What do U.S.-Iranian Tensions Mean for Israel?
Fluctuations in the U.S.-Iranian relationship undoubtedly affect Israel, which counts the former as its closest ally and the latter as its most formidable threat. Our focus being Israeli national security, we set out here to assess potential implications of recent escalation between Washington and Teheran so that Jerusalem can better prepare for any nuclear or conventional challenges that result from it. Israel’s vigilance has prevented the emergence of nuclear nightmare scenarios twice in the last four decades. One of us, Amos Yadlin, has played a role in those events by participating in the strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 as a pilot and then in the destruction of Syria’s reactor in 2007 as Chief of Intelligence.
The recent attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and tankers off the coast of Fujeirah that have been attributed to Iran by the U.S. national security advisor indicate that the Iran’s “strategic patience” has worn thin. These strikes were likely a calculated (and perhaps indirect) response based on three key factors: Iran’s need to cope with increasing financial pressure, an estimation that President Donald Trump is not interested in going to war with Iran, and Iran’s need to build up leverage to both deter further action against it and potentially provide a stronger position for negotiation. Despite Iran’s cultivation of strong relationships with well-armed proxies on Israel’s borders and its desire to increase pressure on U.S. allies in response to the maximum pressure campaign, the likelihood that Teheran will now use its assets for a significant escalation against Israel is limited by three considerations.
First, Iran has thus far have sought to remain below the threshold of response with its actions, while still signaling a willingness and capability to strike assets of U.S. allies. The sabotage of oil infrastructure caused no loss of life and the Saudi East-West pipeline was quickly brought back online. Notably, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia did not respond militarily. However, an extraordinary cross-border attack against Israel by one of Iran’s clients — exceeding the current sporadic but routine exchanges in terms of threat or consequences — runs a high risk of eliciting the powerful military response Iran seeks to avoid. This certainly proved true over the past weekend when two rockets fired from Syria triggered Israeli airstrikes that caused significant damage to Iranian and Hizballah forces.
Second, Iranian escalations around the Arabian Peninsula appear to serve not only political-security goals but also economic ends: Shaking up the energy market to raise the price of crude oil means Iran can earn greater profits from the oil barrels it hopes to unload on the black market. These price increases may serve to partially compensate for the reduced quantity of Iranian oil on the open market. And despite the recent attacks’ negligible impact on production or distribution, the Iranian strategy temporarily jolted the oil market and caused the price of Brent Crude to jump from around $70 per barrel to nearly $73 over the course of two days. While oil prices have since sunk back down below $70, presumably a continuous series of attacks on oil-related assets could raise the price of crude over the long-term by increasing production and shipping costs (including insurance premiums) and magnifying uncertainty in the energy market. A strike against Israel would have no such financial benefits.
Third, Iran’s proxies are likely to be cautious before becoming ensnared in a Teheran-directed escalation in light of the financial crisis that their patron is experiencing at home. Hizballah is already suffering from reduced funding as a result of U.S. sanctions; this reduction in funding is probably not limited to Lebanon but part of a more general policy of cutting back on regional adventurism. When weighing their own local interests, the groups’ confidence that Iran would compensate them, fund reconstruction, or provide other incentives to strike Israel will be diminished considerably.
The direct and indirect threats along Israel’s border are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, but it is probable that Iran’s precarious geopolitical and economic situation will reduce the appetite for escalation with Israel for the foreseeable future. The Iranian nuclear issue, in contrast, may reemerge and replace the Iranian conventional threat as the foremost priority for Israel’s security establishment.
The rise of the Iranian nuclear threat can be permanently resolved in two possible scenarios: First, Trump’s request for talks are accepted by the regime and he successfully negotiates and implements a second deal with Iran, which covers the shortcomings his administration has identified in the original Iran nuclear agreement (sunset clauses, inspections regime, ballistic missiles, regional activity, and possible military dimensions). Second, the U.S. government’s unarticulated ambition is realized and the Iranian regime collapses and it is replaced by a regime that no longer subscribes to the “death to America, death to Israel” doctrine.
Unable to depend on those positive eventualities with any certainty, Israel would be wise to prepare for three more problematic nuclear scenarios.
First, in spite of rhetoric from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the 2015 nuclear deal’s implosion is hardly a foregone conclusion. Iran’s recent threat to end compliance with some restrictions on its nuclear program mandated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was met with hostile responses from European capitals and Moscow. Using the threat may ultimately prove useful in extracting economic concessions from the European Union, but making good on it would leave Iran even more economically devastated and politically isolated — exacerbating the very issues that Teheran hopes to resolve.
If the JCPOA continues to limp along, Israel should devise a method for coping with the agreement’s sunset clauses over the next decade that could leave Iran with a full-scale nuclear program, accompanied by a dangerously short breakout time, by 2030. Preparing for this will require a great deal of investment in diplomatic, intelligence collection, and force-building efforts that can be utilized for an international push, bolstered by an effective military option, to prevent Iran’s nuclearization, perhaps by seeking to extend the sunset clauses. This would be no simple task even with the current level of support from the U.S. administration, and it will be considerably more complex should one of Trump’s opponents win the presidency next year and choose to rejoin the JCPOA.
Second, Iran may withdraw from the deal and then follow the North Korean model of negotiations with Trump by using flattery and pageantry to seek a watered-down agreement or stall for time. To mitigate any advantages Iran might gain from this approach while advancing its nuclear program openly and within the confines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Jerusalem ought to coordinate with Washington and outline what it sees as acceptable timelines (taking into account both the duration and state of the nuclear program) for a negotiation process as well as the contours of acceptable agreements. But in any event, given the level of hostility towards the United States in the Iranian political climate, the probability of an Iranian delegation agreeing to a high-profile and cordial summit with the American president appears low.
Third, Iran may withdraw from the JCPOA and then refuse the White House’s invitation to come to the table for negotiations. Then Iran will have three possible routes to advance toward a nuclear weapon: 1)withdraw from the NPT and breakout overtly to a bomb 2) remain in the NPT and build a parallel covert weaponization program, or3) remain in the NPT and develop the option for a short breakout time based on its “civilian” work. Each of these scenarios will present its own unique set of challenges, but in all cases, Jerusalem would be well-advised to cooperate with its allies to the extent possible and deliver clear messages to the Iranian leadership on nuclear redlines backed by credible threats.
Whether or not the nuclear deal survives, Israel could be faced with a severe Iranian nuclear crisis within the next decade. If such an event occurs, efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon would be weakened by the absence of a credible military option. Therefore, Iran has developed a strategy to take this option off the table by building up an overwhelming amount of firepower among its proxies and forward operating troops. Given that Iran is experiencing a financial crisis and likely refocusing the bulk of its regional activities to the Gulf, Israel may see an opportunity to degrade the critical conventional arm of Iran’s two-pronged strategy. How it might do so will be the subject of our next article in War on the Rocks.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin served as Chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence from 2006-2010. He is now the executive director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.
Ari Heistein is a policy and security consultant in Tel Aviv. Previously, he has worked at the INSS and the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.