How to handle the Iran threat
Jul 8, 2022 | AIJAC staff
US President Joe Biden will be visiting Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia from July 13 to 16, and no doubt one pressing issue his Israeli and Saudi hosts will be eager to discuss will be the increasing threat posed by Iran. With indirect talks between the US and Iran in Qatar in late June, aimed at reviving the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, ending with no progress, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warning the window for a new deal is narrowing and US Iran envoy Robert Malley now expressing concerns that the deal may become “a thing of the past,” this Update looks at what the US and its allies should do next.
First Dennis Ross, who has been a senior US envoy to the Middle East and served in senior national security positions in multiple US administrations, and is now a Counsellor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in Foreign Affairs that the US must find a better strategy to deter Iran. He argues that the Biden approach so far has been unsuccessful and that even if the JCPOA nuclear deal is ultimately revived, the US will still need to deter Iran from ultimately acquiring nuclear weapons, and this is even more so if no deal can be reached. He suggests the US should publicly declare that if Iran attempts to proceed to nuclear weapons, it will jeopardise its entire nuclear infrastructure. To make this declaration credible, he adds, the US should conduct military exercises in the Middle East on its own and with allies rehearsing air-to-ground attacks and refuelling, and should also help arm Israel with the capacities needed to carry out its own raids. He adds that further steps should also be taken to counter Iran’s destabilising regional behaviour. To read Ross’ well-considered advice, CLICK HERE.
Similarly, the Washington Institute’s Zohar Palti, a veteran Israeli security and intelligence official, argues that the US must pressure Iran with oil sanctions and a commitment to act militarily, especially given the advances Iran has made with its nuclear program and the lack of pressure it is currently feeling.
Former Mossad Deputy Director Naftali Granot suggests the negotiations have likely hit a dead end, given Iran’s insistence that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from the US terror list, Iran’s shutting off 30 surveillance cameras the International Atomic Energy Agency had installed at uranium enrichment facilities, and the escalation of the program. He states that boosting intelligence and military cooperation between the US and Israel, together with tough sanctions, is vital to counter the Iran threat, and explains why he believes other options will be ineffective. To read his insights, CLICK HERE.
Finally, John Hannah, who was a national security adviser to former US Vice President Dick Cheney, argues that the geopolitical stars have aligned to give Biden an opportunity, despite previous missteps, to achieve a major breakthrough in regional defence cooperation in the Middle East, to combat Iran. To read what Hannah thinks Biden has done badly in the region up until now, and what he can do to transform the region in ways favourable to US interests, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Behnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies provide a useful timeline of Iran’s nuclear escalation.
- The Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s useful monthly summary of Iran’s activity in exploiting the Ukraine crisis, its nuclear program, regional aggression and global cyberterrorism.
- Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz looks at Iranian terror proxy Hezbollah’s motives for sending three unarmed drones towards Israeli gas fields in the Mediterranean, while the Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman has a slightly different view.
- An interview with former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gives an interesting insight into his worldview and relationship with former US Secretary of State John Kerry.
- Professor Efraim Inbar of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security urges a more coherent Israeli and US policy for the Eastern Mediterranean.
- Mitchell Bard expresses his concern that Israel is losing an important semantic battle, but is pleased about the continuing failures of the BDS campaign against Israel.
- AIJAC Executive Director Dr Colin Rubenstein writes in the Daily Telegraph about the achievements of the outgoing Israeli Government and how the current situation demonstrates the robustness of Israeli democracy.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s “Fresh AIR” blog:
The United States Needs a Better Strategy to Deter Iran
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Stoking Tehran’s fears may be the only way to avoid war
By Dennis Ross
July 6, 2022
To be sure, a common interest does not guarantee a renewed deal, as the absence of any progress in this latest round of talks indicates. Tehran has insisted that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, something that Biden has publicly promised not to do. Still, I believe an agreement is likely at some point, even if the hesitancy of each side to appear to concede anything more may mean one could take time to materialize. It is, of course, also possible that the United States and Iran never overcome their differences. Or that Tehran, thinking Washington will concede under greater pressure, accelerates its nuclear program, accumulates multiple bombs’ worth of 60 percent enriched uranium, begins to enrich to 90 percent (weapons grade) and disperse its stockpiles, and denies access to international inspectors so that the world can’t see what it is doing.
