Israel’s ‘alarmist claims’ raise the stakes against Iran

Israeli leaders have issued a series of threats against Iran over its nuclear programme, reviving ‘plans’ for action.

Natanz facility,
A building damaged at the Natanz facility, one of Iran's main uranium enrichment plants, after an alleged sabotage attack blamed on Israel [Iran Atomic Organization via AFP]

Israeli leaders have revived threats against Iran after warning it is just months away from possessing a nuclear weapon.

The United States and Israel have formed a high-level team to tackle the Iran nuclear issue, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced last week after meeting President Joe Biden.

“The immediate follow-up was to form a joint team based on the joint objectives of rolling Iran back into their box and preventing Iran from ever being able to break out a nuclear weapon,” Bennett said.

“We set up a joint team with our national security adviser and America’s, and we’re working very hard, and the cooperation is great… The president was very clear about he won’t accept Iran going nuclear, now or in the future.”

In light of the lack of progress on the negotiations with Iran on a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Biden said during his meeting with Bennett at the White House that “other options” would be possible if the diplomatic approach with Tehran failed.

Israel’s Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, meanwhile, urged the international community to develop a “Plan B” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons as prospects of returning to the 2015 nuclear deal dwindle.

“Iran is only two months away from acquiring the materials necessary for a nuclear weapon,” Gantz told dozens of ambassadors and envoys at an August 25 briefing.

“Iran has the intention to destroy Israel and is working on developing the means to do so,” he said. “Israel has the means to act and will not hesitate to do so. I do not rule out the possibility that Israel will have to take action in the future in order to prevent a nuclear Iran.”

‘Not empty words’

While Gantz did not go into specifics, analysts have their own idea of what Plan B could mean.

“What is referred to as Plan B actually appears to be Israel’s Plan A – coercive measures that likely will draw the US and Iran into a broader war that will see the balance in the region shift dramatically in the direction of Israel while forestalling any US-Iran rapprochement for years if not decades,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Al Jazeera

However, even if Plan B were slightly more subtle than the aforementioned scenario, Gantz’s words should be taken seriously, said Yaniv Voller, senior lecturer in politics of the Middle East at the University of Kent.

“These threats are not merely empty words. Israel and the US have proved that they can carry out operations inside Iran and sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities and infrastructure,” Voller told Al Jazeera.

The choice of words by Gantz is reminiscent of the previous times Israel exaggerated the Iranian threat, security experts said.

“These claims are probably no more valid than the whole series of alarmist claims the Israelis have been making about Iran’s nuclear capability since the 1990s,” Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chair of the Middle Eastern Studies programme at the University of San Francisco, told Al Jazeera.

“Each and every one of these frightening predictions over the past quarter-century has proven wrong, so there is no reason to take this latest iteration any more seriously.”

An engineer performs a mechanical test on nuclear equipment [File: Iran President’s Office]

Key stumbling block

The dispute over the international nuclear agreement with Iran remains one of the primary reasons for the tensions in the Middle East, which have increased in recent years. Israel continues to feel its very existence is threatened by Iran’s nuclear programme.

In 2015, Tehran committed itself to produce only low-enriched uranium as fuel for civilian use. The US unilaterally terminated the agreement in 2018, whereupon Iran restarted its uranium enrichment and restricted international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

By now, Tehran enriches uranium up to 60 percent – well above the permitted 3.67 percent and only one step away from the 90 percent required to build an atomic bomb.

Since April, the other contracting parties – China, Germany, France, Britain and Russia – have attempted to get the two sides to return to the deal. However, a fundamental issue hampering negotiations remains, Parsi said.

“On substantial matters, a key stumbling block is the US request for Iran to guarantee it will agree to renegotiate the JCPOA once the US rejoins, and the Iranian demand for a guarantee that the US does not re-quit the deal.”

Diplomatic efforts have stalled over a renewal of the JCPOA, but there are several reasons for this, Parsi said.

“Due to the delay of the Biden administration starting the talks, diplomacy has gotten entangled in the Iranian elections, and it is unclear when the new Iranian government will agree to resume dialogue in Vienna,” he said.

For a long time, the prevailing opinion in Washington was the change in power from moderate President Hassan Rohani to hardliner Ebrahim Raisi would impact the negotiations.

“There are fears that the new conservative Iranian government under Raisi will adopt a tougher stance and even seek to change the format of the talks,” said Parsi.

Indeed, it is now apparent that President Raisi is not planning a swift return to the negotiating table. Rather, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amirabdollahian said last week it would take the new government two or three months to define its position. He assured that Tehran would not flee from the negotiating table.

News reports, meanwhile, say there may be talks on the sidelines of International Atomic Energy Agency’s next conference on September 21.

‘Military option unacceptable’

The delay is likely to fuel fears in Washington as well as in Israel that Tehran will play for time, especially when the necessary material for a nuclear weapon only needs a few months. The spiral of escalation is thus likely to continue. How far, however, remains uncertain.

Nonetheless, Biden’s options outside of diplomacy are limited, said Zunes.

“It is hard to imagine any other realistic scenario than through negotiations to revive the JCPOA. The United States still enforces draconian sanctions against Iran, which are clearly not working, and a military option would be unacceptable, not just to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party but most of the top Pentagon brass, who have engaged in enough war games and other scenarios to recognise that there is no workable military solution.”

For Israel, too, a similar problem arises with its threats against Iran.

“The Israelis presumably recognise a military option would also be counterproductive, but perhaps they believe that repeating this threat might get the Americans to push a harder line against Iran,” added Zunes.

All in all, despite the lack of progress, the US’s and Israel’s threats remain counterproductive on the international stage, said Parsi.

“Such threats are not conducive to diplomacy, which is why the Obama administration avoided them altogether once it got serious about diplomacy and why the Bush administration employed them tirelessly since it was never serious about talks.”

Credible deterrent

The situation poses a conundrum for Biden. No nuclear weapons for the government in Tehran remains the essential condition for the White House. However, any action in the form of military intervention is likely to have the opposite effect.

In the event of attacks by the US or Israel, Iran would likely launch an ambitious, well-funded programme to develop some kind of credible deterrent against future attacks, which could include the development of a nuclear weapon within a couple of years, said Zunes.

“Biden knows that bombing Iran is the fastest way to make sure the Iranians get a bomb,” Parsi added.

While a rather grim outlook for all actors involved, there is still a chance that diplomacy could prevail, Voller said.

“Much of this depends on the Biden administration. Israel pressures Washington to reconsider its position, but for the time being, Secretary of State Antony Blinken seems committed to at least try and bring about the negotiations.”

Source: Al Jazeera