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Israel’s Nuclear Option Against Iran
By Bennett Ramberg

The longer that US nuclear negotiations with Iran remain stalled, the more Iranian centrifuges will continue to spin, adding to the pressure on Israel to take matters into its own hands. Lacking good options, its only viable strategy may be to play the card that it has had up its sleeve for decades.

“George, I am asking you to bomb the plant.” Fourteen years have passed since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called upon US President George W. Bush to attack Al Kibar, a suspected nuclear reactor for military purposes that Israeli intelligence had discovered in the remote Deir al-Zour region of northeast Syria.

In his memoir, Bush reports that on July 13, 2007, after extensive consultation with his national security staff, he conveyed his answer to Olmert. “I told him I decided on a diplomatic option backed by the threat of force.” Olmert’s response was direct: “I must be honest and sincere with you. Your strategy is very disturbing to me.” Two months later, Israeli aircraft struck and destroyed the reactor.

What at first blush seems to be a historical footnote takes on new meaning in the shadow of the August 2021 White House meeting between today’s US and Israeli leaders. Iran’s nuclear program was at the top of the agenda as President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took questions from reporters. In their banter, Biden and Bennett occupied positions eerily similar to those of Bush and Olmert. Biden wanted to put “diplomacy first and see where that takes us,” adding that “if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.” Bennett made clear that Israel’s goal “is to permanently keep Iran from ever being able to break out to a nuclear weapon.…We will never outsource our security.”

A few weeks after that meeting, Israel took an even more alarming tone when the head of its armed forces, Aviv Kohavi, announced that the country’s military plans against Iran’s nuclear program had “greatly accelerated.” Soon thereafter, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz commented that “military action” would remain on the table in the event that US diplomatic efforts to put Iran’s nuclear program “back in a box” failed. And in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in late September, Bennett said that “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment. And so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.” Is a much larger-scale version of the Al Kibar operation in the cards?

COVERT AND CONVENTIONAL BAND-AIDS

As menacing as such remarks sound, the question that must be asked is whether Israel even has the conventional military means to halt Iran’s nuclear program indefinitely. The short answer is a hard no.

Any assessment of Israel’s capabilities must start with its years-long covert campaign to sabotage Iran’s nuclear sites. Israel has launched a series of cyberattacks against Iran, including the 2010 Stuxnet and 2012 Flame strikes that, respectively, destroyed hundreds of centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment site and infected other nuclear facilities. It has also assassinated at least five Iranian scientists, including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the touted father of Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program. And it was likely behind the recent explosions that damaged the centrifuge parts plant near Karaj, as well as another cyberattack that interrupted operations at Natanz.

These and many other covert operations have hampered Iran’s nuclear enterprise, but they have not stopped it. That should come as no surprise, given Israel’s prior failure to stop construction of Iraq’s suspected Osirak nuclear reactor through similar means in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Israel assassinated one scientist, attempted to eliminate another, sabotaged the reactor’s core as it lay in a French warehouse, and bombed the offices of an Italian manufacturer of chemical reprocessing units. Not until Israel carried out airstrikes on the Osirak facility in 1981 did construction stop. But the attack did not halt Iraq’s nuclear weapons effort. Rather it prompted the birth of a secret uranium enrichment program.

Mindful of this history, the pertinent tactical question today is whether Israel finally should lift the shroud from its own nuclear arsenal as a warning to Iran’s leaders to think again. The short answer here is yes, if US-Iran talks continue to drag on while Iranian centrifuges continue to spin. After all, Israeli leaders may have no better alternative.

Although the earlier airstrikes on the Al Kibar and Osirak sites proved effective, they are not good templates for today’s challenge. Those plants were solitary non-bunkered facilities with little or no defenses. They were easily overwhelmed by airstrikes that came as a complete surprise to the host countries. Iran, by contrast, shields its enrichment plants in heavily reinforced underground locations surrounded by sophisticated air defenses. And the other elements of its nuclear program – such as centrifuge storage and manufacturing – are scattered around the country.

To be sure, Israeli bunker-buster bombs could significantly damage Iran’s “visible” nuclear facilities, albeit at the plausible risk of losing aircraft. But they cannot prevent reconstruction – something that Iran is very good at. Anticipating Israeli military action, Iran will have already hidden enriched elements for further processing to weapons-grade material in smaller concealed sites.

THE ESCALATION QUESTION

Finally, there is the matter of retaliation. While there was no reprisal for Israel’s strikes on Iraq and Syria, this most likely would not be the case following a strike on Iran. True, the response to Israel’s covert campaign appears to have been limited, though the matter is inherently murky. But, as Iran demonstrated with a ballistic missile strike on the US military’s Al Asad airbase in Iraq following the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani in January 2020, it will tolerate only so much before pursuing aggressive action. The recent attacks on Israeli cargo vessels could have been in response to any number of things, from Israel’s targeting of Iranian forces in Syria and disruption of maritime munitions deliveries to Hezbollah to its attacks on Iranian nuclear sites.

Whether Iran would opt for a severe response to Israeli airstrikes on its nuclear plants is a matter of speculation. Although Iran has a limited number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can hit Israel, it also can deploy thousands of rockets by way of Hezbollah, its ally and client in Lebanon. This combination may be enough to overwhelm Israel’s touted missile-defense systems, opening the door to a tit-for-tat air and missile war coupled with ground combat in Lebanon.

An added complication would be Iran’s fulfillment of threats to hit Israel’s own nuclear infrastructure, starting with the Dimona reactor and waste storage site. Were that facility to be damaged to the point that radioactive elements spread across much of the country, Israel might decide to strike Iran’s much larger Bushehr nuclear power plant, risking radioactive contamination that could spread across the Persian Gulf. That would radically curtail oil exports, potentially triggering a global economic crisis.