Clearly, if there is no deal, or if Iran begins to ramp up its nuclear program as part of its negotiating strategy, the United States will need a better strategy for deterring Tehran. But even if the two sides reach an agreement, the Biden administration will need to improve its deterrence. That is because once the sanctions related to the 2015 accord have been lifted, Iran will have little need for a follow-on agreement, such as the “longer and stronger” deal the Biden administration previously touted. Moreover, key provisions of the 2015 deal will “sunset” in 2030, leaving Iran without limits on the size of its nuclear infrastructure, the number or quality of its centrifuges, or the level of its enrichment. In other words, come 2030, Iran may feel little reason not to advance toward a point where it is a turnkey away from a nuclear weapon capability. And resurrecting the deal would give Iran many more resources. As the Israelis, Saudis, and Emiratis are fond of pointing out, if the Iranians can flood their proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen with weapons when they are under sanctions, imagine what they will be able to do when they are not.
To improve U.S. deterrence in the long run, Washington should publicly declare what Tehran will lose if it continues down its current path—and what it will gain from changing course. The aim must be to restore Iran’s fear of U.S. military action without putting the country in a corner with no diplomatic way out. On the one hand, Iran’s leaders must know that by pressing ahead they will risk losing their entire nuclear infrastructure, which has taken them several decades to develop. On the other, they should understand that the broad sanctions regime—with its practical limitations and chilling effect on doing business with Iran—will be lifted if they give up their nuclear weapons option and stop coercing their neighbours.
NO ROOM FOR DOUBT
The Trump administration did not succeed in developing an effective deterrence strategy, and so far, neither has the Biden administration. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy failed to deter Iranian attacks—whether direct or via proxies—against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Even the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, did not halt proxy attacks against the United States, although it may have made Iran more cautious about killing Americans.
Biden’s approach has proved no more effective. He accepted Iran’s demand for indirect negotiations, permitted China to buy Iranian oil with no penalty, and took the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen off the list of officially designated terrorist groups. Instead of moderating its behaviour, however, Iran appears to have been emboldened. During the presidencies of Barack Obama and Trump, enriching uranium to 20 percent—the dividing line between low and high enrichment—was considered provocative. Now, Iran is not only enriching to 20 percent without consequence but has gone ahead and enriched to 60 percent, suggesting that it has little fear of a tough U.S. response. And so far, it has been right. (Israeli security officials told me that there was a debate within the Iranian regime over whether to enrich to 60 percent, with some officials arguing that it was too risky. Those who pushed to enrich no doubt feel vindicated and even more confident that the United States will not respond with force.)
To deter Iran from advancing its nuclear program and pursuing destructive regional policies, Washington will need an integrated strategy that draws on political, diplomatic, economic, intelligence, cyber, and military instruments. It will also need to spell out its posture, not just in private but in public as well. Washington must put Iran on notice—and condition the international community to expect—that it will respond with all appropriate means if it detects movement toward a nuclear weapon. As part of the 2015 deal, Iran pledged not to seek, acquire, or develop a nuclear weapon. Since the United States is publicly committed to preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, it should hold Iran to its pledge whether or not the 2015 deal is restored. Instead of saying all options are on the table—a statement so commonplace that no one takes it seriously—the Biden administration should say that if Iran moves toward a weapon, it will jeopardize its entire nuclear infrastructure. Before announcing this change in posture publicly, the administration should privately explain its rationale to U.S. allies and line up their support. When the United States is aligned with its allies on Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian leaders understand that it is better able to raise the costs to the Islamic Republic. Moreover, keeping Iran politically isolated matters. Iranian leaders do not see their country as similar to North Korea. In their eyes, they are heirs to a great civilization, not a hermit kingdom.
