Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller served as a State Department Middle East analyst, adviser and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations and is the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Richard Sokolsky, a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Office from 2005-2015. The opinions expressed here are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Is Israel beating the war drums again for a military strike against Iran as the Biden administration tries to reengage Tehran on its nuclear program?
It might seem that way after listening to last week’s warnings by Aviv Kochavi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces – and earlier comments delivered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech in southern Israel: bury the 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Iran … or else.
The warnings were directed at Washington, not Tehran: Do not reenter any accord with Iran that doesn’t meet with Israel’s approval. For now, a traditionally risk-averse Netanyahu, burdened with his own domestic headaches and said to be eager to avoid a blowup with President Joe Biden over Iran, isn’t likely to attack in the near future. But if the Biden administration can’t figure out a way to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, which could easily draw America in, may only be a matter of time.
Last week, Kochavi made Israel’s position clear, saying that Israel’s military would be prepared to attack Iran on its own and that he had ordered the army to prepare operational plans for possible action against Iran in the coming year. “Those who decide on carrying them out, of course, are the political leaders. But these plans have to be on the table,” he said.
These remarks came after Netanyahu’s tough-minded warning to Biden in November not to re-enter the nuclear agreement – negotiated between China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US and known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and against the backdrop of the Israeli army indicating that it will request a substantial increase in funding for weapons needed to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA.
The tough rhetoric has been part of an Israeli pattern that’s been much more bark than bite. Between 2009 and 2013 Netanyahu perennially warned of military action – a bit of bluster that may well have energized the Obama administration to negotiate a nuclear accord with Iran that, paradoxically, Netanyahu came to despise and oppose.
In fact, despite the tough guy image he likes to project, Netanyahu has proven throughout his long career to be consistently risk-averse when it comes to making war (and peace). Unlike his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, whose military campaigns in Lebanon cost Israel and their own political fortunes dearly, Netanyahu has avoided getting bogged down in unwise campaigns in Lebanon and against Hamas in Gaza, where he’s resisted calls for a major ground incursion to destroy Hamas, let alone to reoccupy Gaza.
There are also a few cruel realities about striking Iran that have given Netanyahu and his security establishment great pause. In what Israelis like to call “mowing the grass,” the IDF could set back Iran’s nuclear program by perhaps a couple of years, but not destroy it. Indeed, an attack that lacked a compelling rationale might isolate Israel rather than Iran – and only accelerate Tehran’s quest to build a nuclear weapon at less vulnerable sites. An attack might also prompt Hezbollah to lob thousands of highly capable missiles and rockets across Israeli territory, which would cause hundreds of civilian casualties. Iran could also seek to mobilize its Shia allies in Syria and Iraq to attack targets in Israel.
The Americans are perhaps Netanyahu’s greatest worry. It is conventional wisdom that the consequences of an Israeli strike would be so destabilizing that Israel would never conduct one without American approval or at least acquiescence. Netanyahu’s inherent caution almost certainly means he’d never surprise Washington and would, in fact, want the administration’s support if not ideally its participation.
That’s not likely to happen. President Biden is more interested in engaging Iran than attacking it. Why? Because if left unresolved, the nuclear issue might draw the United States into a regional war that could include Iranian sponsored terrorism, attacks on oil facilities and shipping, and operations by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria that could jeopardize US goals there. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Iran could have enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon in months or, if it continued to lift restraints put in place by the JCPOA, in “a matter of weeks.”
The resulting fallout would disrupt Biden’s key priority – domestic recovery – would ratchet up energy prices, and suck the administration back into the Middle East at a time when it wants to pivot to Asia to confront an aggressive China.
Biden isn’t Donald Trump. Biden will go the extra mile to coordinate with Israel on nuclear diplomacy, but he’s unlikely to give Netanyahu a blank check to sabotage his efforts to engage Tehran. Moreover, Biden – a strong supporter of Israel for decades – is not Obama, whom Netanyahu had a far easier time portraying among Israelis as unfriendly to Israel.
But Netanyahu and his hawkish supporters in this country should be under no illusions. The new Biden administration is unlikely to deliver on what they want: an extension of the sunset provisions that allow key nuclear restrictions to expire after a specific number of years in the JCPOA, real limits on Iran’s ballistic missile development, and a rollback of Iran’s regional influence.
Israel’s options for military action will be constrained if the administration successfully restores the JCPOA – or even if it gets less from Iran on nuclear compliance in return for less American relief from sanctions. But if there is no nuclear deal, and especially if hardliners capture the Iranian presidency in June’s election and ramp up Iran’s nuclear program, all bets are off against Israel taking matters into its own hands.
The clock is ticking …