The remaining proven military solution to nuclear proliferation – all-out war, victory, and occupation – is far beyond Israel’s reach. The country simply does not have the manpower or logistical capacity to take on a large, heavily populated and armed country a thousand miles from its frontier. There can be no mimicking of what the United States and its allies achieved in 1991, when they shut down the Iraqi nuclear program – or in 1945, when they ended Nazi Germany’s nuclear efforts.

In the Persian Gulf War, the US and its allies assembled hundreds of thousands of troops to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and defeat them in southern Iraq. Victory allowed international inspectors to enter Iraq under a UN Security Council mandate to find and eliminate Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction program. That put an end to the secret nuclear-enrichment effort, which by some estimates was within months of producing weapons-grade material. (Indeed, that is why the US found an empty nuclear cupboard after the 2003 invasion.)

Decades earlier, the Allied powers likewise discovered that the only way to eliminate Hitler’s feared nuclear-weapons program was to defeat and occupy Germany. Only then was it revealed that the Nazi nuclear initiative had been sputtering, impaired by a lack of material and intellectual resources.

FEW REMAINING OPTIONS

For Israel today, the lack of tried-and-true military options leaves three alternatives: nuclear deterrence; activation of a ladder of nuclear preparatory and intimidation measures designed to induce Iran to rethink nuclear breakout; or a successful diplomatic push. Each entails daunting challenges.

In the eight decades since the dawn of the nuclear age, deterrence has been the lynchpin for preventing nuclear war. Nuclear-weapon states are terrified to pull the trigger for fear of the ricocheting mayhem that would follow. Some analysts assume that this generalized dread has imposed a durable taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. But Israel has little confidence in the power of taboos.

Although Israel is the Middle East’s leading military power, it is also deeply insecure, owing to a history of existential wars, the legacy of the Holocaust, and its tiny territorial footprint in a hostile region. During his meeting with Biden, Bennett channeled his country’s collective angst when he commented that the neighborhood wants to “kill us, kill Israelis.” This fear feeds Israel’s belief that nuclear deterrence is at best a fragile, unreliable crutch – hence its aggressive policy toward regional nuclear aspirants.

With little confidence in deterrence, might Israel find greater advantage in using the threat of nuclear attack as a means of coercion? During the Cuban missile crisis, the US raised its strategic arsenal alert level in order to browbeat the Soviets. During the 1969 Ussuri River crisis, the Soviets conducted nuclear military exercises to intimidate China. And nuclear sabers have long been rattled in Indo-Pakistani crises and wars to focus minds on both sides.

Israel, however, has always kept its nuclear card in the shadows. In so doing, it has honored the 1969 Nixon-Meir pledge, agreeing to remain silent about its own nuclear breakout to avoid encouraging regional proliferation. Even in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as invading Syrian forces threatened to split the country, Israel did not resort to nuclear deployment either as a deterrent or as a hammer.

NUCLEAR DISAMBIGUATION

Iran’s nuclear program, however, represents something Israel has never faced: a tangible nuclear threat. Israeli leaders therefore must consider whether it is time to buck US objections and reverse the longstanding policy of nuclear ambiguity. That would mean moving toward a coercive diplomatic strategy in which the tactical nuclear threat is used to ensure that Israel’s voice is heard when it says, “Don’t mess with us.”

At the lowest rung of the threat ladder, the Israel government could sow angst in Tehran by leaking information about its arsenal’s size or delivery systems. Climbing the ladder, reporters’ inquiries might be met with statements confirming that the government will not exclude a preemptive strike as “appropriate” to stop Iran’s nuclear breakout. More leaks could then generate more news stories about nuclear exercises and preparation.

Were Israel’s nuclear resolve to be questioned in this scenario, it could follow the model China applied in the Ussuri River crisis when it conducted a nuclear test to signal to Moscow that it would not be intimidated. There are also echoes of this tactic in Israel’s own planning during the 1967 Six-Day War, when it conjured an exploding device in a remote corner of the Sinai to signal that it would stop at nothing were Egyptian forces to breach its defenses. Applied today, the aim would be to tell Iran, “We mean business. Stop the nuclear rollout.”

Such a ladder of escalation would undoubtedly generate a host of issues at every rung. Just how far should Israel climb? Will aggressive posturing provoke the Islamic Republic into some spiteful military act that could unleash all-out war? Will the US, fearing a regional conflict, demand that Israel stand down or lose US diplomatic support and military assistance? Alternatively, if Israel chooses the nuclear ladder but then acts too timidly, would the Iranians call its bluff?

These are all valid questions. But a less ambiguous Israeli nuclear posture plausibly offers more opportunities on the diplomatic front. It could shake the complacency out of talks, giving the US a new card to play against the Iranians. “Better strike a deal now,” American interlocutors could say, “We don’t know what Israel will do if we don’t make progress. We can’t control Bennett and the hawks.” But, of course, Iran may well respond by digging in: “No negotiation until Israel disarms.” The unknowns about nuclear posturing are and always will be manifold.

Nonetheless, were the Israeli nuclear specter to step into the light, Iranian decision-makers would have to ask themselves some hard questions. Is it really worth it to play chicken with a nuclear adversary whose leader – like Olmert in 2007 and Menachem Begin in 1981 – is fully committed to the principle of “never again”? With Iranian centrifuges churning, the clock is ticking for diplomacy. If Iran’s nuclear program is not put “back in a box,” the Middle East will be facing the sum of all atomic fears.

Bennett Ramberg, a former foreign affairs officer in the US State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, is the author of Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy.
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