Israel has expressed serious concerns over the preliminary U.S.-Iranian agreement, which in theory will lift sanctions levied against Tehran and end its nuclear program. That was to be expected. Less obvious is why the Israeli government is concerned and how it will change Israel’s strategic position.
Israel’s current strategic position is excellent. After two years of stress, its peace treaty with Egypt remains in place. Syria is in a state of civil war that remains insoluble. Some sort of terrorist threat might originate there, but no strategic threat is possible. In Lebanon, Hezbollah does not seem inclined to wage another war with Israel, and while the group’s missile capacity has grown, Israel appears able to contain the threat they pose without creating a strategic threat to Israeli national interests. The Jordanian regime, which is aligned with Israel, probably will withstand the pressure put on it by its political opponents.
In other words, the situation that has existed since the Camp David Accords were signed remains in place. Israel’s frontiers are secure from conventional military attack. In addition, the Palestinians are divided among themselves, and while ineffective, intermittent rocket attacks from Gaza are likely, there is no Intifada underway in the West Bank.
Therefore, Israel faces no existential threats, save one: the possibility that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon and a delivery system and use it to destroy Israel before it or the United States can prevent it from doing so. Clearly, a nuclear strike on Tel Aviv would be catastrophic for Israel. Its ability to tolerate that threat, regardless of how improbable it may be, is a pressing concern for Israel.
In this context, Iran’s nuclear program supersedes all of Israel’s other security priorities. Israeli officials believe their allies, particularly those in the United States, should share this view. As a strategic principle, this is understandable. But it is unclear how Israel intends to apply it. It is also unclear how its application will affect relations with the United States, without which it cannot cope with the Iranian threat.
Israel understands that however satisfactory its current circumstances are, those circumstances are mercurial and to some extent unpredictable. Israel may not rely heavily on the United States under these circumstances, but these circumstances may not be permanent. There are plenty of scenarios in which Israel would not be able to manage security threats without American assistance. Thus, Israel has an overriding interest in maintaining its relationship with the United States and in ensuring Iran never becomes a nuclear state. So any sense that the United States is moving away from its commitment to Israel, or that it is moving in a direction where it might permit an Iranian nuclear weapon, is a crisis. Israel’s response to the Iran talks — profound unhappiness without outright condemnation — has to be understood in this context, and the assumptions behind it have to be examined.
More than Uranium
Iran does not appear to have a deliverable nuclear weapon at this point. Refining uranium is a necessary but completely insufficient step in developing a weapon. A nuclear weapon is much more than uranium. It is a set of complex technologies, not the least of which are advanced electrical systems and sensors that, given the amount of time the Iranians have needed just to develop not-quite-enough enriched uranium, seems beyond them. Iran simply does not have sufficient fuel to produce a device.
Nor it does not have a demonstrated ability to turn that device into a functioning weapon. A weapon needs to be engineered to extreme tolerances, become rugged enough to function on delivery and be compact enough to be delivered. To be delivered, its must be mounted on a very reliable missile or aircraft. Iran has neither reliable missiles nor aircraft with the necessary range to attack Israel. The idea that the Iranians will use the next six months for a secret rush to complete the weapon simply isn’t the way it works.
Before there is a weapon there must be a test. Nations do not even think of deploying nuclear weapons without extensive underground tests — not to see if they have uranium but to test that the more complex systems work. That is why they can’t secretly develop a weapon: They themselves won’t know they have a workable weapon without a test. In all likelihood, the first test would fail, as such things do. Attempting their first test in an operational attack would result not only in failure but also in retaliation.
Of course, there are other strategies for delivering a weapon if it were built. One is the use of a ship to deliver it to the Israeli coast. Though this is possible, the Israelis operate an extremely efficient maritime interdiction system, and the United States monitors Iranian ports. The probability is low that a ship would go unnoticed. Having a nuclear weapon captured or detonated elsewhere would infuriate everyone in the eastern Mediterranean, invite an Israeli counterstrike and waste a weapon
Otherwise, Iran theoretically could drive a nuclear weapon into Israel by road. But these weapons are not small. There is such a thing as a suitcase bomb, but that is a misleading name; it is substantially larger than a suitcase, and it is also the most difficult sort of device to build. Because of its size, it is not particularly rugged. You don’t just toss it into the trunk, drive 1,500 miles across customs checkpoints and set it off. There are many ways you can be captured — particularly crossing into Israel — and many ways to break the bomb, which require heavy maintenance. Lastly, even assuming Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, its use against Israel would kill as many Muslims — among them Shia — as Israelis, an action tantamount to geopolitical suicide for Tehran.
A Tempered Response
One of the reasons Israel has not attempted an airstrike, and one of the reasons the United States has refused to consider it, is that Iran’s prospects for developing a nuclear weapon are still remote. Another reason is difficulty. Israel’s air force is too far removed and too small to carry out simultaneous strikes on multiple facilities. If the Israelis forward-deployed to other countries, the Iranians would spot them. The Israelis can’t be certain which sites are real and which are decoys. The Iranians have had years to harden their facilities, so normal ordnance likely would be inadequate. Even more serious is the fact that battle damage assessment — judging whether the site has been destroyed — would be prohibitively difficult.
