Something is changing in the assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat among Israel’s military brass. Evidence is growing that members of the IDF General Staff and Mossad are beginning to realize that the United States doesn’t share Israel’s goal of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Last week, for instance, Michael Makovsky, head of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a Washington-based group that cultivates ties between Israeli and U.S. generals, published an article in the New York Post in which he described their rude awakening.
Makovsky wrote, “Recent meetings with senior defense officials from our closest Middle East ally, Israel, were the most pessimistic I can recall. They perceive America as checked out, adrift, pusillanimous, unfeared and desperate to avoid military confrontation, and Iran as emboldened and nearing the nuclear weapons threshold.”
Makovsky said that all his interlocutors had raised the same three points: The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan showed that the Biden administration is comfortable betraying U.S. allies. The administration’s decision not to respond to the Oct. 20 Iranian attack on its airbase in Tanf, Syria, showed that the United States is willing to allow Iran to attack it with impunity. And the administration’s willingness to be humiliated by the Iranians at the nuclear talks in Vienna shows that the only thing the administration wants is to reach a deal—any deal—with Iran.
By Makovsky’s telling, the Israelis are divided on what the Iranians want, and still haven’t completely given up hope that the Americans will come through, somehow. He ended his article by arguing that the United States should provide Israel with the equipment and weapons platforms it requires to successfully strike Iran’s nuclear installations on its own. But it was clear from his description of the disposition of Israel’s security brass that their belief the United States will actually follow through on its pledge to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power has waned significantly. It is beginning to dawn on them that in the fight against Iran, Israel is alone.
While Israel’s security establishment’s frustration with the Biden administration and apparent grudging acceptance of reality are understandable, there is something deeply unsettling about both.
Where have the generals been for the past 13 years?
Since former President Barack Obama entered office in January 2009, the United States has had two policies for contending with Iran’s nuclear program. The first is the Obama-Biden policy. The second is the Donald Trump policy.
The Obama-Biden policy is to engage in diplomacy with Iran that will enable Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, with the backing of the United Nations Security Council, and then to call the outcome “peace.”
Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran—the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—which Biden now seeks desperately to reinstate in some fashion, guaranteed that Iran would be a nuclear threshold state by 2030 at the latest. As Makovsky’s general friends indicated, from Biden’s diplomatic machinations it’s clear that as far as Biden and his team are concerned, any deal is fine with them—even one that gives Iran international approval of its nuclear weapons program and lifts all sanctions on Iran immediately.
Trump’s policy towards Iran’s nuclear program was a welcome respite from the Obama-Biden policy. Trump’s policy did not involve abandoning America’s Middle East allies. It involved empowering them. Trump’s policy was to create the diplomatic, economic and military conditions that would enable Israel to successfully attack Iran’s nuclear installations.
For all the differences between them, the Obama-Biden policy on the one hand and the Trump policy on the other shared a common denominator: Both ruled out a U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations.
This common reality was never hard to see. Anyone willing to really listen to what the Americans were saying and watch what they were doing could have figured out that the United States had no intention of attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. The only party that could possibly be expected to attack Iran’s nuclear sites—if it were to be done at all—was Israel.
Those who were unwilling to look reality in the face have clung to certain popular but incorrect narratives. The most popular, which several of Makovsky’s friends shared with him, is the utterly false claim that Obama’s 2015 deal slowed down Iran’s nuclear progress, and therefore was a positive development. Today, leading Israeli military leaders in the dominant America-centric clique, and their colleagues on the political left, argue that the 2015 deal served to slow Iran’s nuclear advance and that Biden’s plan to reinstate the deal will do the same. This is a good thing, they say, because it buys Israel time to develop the military means to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
Unfortunately, this position is based on ignoring, rather than accepting, reality. As U.S. strategic expert David Wurmser explained recently to Israel Hayom, the Iranians did not slow their uranium enrichment because they agreed to the JCPOA. Wurmser, who served in both the Bush and Trump national security councils, explained that the Iranians timed the agreement to align with their nuclear schedule.
In 2014-2015, the Iranians began work on advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium to military levels of purity. In the course of the negotiations on the nuclear deal, the Iranians insisted that they be permitted under the deal to continue their nuclear research and development on the advanced centrifuges. Obama and his team accepted their demand. In 2016 and 2017, reports emerged that Iran had successfully acquired the capacity to use advanced centrifuges.