Since Iranian leaders doubt that the United States will use force to prevent them from advancing their nuclear program, the Biden administration will need to take several steps to make its declaratory policy credible. First, it should instruct the U.S. Central Command to conduct exercises, both on its own and with allies in the Middle East, to rehearse air-to-ground attacks on hardened targets. Second, it should run exercises in which it refuels Israeli aircraft—something that would be necessary in any actual Israeli attack on Iran. What it should not do is what it did in May: deny that it refuelled Israeli aircraft during a joint exercise simulating distant air-to-ground attacks. Washington needs to stoke Iranian fears of an attack, not give the country’s leaders reason to doubt it would ever act militarily against them.
Finally, to lend further credence to its declaratory policy, the United States should provide additional military assistance to Israel. As noted above, Israel needs better refuelling capabilities to credibly and effectively threaten Iran’s hardened nuclear infrastructure. The Biden administration should therefore accelerate the delivery of the KC-46 tanker, an aerial refuelling and transport aircraft that it has agreed to sell to Israel, but not before 2024 at the earliest. Agreeing to move up the timetable, perhaps on Biden’s visit to Israel on July 13 and 14, would signal to the Iranians that the United States is ready to enable an Israeli military option if necessary. Alternatively, it could send a similar signal by providing the Israelis with the Massive Ordnance Penetrator(MOP)—a 30,000-pound “mountain buster”—and leasing them a B-2 bomber to carry it. Israel currently lacks the ability to destroy Iran’s underground Fordow enrichment site, which is built inside a mountain, but an MOP and a B-2 would change that, underscoring that Washington is prepared to support Israeli strikes if necessary.
That is not to suggest that the United States should want Israel to act in its stead. Rather, it is to signal to Iran that Washington will act alone or with others to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure if the country moves toward a nuclear weapon. Iran’s leaders must see any such move as dangerous to them; they must believe that the United States means what it says; and they must understand that it is preparing the ground for military action if Iran makes a diplomatic outcome impossible.
SOMETHING TO FEAR
But Washington cannot focus solely on Iran’s nuclear program. It must also have a strategy for countering Tehran’s destabilizing regional behaviour, preventing Iranian weapons from reaching Iranian proxies, and bolstering the defenses of U.S. allies and partners in the region—in particular against the drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles of Iranian proxies. To that end, the U.S. Central Command could integrate the early warning, drone, cyber, and missile defenses of U.S. regional partners, although these partners would have to agree to do so.
At a time when many U.S. friends in the Middle East are worried that the United States is withdrawing from the region, defense integration is one way to reassure them and keep Washington embedded in the area. It has the benefit not just of sharing the burden of defense but also making the existing assets of individual countries in the region count for more. The United States would not need to provide additional defensive missiles to its partners if the missiles it has already provided could be pooled effectively. The sum of these weapons truly is greater than the individual parts. And to the credit of the Biden administration, it is already working to develop the security architecture for integrated air and missile defense in the Middle East.
Finally, the United States must be prepared to respond more forcefully to attacks by Iranian proxies on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. Bases where U.S. forces are stationed have been targeted more than 40 times, but the United States has responded in a highly calibrated way only twice. Washington’s responses must be unexpected, and they must signal to Iranian leaders that, contrary to their assumptions, the United States is willing to use force against them. Maybe it is time to take a page from the Israeli playbook: hit Iranian—not proxy—targets in the middle of the night and don’t acknowledge it. The United States shouldn’t put Iran in a position where it must respond or lose face, but it should also make clear that it is no longer willing to tolerate these attacks.
