister Golda Meir were alive, she might share the view that it is always better for Israel to make enemies than to be in danger, implying that the time may have arrived for Israel to attack Iran. But short of the United States giving Israel the greenlight for a war, or the Arab countries of the Middle East siding with Israel against Iran, it is yet unclear where that fine line is which Israel can safely cross in order to initiate a war with Iran. For now, without a durable nuclear agreement in sight, Israel will keep seeking enduring ways to contain Iran.