June 11, 2022
As is the case in the Israeli spy thriller TV series “Tehran,” which is currently in its second season, in real life Israel and Iran are heading for some sort of crescendo in their relations. One can hardly tell whether art is imitating life or life imitating art in this downward spiral toward a full-fledged confrontation that neither side can win.
More worrying is the fact that the road to an endgame remains unclear, leaving room for further enthralling, but dangerous, episodes ahead. In this nail-biting real-life drama, it is impossible to imagine a happy ending any time soon unless both sides, sooner rather than later, recognize that they are marching toward an abyss of direct confrontation that will severely damage both of them.
Last week, dozens of Israeli Air Force fighter jets conducted simulated airstrike exercises. Afterward, the Israeli Defense Forces explained that these included “long-range flight, aerial refueling and striking distant targets,” leaving no room for doubt about which country and targets this drill was in preparation for.
The exercises took place against the backdrop of the death in mysterious circumstances of a high-ranking Iranian colonel, Ali Esmaelzadeh, only days after a fellow officer, Col. Sayad Khodayee, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Tehran. Furthermore, Iranian media outlets reported last weekend that two more senior scientists, one of whom was responsible for several major aviation projects and another who worked at the Natanz nuclear facility, have died in unclear circumstances.
At this point, the working assumption is that Israel was behind the deaths and, considering its track record of alleged assassinations in Iran, its denial of involvement in the killings is being met with skepticism. But it still remains unclear whether there is a grand, long-term strategy behind these assassinations or whether Israel is letting it be known to all that it is planning a military operation in Iran.
Israel’s view of Iran as an existential threat and a major source of instability in the region is well documented. Israeli authorities are adamant that Tehran should never acquire nuclear military capability, or have any unchallenged presence close to Israel’s borders, either directly or through a proxy.
Just last week, during a meeting with Rafael Grossi, head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made clear his view that Tehran is concealing its true intentions of developing nuclear military capability behind “false information and lies.”
Thwarting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions requires a range of measures, of which deterrence and sanctions are only one aspect.
Grossi himself reinforced this view in his statement to the IAEA Board of Governors a few days later. He warned that since February last year, the agency’s verification and monitoring of Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, has been hampered by Tehran’s decision not to abide by its nuclear-related commitments under the 2015 agreement.
He also reiterated his warning that Iran is close to obtaining an amount of nuclear material sufficient to create a bomb. A lack of hard evidence that Tehran actually does intend to build a nuclear military capability is not enough for the rest of the region to sleep well at night. Until there is a reliable verification mechanism, Israel, like the rest of the region, will search for ways to prevent Iran from acquiring such a capability.
But no previous threats of military interventions, sanctions or clandestine operations have prevented Iran either from developing its nuclear program or becoming a destabilizing force in the region, mainly because such actions have lacked a strong diplomatic component and a means for Iran to save face.
Bennett’s message to Grossi last week was that Israel would prefer diplomacy but, in the same breath, he restated Israel’s right to take the measures it deems necessary to defend itself. For the sake of argument, we can set aside for a moment the issue of the legality of extra-judicial killings — and they are illegal by international law — but all they can do is slow Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb, not halt it.
Assassinations of top Iranian scientists and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel have created some level of deterrence by fear and are bound to unsettle the higher echelons in Tehran, as was the case when the Israelis stole the entire Iranian nuclear archive and paraded it. The message, which was doubtless received, was, “We know where you live and can find you whenever we want.”
Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, such daring operations proved to be more of a painful nuisance than a serious detriment to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Worse, they encourage Tehran to retaliate, through actions such as planning the assassination of Israelis abroad or its recent attack on Israeli interests in Iraq.
The 2015 nuclear deal, which for now looks to be dead in the water, was not a panacea that would put a stop to Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions but it did at least slow the country’s progress toward the development of a nuclear bomb. By abandoning the agreement in 2018, the US, under President Donald Trump, let loose the Iranian nuclear monster and it is now Tehran that is stalling the nuclear negotiations while Washington is the party keen to return to the agreement.
There is a difference between flexing military muscles with much-publicized exercises and actually taking the decision to translate them into a military operation. For nearly 20 years, consecutive Israeli prime ministers have rejected this option, not for the lack of will to see Iran’s nuclear infrastructure destroyed, or at least severely damaged, but because of the various risks and costs of executing such an operation, even if successful.
Iran, despite years of sanctions and clandestine attacks, has managed to make constant progress toward becoming a “nuclear threshold state.” Thwarting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions requires a range of measures, of which deterrence and sanctions are only one aspect. But such moves need to be accompanied by comprehensive diplomatic initiatives that can open up opportunities for Iran to constructively engage with other countries in the region and the rest of the international community.
Iran’s economic development should not be hindered but, in return, it must relinquish the military aspects of its nuclear program, refrain from military intervention in other countries, and end its support of militant groups.
This is not about going soft on the regime in Tehran but about creating conditions that serve the interests of everyone and, in doing so, avoiding a regional war that will only bring immeasurable destruction and suffering.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.
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