The goal of the United States’ declaratory strategy must be to establish deterrence. The more clearly Iranian leaders understand what they could lose, the more likely they will be to seek a diplomatic alternative. Of course, the United States will also have to make clear what Iran stands to gain from such an alternative. That could be far greater sanctions relief if Tehran agrees to a longer and stronger deal. A “more for more” agreement of this kind might be possible—but only if Iranian leaders are genuinely afraid of what they could lose without one. Ironically, it seems, restoring Iran’s fear of the United States may be the only way to avoid a war, limit Iranian threats in the region, and produce an acceptable diplomatic outcome on the character of the Iranian nuclear program.
DENNIS ROSS is Counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East who served in senior national security positions in the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations.
Have the Iran nuclear deal talks reached a dead end?
Ahead of a meeting at the State Department last October, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Boosting intelligence and operational cooperation between the US and Israel is vital, particularly to coordinate their activities against the double threat that Iran poses.
By NAFTALI GRANOT
Published: JULY 4, 2022
Talks between Iran and world powers headed by the United States over the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal have reached a critical junction. The talks appear to be at a dead end. Meanwhile, Iran continues to refuse to provide explanations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over previous nuclear activity at undeclared sites where uranium traces have been found.
Iran is sticking to its uncompromising demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) be removed from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization (FTO) list.
Iran’s response to a decision by the IAEA board of governors, which was supported by 30 countries, to condemn its lack of transparency was to shut off 30 surveillance cameras that the IAEA installed at Iranian uranium enrichment facilities. At the same time, the uranium enrichment process has accelerated, reaching the level of at least 60% enrichment, which brings Iran to a distance of a few weeks from stockpiling the needed amount of military-grade fissile material to produce their first atomic bomb and become an actual nuclear threshold state.
Should the Iranian weapons group, which is responsible for other aspects of the nuclear program, resume its activity, the production of an actual nuclear bomb is expected to take another two years.
The Iran nuclear program
Israel has, for many years, waged a covert campaign against Iran’s nuclear program that includes, according to international media reports, attacks on uranium enrichment sites and personnel linked to the project. While these attacks have led to delays in the program, in the modern age such acts cannot stop a state that is committed to building nuclear capabilities.
It seems that the professional knowledge needed to advance a nuclear program is in the hands of Iranian scientists. And while a first draft of a revived nuclear deal has been written up, it also seems that Iran is unwilling to compromise, choosing instead a defiant dialogue and brinkmanship, backed by the decisions of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the IRGC.
In this situation, the US and Western powers must formulate a clear policy on how to deal with Iran’s unilateral steps. It seems that the options at their disposal are rather limited.
The diplomatic path requires involving the United Nations Security Council and using the IAEA’s latest report as a basis for seeking condemnation of Iran for its lack of cooperation, and a recommendation to impose international sanctions on it. Yet, the chances of such a maneuver succeeding are slim due to the contrarian policies of Russia and China, which have interests in Iran, and would likely veto Security Council resolutions against it.
An initiated freeze of talks by Western powers would allow Iran to evade its responsibility for the failure of diplomacy, and create facts on the ground in the form of a nuclear threshold Iranian state as part of its ongoing efforts to become a regional hegemon.
ONE CANNOT rule out a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations as a result of a compromise, in the form of a solution separating the Quds Force from the rest of the IRGC to resolve the sanctions dispute. Still, it seems that the diplomatic path is blocked and is unlikely to provide the breakthrough that the Biden administration sought when it renewed talks and tried to shake off the 2018 decision by the Trump administration to place tough sanctions on Iran and leave the previous nuclear agreement.
Placing additional economic sanctions on Iran by the West as a sole response will only have a limited impact, since the Iranians have proven their impressive ability to adapt to a sanctions regime. Among other reasons, Iran is able to do this by exploiting Chinese assistance, as Beijing continues to purchase cheaper Iranian oil and invest in Iranian infrastructure.