For these reasons, the attack could not simply be carried out from the air. It would require special operations forces on the ground to try to determine the effects. That could result in casualties and prisoners, if it could be done at all. And at that the Israelis can only be certain that they have destroyed all the sites they knew about, not the ones that their intelligence didn’t know about. Some will dismiss this as overestimating Iranian capabilities. This frequently comes from those most afraid that Tehran can build a nuclear weapon and a delivery system. If it could do the latter, it could harden sites and throw off intelligence gathering. The United States would be able to mount a much more robust attack than the Israelis, but it is unclear whether it would be robust enough. And in any case, all the other problems — the reliability of intelligence, determining whether the site were destroyed — would still apply.
But ultimately, the real reason Israel has not attacked Iran’s nuclear sites is that the Iranians are so far from having a weapon. If they were closer, the Israelis would have attacked regardless of the difficulty. The Americans, on the other hand, saw an opportunity in the fact that there are no weapons yet and that the sanctions were hurting the Iranians. Knowing that they were not in a hurry to complete and knowing that they were hurting economically, the Iranians likewise saw an opportunity to better their position.
From the American point of view, the nuclear program was not the most pressing issue, even though Washington knew it had to be stopped. What the Americans wanted was an understanding with the Iranians, whereby their role in the region would be balanced against those of other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, the Arabian emirates and to some extent Israel. As I’ve argued, the United States is still interested in what happens in the region, but it does not want to continue to use force there. Washington wants to have multiple relations with regional actors, not just Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israel’s response to the U.S.-Iran talks should be understood in this way. The Israelis tempered their response initially because they knew the status of Iran’s nuclear program. Even though a weapon is still a grave concern, it is a much longer-term problem than the Israelis admit publicly. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried hard to convince the United States otherwise, the United States isn’t biting.) Since an attack has every chance of failing, the Israelis recognize that these negotiations are the most likely way to eliminate the weapons, and that if the negotiations fail, no one will be in a more dangerous position for trying. Six months won’t make a difference.
The Israelis could not simply applaud the process because there is, in fact, a strategic threat to Israel embedded in the talks. Israel has a strategic dependency on the United States. Israel has never been comfortable with Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, but there was nothing the Israelis could do about it, so they accommodated it. But they understand that the outcome of these talks, if successful, means more than the exchange of a nuclear program for eased sanctions; it means the beginning of a strategic alignment with Iran.
In fact, the United States was aligned with Iran until 1979. As Richard Nixon’s China initiative shows, ideology can relent to geopolitical reality. On the simplest level, Iran needs investment, and American companies want to invest. On the more complex level, Iran needs to be certain that Iraq is friendly to its interests and that neither Russia nor Turkey can threaten it in the long run. Only the United States can ensure that. For their part, the Americans want a stronger Iran to contain Saudi support for Sunni insurgents, compel Turkey to shape its policy more narrowly, and remind Russia that the Caucasus, and particularly Azerbaijan, have no threat from the south and can concentrate on the north. The United States is trying to create a multipolar region to facilitate a balance-of-power strategy in place of American power.
Israel in 10 Years
I began by pointing out how secure Israel is currently. Looking down the road 10 years, Israel cannot assume that this strategic configuration will remain in place. Egypt’s future is uncertain. The emergence of a hostile Egyptian government is not inconceivable. Syria, like Lebanon, appears to be fragmented. What will come of this is unclear. And whether in 10 years the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will remain Hashemite or become a Palestinian state is worthy of contemplation. None have military power now, but then Egypt went from disaster in 1967 to a very capable force in 1973. They had a Soviet patron. They might have another patron in 10 years.
Right now, Israel does not need the United States, nor American aid, which means much less to them now than it did in 1973. They need it as a symbol of American commitment and will continue to need it. But the real Israeli fear is that the United States is moving away from direct intervention to a more subtle form of manipulation. That represents a threat to Israel if Israel ever needs direct intervention rather than manipulation. But more immediately, it threatens Israel because the more relationships the United States has in the region, the less significant Israel is to Washington’s strategy. If the United States maintains this relationship with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others, Israel becomes not the anchor of U.S. policy but one of many considerations. This is Israel’s real fear in these negotiations.
In the end, Israel is a small and weak power. Its power has been magnified by the weakness of its neighbors. That weakness is not permanent, and the American relationship has changed in many ways since 1948. Another shift seems to be underway. The Israelis used to be able to depend on massive wellsprings of support in the U.S. public and Congress. In recent years, this support has become less passionate, though it has not dried up completely.
What Israel has lost is twofold. First, it has lost control of America’s regional strategy. Second, it has lost control of America’s political process. Netanyahu hates the U.S.-Iran talks not because of nuclear weapons but because of the strategic shift of the United States. But his response must remain measured because Israel has less influence in the United States than it once did.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article is republished with permission of Stratfor.