Contemplating Israeli reactions to an Iranian nuclear deal

Special thanks to my colleagues Daniel Byman and Natan Sachs for providing valuable commentary on early drafts of this post.    

With Prime Minister Netanyahu’s controversial speech behind us, it seems like a good time to consider how the Israelis might actually react to a nuclear deal with Iran. I am still not convinced we will get such a deal—Iran’s latest statements should reinforce everyone’s skepticism—but the negotiations appear to be making enough progress that we should be thinking through the contingencies if we do get one.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the living room first: it is highly unlikely that Israel will mount a military attack against Iran after a nuclear deal has been struck between Iran and the P5+1 (or in the run-up to one.) As I have laid out elsewhere, Israel does not have a good military option against Iran for both military-technical and political reasons. That’s why Israel has uncharacteristically abstained from a strike, despite repeated threats to do so since the late 1990s.  

In this case, the political circumstances would be even worse. Consider the context: Iran will have just signed a deal with the United States and the other great powers agreeing to limits on its nuclear program, accepting more intrusive inspections, and reaffirming that it will not try to build a nuclear weapon. If the Israelis were to attack at that point, an already anti-Israeli international climate would almost certainly turn wholeheartedly against them. Who would support Jerusalem? The Germans, who are the “+1” in the P5+1? The Obama administration, which has made the deal the centerpiece of its Middle East policy? The Sunni Arab states? They will quietly applaud from the sidelines but won’t provide any meaningful assistance. So who?  

That question is of more than academic interest to the Israelis. If Israel attacks Iran, there is a very real risk that Iran would respond by withdrawing from the deal, withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), evicting the inspectors and announcing that it will acquire nuclear weapons since its own conventional forces and the word of the international community were clearly inadequate to deter an unprovoked Israeli attack. The Iranians will doubtless also demand an end to the sanctions (and/or the imposition of sanctions on Israel), and if that is not forthcoming will set about busting the sanctions. And the problem for the Israelis is that in those circumstances, with the entire world furious at them for committing aggression and destroying a deal that most will see as having been the best way to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, there is likely to be very little will to preserve the sanctions on Iran. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Iran has a better chance to break out of the sanctions cage than this one.  

Thus, an Israeli military strike in these circumstances would be unlikely to help prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and regaining its freedom of maneuver. It is more likely to ensure an Iranian nuclear weapon and jeopardize the international containment of Iran.

While this set of problems makes an Israeli military response unlikely, that doesn’t mean that Jerusalem will just roll over and accept the deal. First, I suspect that the Israelis will ramp up their covert campaign against Iran and its nuclear program. More Iranian scientists may get mysteriously assassinated in Tehran. More sensitive Iranian facilities might blow up. More computer viruses might plague Iranian networks. More money might find its way to Iranian democracy activists and ethnic minorities. Of course, even then, the Israelis may show some restraint: the Iranians are said to have greatly improved their own cyberwar capabilities, and even a right-wing Israeli government might not want to provoke a harsh Iranian response that affected Israel’s civilian economy.   

Second, I think it pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Israelis will also seek greatly expanded U.S. aid in response to a nuclear deal with Iran. More F-35s, greater funding for Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missile and Iron Dome anti-rocket systems, more capable bunker-busting munitions—these all seem like certain Israeli requests. Jerusalem might go after other possibilities previously denied it: re-open the F-22 line to provide them with a few squadrons? Lease one or more American heavy bombers capable of carrying the massive GBU-57 bombs that could penetrate into Iran’s Fordow nuclear facility? Both would be real reaches, but in the aftermath of a deal, Israel may feel a strategic need for such enhanced capabilities and may believe that the United States will be more willing to provide them to secure Jerusalem’s (grudging) acquiescence.   

Finally, a nuclear deal with Iran could push Israel to become more aggressive in its own neighborhood—or to take advantage of the situation to do so. The Israelis will doubtless argue that the deal has made them feel less safe, and therefore less willing to take risks on other security matters, particularly developments with the Palestinians, but potentially in Syria and Lebanon as well. (The Israelis are very comfortable with the Egyptian and Jordanian governments and are unlikely to take actions that would undermine them or diminish their cooperation with Israel.) For instance, in the wake of a nuclear deal, Israel may look to clobber Hizballah and/or Hamas in Gaza again to convince them not to mount new attacks against Israel once their old Iranian allies (a strained relationship in the case of Hamas) begin coming out from under the sanctions and possibly flexing their muscles across the region.  

It is worth noting that some Israelis may favor such actions out of a genuine belief that this is what is necessary to guarantee their security after what they will likely consider an imperfect Iran deal. Others may do so cynically, using their well-known unhappiness with a deal to justify doing a bunch of things that they believe that the United States and international communities would be loath to condone otherwise.   

Two caveats are in order here. First, the results of Israel’s upcoming elections matter. If Netanyahu is able to form a narrow, right-wing coalition, Jerusalem is more likely to amp up its covert campaign against Iran, more likely to demand expanded American military aid (including access to heretofore forbidden items), and more likely to go after their nearby enemies. A national unity government or a left-center coalition is less likely to do so—or perhaps will just do so less ardently. In particular, they are far more likely to concentrate on securing additional American aid and hardware than on provoking Iran directly or going after Hamas and Hizballah.  

Finally, I do not raise these issues as reasons to oppose a nuclear deal with Iran. I continue to believe that a deal would be the best outcome for all concerned (including Israel), although I am reserving judgment until I see what the actual agreement looks like and I share some of the concerns that the P5+1 may not get as much as they could or probably should. But whatever I or the Israelis may think, the Obama administration seems committed to this process and I think the great variable—what will seal or scupper the deal—is the unpredictable Ayatollah Khamene’i. If he agrees, we are very likely to have such a deal, and in those circumstances, we need to have thought through all of the different effects that it will produce, including changes in the conduct of our regional allies.