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Imminent Iranian Nuclear Capability Is Not Itself A Redline

By Kathleen Hillery

Experts project Iran may cross the nuclear threshold this month, meaning Iran would have the technology and enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear weapon—without actually having built one. Recently elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has delayed negotiations to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), possibly to allow his country time to achieve threshold status. Achieving nuclear threshold status would situate Iran in the strongest position when returning to the negotiating table with the United States. Though a history of aggressive rhetoric between Israel and Iran inflames current tensions, the Israeli government will probably continue facilities sabotage operations and assassinating key nuclear program personnel to destabilize the Iranian nuclear program rather than risk outright military conflict.

Not Always Enemies

Iran and Israel began as allies of a sort. In 1950 Iran officially recognized Israel after the establishment of the new Jewish State. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, practiced a foreign policy of “periphery doctrine” in which Israel cultivated relationships with other non-Arab and minority countries in the Middle East, predominantly Turkey and Iran. Iran traded oil to Israel when other Arab nations would not. Israel exported agricultural, medical, and infrastructure projects to Iran and sent two ambassadors. In 1977, Iran and Israel even worked together on Project Flower, a joint endeavor to develop a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. 

Deteriorating Relations

Positive relations ended between the two countries after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini led an ideological crusade against Israel. He opposed all peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis and fostered the development of Lebanese Hezbollah and other non-state actors opposed to Israel’s existence. Interested in spreading its influence to other countries in the region, Iran strove to engineer religious Muslim-non-Muslim instead of national Arab-Persian divisions. (There was a schism in Islam over questions of religious leadership after the Prophet Mohammad’s death in A.D. 632, resulting in the Shia offshoot from the majority Sunni.)

In response to Iran’s vitriol, Israel shifted to a “reverse periphery doctrine.” However, there was a brief period in the 1980s when Israel attempted to maintain relations by arming Iran against Iraq, one of the Jewish State’s other aggressors in the region. Israel used the reverse periphery doctrine to exploit the Shia-Sunni divide by forging treaties with major Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan. In recent years Israel continued this practice by normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in more recent years. With the rise of anti-Zionist groups backed by Iran, Israel began viewing Iran as an existential threat. Iran’s nuclear program became a military threat to Israel under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

JCPOA: Disrupted

Iran, the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, signed the JCPOA in 2015. This agreement capped Iranian nuclear enrichment levels, placed quotas on stockpiles, and reduced the number of online equipment. However, Netanyahu worked tirelessly to derail the JCPOA negotiations. 

In April 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Israeli intelligence had smuggled documents out of Tehran that proved Iran had plans to develop a nuclear bomb. Many experts who participated in the original JCPOA negotiations believe these plans are the same ones discovered in 2007 by United States intelligence services, which determined that Iran had dismantled the program in 2003. Netanyahu may have strategized the reveal of these documents to encourage the Trump Administration to leave the JCPOA (which ultimately they did in May 2018).

Iran’s timeline to a bomb had slowed by at least a decade when they entered the JCPOA agreement, even while Israeli officials claimed, “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Economic sanctions, on the other hand, did not slow Iran’s nuclear technology, according to a United States Congressional report. Iran’s nuclear program quickly reaccelerated between its first JCPOA violation in 2019 until finally eschewing all constraints in late 2020. Contrary to Israeli statements, the JCPOA did seem to alter Iranian behavior. 

Crossing the Threshold for Nuclear Material

Based on a September 2021 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Institute for Science and International Security determined that Iran will soon cross the nuclear threshold. The agency defines a nuclear threshold state as any State or non-State Party with the materials and ability to produce a nuclear weapon beyond the five Nuclear-Weapon States recognized by the 1968 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty. The agency estimates that Iran will have enough enriched uranium for a single weapon sometime in October, and five months later enough for three nuclear weapons. However, the Islamic Republic has not demonstrated the ability to fit nuclear material to one of its conventional missiles. That said, David Albright, the president of the institute and a former nuclear inspector, believes Iran may develop this capability in as little as a year and a half

The JCPOA revival negotiations paused in June 2021 to allow the newly elected Iranian regime to establish itself and its policies. President Raisi wants the United States to lift all sanctions imposed on Iran and for Iran to have “large-scale political and economic cooperation and convergence with the rest of the world.” He also said, during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, that sanctions were the United States’s modern “way of war” and that “the world doesn’t care about America First or America is Back,” deriding both the Trump and Biden Administration mantras and signaling possible friction with the United States once JCPOA talks resume.

