Israel’s top general warned attack plans against Iran were being revised and said any US return to the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran would be “wrong”.
Israeli Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi made the remarks on Tuesday in an address to Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. He said the move was made after Iran began restarting its nuclear programme in recent months.
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“In light of this fundamental analysis, I have instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to those already in place,” Kochavi said.
“It will be up to the political leadership, of course, to decide on implementation but these plans need to be on the table.”
The comments were an apparent signal to US President Joe Biden to tread cautiously in any diplomatic engagement with Iran.
“A return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, or even if it is a similar accord with several improvements, is bad and wrong from an operational and strategic point of view,” said Kochavi.
Such remarks by Israel’s military chief of staff on American policy-making are rare and likely would have been pre-approved by the Israeli government.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, abandoned the nuclear agreement in 2018 – a move welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who criticised the sanctions relief it offered and warned of the likelihood of Iranian nuclear arms development after its expiration.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week the United States was “a long way” from deciding whether to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran and it would need to see what Tehran actually did to resume complying with the historic pact.
‘On the table’
Since Washington pulled out of the deal, Iran has gradually breached its key limits, building up its stockpile of low enriched uranium, enriching uranium to higher levels of purity, and installing centrifuges in ways barred by the accord.
Kochavi said those actions by Iran, which denies it is seeking atomic arms, showed it could ultimately decide to push forward rapidly towards building a nuclear weapon.
Trita Parsi, an analyst from the Quincy Institute, said Kochavi’s remarks were a clear message to Biden after Trump – a staunch ally of Netanyahu – left office last week.
“Even before Biden took the oath of office, the Netanyahu government went after him extremely aggressively – took off the gloves right away – to try to pressure Biden not to go back to the nuclear deal,” Parsi told Al Jazeera.
“One of Netanyahu’s ministers said publicly that if the United States rejoins the nuclear deal – which is something Biden believes lies in the US’ national interest – Israel would go to war. This is very serious at a very early stage.”
He noted in the past there had been tension between Israel and the US over its Iran policy, but it took time to come to a head.
“This time, uniquely, it’s starting right away. Netanyahu has thrown the first punch,” said Parsi.
In December, Biden said in an interview that returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was the best way to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Iran has expressed a willingness to revive the agreement, saying the country would return to full commitments if Biden lifts sanctions.
After Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, tensions in the Middle East quickly escalated after a series of attacks and military incidents. The US launched a “maximum pressure” campaign and reimposed a series of punishing sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy.
Last January Qassem Soleimani – head of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force, and architect of its regional security apparatus – was assassinated in a US air strike near Baghdad’s international airport. The killing brought the two countries to the brink of war.
In November, Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in a brazen attack outside of Tehran as he drove in his car. Tehran blamed Israel for that killing.
Netanyahu had threatened possible Israeli strikes against Iran in the run-up to the landmark nuclear accord with world powers. But a senior Israeli officer, who spoke to reporters in 2015 on condition of anonymity, underscored differences in Israel over the issue by saying a deal had potential security benefits.