As Wurmser explains, Iran began using their advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity as soon as they were ready. The popular claim that Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA in 2018 precipitated Iran’s actions is nothing more than a delusion. Iran would have done so regardless of Trump’s actions. The real leap in Iran’s uranium enrichment came after Biden’s inauguration. His arrival gave the Iranians confidence that they would face no opposition from Washington as they sprinted to the nuclear finish line.
The one person who understood and acted on the basis of reality from the outset of the Obama administration was then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu saw that Iran was galloping ahead as quickly as it could with its nuclear program and that the United States had no intention of using force to block its advance. When the chorus began chanting in unison that the JCPOA slowed Iran’s nuclear progress, Netanyahu rightly rejected their contention as absurd.
Recognizing that the Americans would not attack Iran’s nuclear installations, Netanyahu worked to develop, expand and use Israel’s diplomatic, military, intelligence, cyber and sabotage capabilities to harm Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu was willing for Israel to go it alone and eagerly sought out and cooperated with anyone who was willing to work with Israel to oppose Iran.
Among other things, Netanyahu pushed economic sanctions on Iran to prevent the ayatollahs from having the economic means to fund their nuclear program. Sanctions also worked to destabilize their regime and delegitimize its nuclear program in the eyes of the impoverished Iranian people.
To undermine Obama and Biden’s ability to sell their pro-Iranian policy to Congress as non-proliferation, or peace, Netanyahu worked in the diplomatic arena to highlight the danger Iran’s nuclear program poses to Israel, the Middle East, global security and U.S. security.
Netanyahu’s most powerful and trenchant opponents at home were Israel’s national security brass. Led by IDF chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, and Mossad directors Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, Israel’s security leadership embraced a policy based not on reality, but on faith. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the generals insisted the United States would come through in the end and attack Iran’s nuclear installations.
True, they acknowledged, Israel is the only country that Iran threatens to annihilate. But they insisted that since Iran’s nuclear program threatens the entire region as well as Europe and the United States, taking out Iran’s nuclear installations was America’s responsibility, not Israel’s. And even as Obama acknowledged that at the end of the JCPOA in 2030, Iran’s breakout time to independent nuclear capabilities would be “zero,” the generals insisted that America could be trusted when it promised that it would not permit Iran to become a nuclear power.
Given their aspirational, rather than reality-based, policy assessment of U.S. intentions, Israel’s security leaders argued that Israel’s job was to cooperate with the Americans and under no circumstance should it publicly dispute anything the Americans said. Israel’s security leaders said that through proper coordination, when the day arrived to strike Iran, they would be able to convince Washington to do the right thing.
Operating on this assessment, the heads of Israel’s national security establishment opposed Netanyahu’s diplomatic campaign against the nuclear deal and harshly criticized him for his actions in this arena. They supported Obama against Netanyahu and praised the deal.
In 2010, Ashkenazi and Dagan refused Netanyahu’s direct order to prepare Israel’s forces to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. If that weren’t bad enough, Dagan divulged Netanyahu’s order to his U.S. counterpart, then-CIA chief Leon Panetta.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has expressed no clear policy on Iran, although his refusal to meet Robert Malley, Biden’s envoy to the negotiations, when he traveled to Israel three weeks ago indicated that Bennett is aligned with Netanyahu’s position. At any rate, with paltry support in the public and in his own government, Bennett is not the primary decision-maker on Iran. That power today rests with Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Gantz is the most prominent and powerful member of the America-dependent camp. And even as the Biden administration remains fixated on reaching a deal—any deal—with the mullahs—Gantz flew to Washington this week to coordinate. To neutralize growing concern in Israel’s security establishment, the administration decided to pull out a few stoppers.
Ahead of Gantz’s arrival in Washington, a senior administration official told Reuters that Gantz would speak with his U.S. counterpart Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about holding a joint U.S.-Israel training exercise to practice attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. While comforting, it is hard to believe the statement for several reasons. First, if the United States was really planning to attack Iran’s nuclear installations with Israel, senior officials wouldn’t call Reuters to divulge this highly classified state of affairs.
Second, while the unnamed official was revealing ostensibly top-secret operational plans to Reuters, Malley was in the Persian Gulf telling America’s allies that the United States is dead set on cutting a deal.
Finally, Malley’s boss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, pointedly refuses to even pay lip service to the notion of attacking Iran’s nuclear installations militarily.
Obviously, Israel’s credulous generals would rather believe Reuters than Malley. But reality isn’t really concerned with their preferences. If Iran is to be prevented from becoming a nuclear-armed state, the generals’ belated awakening must proceed at top speed. Not only must they recognize that Netanyahu was right all along, they must adopt his policy of working across the board to weaken Iran’s regime and block its path to the bomb.