State of Tensions in the Region

Despite high tensions between Israel and Iran, a broader military conflict is unlikely because neither country believes it has the upper hand. Israeli military officials have assessed that Iranian officials are not confident in their country’s comparative military capabilities to Israel’s and are unlikely to pursue a full-fledged regional war. The Israeli Defense Force also recognizes the strategic hazards of beginning another regional military conflict due to the instability that remains rampant in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and further abroad in Afghanistan and Yemen. Instead of outright warfare, Israeli officials have elected to pursue shadow operations against the Iranian nuclear program. The most recent examples of these operations are the assassination of Mohsen Fahkrizadeh, the father of the Iranian nuclear program, in November 2020 and the cyberattack that cut power to the Natanz nuclear facility in April 2021. Even so, Israel’s attempts over the past decade to dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear program seem to have failed given the recent advances Iran has made.

Israel opposes a revival of the JCPOA because the original agreement did not address Iran’s backing of violent non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. However, Benny Gantz, Israeli Defense Minister, said on Sept. 14 that Israel might accept “[t]he current U.S. approach of putting the Iran nuclear program back in a box…” The Israeli government later indicated neither Gantz nor the rest of the newly elected Israeli government support a return to the JCPOA but prefer “some other longer, broader and stronger nuclear agreement.” 

The Israeli government is also uncertain about continued United States investment in the Middle East after 20 years and trillions of dollars spent in the region. On Oct. 13, Gantz called upon the international community to “take a stand on Iran…Iran is first a global challenge, then a regional one and only lastly it is a threat to Israel.” The Israeli government does not support a return to the original terms of the 2015 JCPOA but prefers “some other longer, broader and stronger nuclear agreement… Iran has to fear that the U.S. and its partners are serious.”

Though Iran repeatedly emphasizes that its pursuit of nuclear technology is not for military purposes, there is little to rationalize Iran’s nuclear program for anything other than nuclear research and uranium enrichment. Iran’s nuclear program seems designed to deter external threats, which the Islamic Republic views primarily as Western influence and the array of Sunni Islamic countries allied against Iran’s Shia Islam. Albright and Dr. Yeol Guzansky, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University, suggested that Iran is developing nuclear capabilities to create leverage in renewed nuclear deal negotiations while avoiding the consequences of actualizing a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, Dr. Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes that Iran’s end goal is a nuclear bomb. A similar assessment by the Israeli government drives their hawkish rhetoric and is a key tool in their domestic politics. 

JCPOA: Revival Negotiations

For now, the United States and Iran are in a stalemate. Both countries demand the other take conciliatory action first. Iran wants all economic sanctions lifted, and the United States wants Iran to stop backing non-state terrorist organizations and cease human rights violations. However, Iran has demonstrated no interest in complying with additional requirements beyond the terms of the original JCPOA. Robert Malley, a lead negotiator on the original JCPOA, implied that the original deal was only possible because the international community pretended that Iran had no past transgressions or human rights abuses. But the current political environment is not conducive to a similar strategy. Israel firmly stands against any nuclear deal between the United States and Iran that does not restrict Iran’s support of terrorist organizations or place constraints on the Iranian conventional missile program. 

What Happens If Iran Becomes a Nuclear State?

Iran is on the cusp of having the technological capability of producing a nuclear weapon which it believes is necessary for its security in a region ideologically aligned against the Islamic Republic. However, President Raisi wants to make Iran an economic and cultural center in the Middle East. The threat of a nuclear bomb may be enough to generate the influence in the region he desires. The big question is, will it be enough to force new terms for the JCPOA? 

Raisi has stalled resuming negotiations long enough that when nuclear talks resume we should assume Iran has a nuclear weapon. If Iran returns to Vienna as a nuclear threshold state, the focus of the negotiations shifts from preventing the acquisition of weapons-grade nuclear material to preventing Iran from actualizing a nuclear missile. Increasingly vocal political elements around the globe, like Khomeini and Netenyahu, have become comfortable being blatantly belligerent for personal power. Aggressive rhetoric should not be conflated with military intent. Neither should capability.

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