The nuclear deal announced on November 24th between Iran and a number of western powers, including the United States led by President Barack Obama, has aroused a considerable amount of consternation for Israel. Israeli officials have openly rejected the apparent “liberalization” of Iran’s international and security-related relationship with the global community. When the new Iranian president Hasan Rouhani had begun to make overtures at a more open and diplomatic understanding between Iran and the rest of the world, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounced any truth to suspect changes in Iranian foreign policy. In his October 1st speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu described former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a “wolf in wolf’s clothing” and Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Rouhani may only be looking to have international sanctions eased on his country so that they can temporarily bolster a faltering economy as well as free up space to continue uranium enrichment. Both Netanyahu as well as Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz have said that if Iran crosses any “red lines”, whether they are in the form of certain amounts of enriched uranium or in any direct threats or attacks on Israeli citizens, Israel will strike and will likely be supported by the United States.
But what exactly is the enrichment “red line”? Israeli officials have already stated they have no problem with Iran using nuclear reactors for electricity, but all reports indicate that an Iranian bomb, or more likely an entire arsenal, is the end goal of the Islamist regime. Steinitz argues that Iran only needs 250 kilograms (551 pounds) of 90% enriched uranium to begin manufacturing nuclear weapons and states that Iran already has about 190 kilograms (418 pounds) of uranium that is enriched at roughly 20%. With the increasing number of centrifuges being utilized in Iran, nuclear capabilities for the Persian state are not far off. Iran has five nuclear sites, all situated in the central and western parts of the country. Of largest concern are the uranium enrichment sites in Qom and Natanz, both south of the capital Tehran, and the heavy water plant (where nuclear fission chain reactions are moderated to produce plutonium for bombs) located in Arak farther west.
Construction, fortification, and development have taken place at these sites very recently and has raised concern for many Israelis who fear attack based on the way their relationship with Iran has historically been defined. This definition is predicated upon virulent rhetoric towards Israelis by Iranian officials, Iranian support of terrorist groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as the anti-Semitic, anti-western rule of the fundamentalist Islamic Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khameini, believed by many to be the true holder of power and decision-making capacity in the Iranian state.
But as I was alluding to earlier, Israel will not strike just over rhetoric, bad blood, or even the presence of nuclear materials. Israel assumes particular levels of nuclear development to be a sufficient direct and regional threat that requires elimination to protect its citizens. The fact that Israel will strike can be demonstrated using a recent example. On September 6th, 2007 the Israeli Defense Forces bombed and destroyed the Al-Kibar reactor in Syria. The reactor had received significant support from Iran and North Korea but the Israeli foreign intelligence organization, Mossad, was able to discover the clandestine project along with the CIA. Syria never publicly admitted to building this reactor but it was quite clear to both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and most international observers that there was a developed, undeclared reactor on the location. Elliot Abrams, Deputy National Security Adviser for Global Democracy Strategy during President George W. Bush’s second term and one of the top U.S. officials dealing with foreign affairs and particularly the Middle East from 2000-2009, reveals that the Israeli strike on Al-Kibar, “…seem[ed] to have made the Syrians more, not less, desirous of talking to the Israelis because it made them afraid of Israeli power (during the 2007 secret, bilateral negotiations between Syria and Israel)”. Abrams also notes that Syrian President Bashir al-Assad had been allowing Syria to function as a main transit route for jihadi militants going to Iraq to kill American soldiers. The strike not only neutralized a nuclear threat but also gave Israel a much stronger hand in negotiations during that period of time.
Israel certainly has the means to attack Iran and given the fashion in which Iran has been conducting itself in the international arena lately, it remains a question of “when” rather than “if” Israeli will take military action against them. The short-term “deal” that was reached gives Iran only about $7 billion in relief, not nearly enough to drastically alter the state of the economy, in return for the promise to roll back certain levels of enrichment and development. Tensions will remain high, voices will not be muffled by this agreement, and once the deal expires Iran and the international community will be back at square one again. Iran has set out on a course that aims to strengthen itself and to directly test Israel’s patience and resolve. Iran has contributed to a harder-line Likud in Israel (the ruling party embodied in PM Netanyahu) and has driven wedges in between the U.S. and Israel. While American aid to Israel, roughly $3 billion per year, is unlikely to change, Israel and American responses to the deal have clearly been at odds in many respects. In the end, we can be assured of one thing: there is no evidence Israel will hold back from striking Iran if weapon capacities are reached and Israel is presented with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.