In this context, it is worth pointing out that in recent weeks, demonstrations and public protests against the government’s economic policies have been growing in Iran, and it is reasonable to believe that the global food crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine will make Iran’s economic situation deteriorate further. In light of the above, the unavoidable alternative route is the creation of a credible, public military option led by the US, alongside the placement of additional sanctions that will make Western determination to prevent Iran from going nuclear clear.
It is worth recalling that in 2003, when Iran felt threatened by American military forces deployed close to its border in Iraq from the west and in Afghanistan from the east, Tehran froze the activity of its nuclear weapons group.
The US would do well to also rebuild its relations with Gulf States, foremost among them Saudi Arabia, which are threatened by Iran. A defensive alliance agreement could be signed between Washington and Gulf Sunni states to calm their fears of an American withdrawal from the region, in addition to the setting up of an advanced, joint air defense system by Gulf States, Israel and the US against Iranian threats.
Boosting intelligence and operational cooperation between the US and Israel is vital, particularly to coordinate their activities against the double threat that Iran poses through its goal of becoming a nuclear status country and its use of proxy organizations to seed terrorism and instability in the Middle East. This includes attacks on American targets in Iraq and eastern Syria.
From Israel’s perspective, the combination of nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands and the extreme religious ideology of the ayatollah regime calling for Israel’s destruction constitutes an existential threat that Israel cannot accept. Hence, Israel, too, must build an independent credible military option for attacking Iranian nuclear targets, as it has done in the past in Iraq and Syria.
Israel must rely on its independent capabilities in dealing with Iran and be ready to activate them in coordination with the US if efforts by the powers to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons fail. In this context, it is worth pointing out that a military clash with Iran could spark a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as Hezbollah is a proxy organization that listens to instructions from the Iranian regime. Hezbollah would likely activate its large projectile arsenal (estimated at 70,000 rockets, including precise missiles supplied by Iran to attack Israel in the case of a clash between them).
The world must take into account the potential price of a failure to stop Iran from going nuclear through diplomacy or military means. With other countries in the region likely to also try to develop similar capabilities to create a balance of deterrence, this would spark a dangerous, uncontrollable and destabilizing nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The writer is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his intelligence career as deputy director of the Mossad in 2007.
Will Biden Seize His Middle East Moment?
US President Joe Biden: Will he take advantage of his opportunities? (Image: Flickr)
His upcoming trip provides an opportunity to establish unprecedented Arab-Israeli cooperation against the Iranian threat.
The Dispatch – Jul 5, 2022
In the case of President Joe Biden’s Middle East policy, it turns out that it is better to be lucky than good. Despite the fact that his major policy initiatives in the region have largely come to naught, the geopolitical stars have nevertheless aligned to give Biden what may be an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen collective security when he travels to the Middle East next month—one that his predecessors could have only dreamed of.
Whether Biden can take advantage is an open question. His instincts toward the region have been off from the start. He pursued a policy of open-ended negotiations and accommodation with the anti-American regime in Iran to try to entice it back into the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran repaid Biden’s goodwill by using the talks as cover to further escalate its nuclear program and regional aggression, putting it closer to developing a nuclear bomb than at any point in its history.
Meanwhile, with pro-American Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main counterweight in the Persian Gulf, Biden openly sought to downgrade relations to punish the Arab world’s most influential state and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), for his multitude of sins—from his engagement in the civil war in Yemen to the horrific murder of U.S.-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, all no doubt made infinitely worse for Biden and his Democratic base by MBS’s excessively cozy relationship with the much-despised Trump administration.
Operation Ostracize MBS turned out to be no more productive for advancing U.S. interests than Biden’s Iran policy, culminating in the shocking spectacle of a Saudi leader refusing to even take Biden’s phone call in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the face of the greatest challenge to the U.S.-led rules-based international order since World War II, a country whose security has been totally reliant on U.S. power for eight decades felt so aggrieved that it answered an American president’s desperate plea for help in calming global energy markets by effectively telling him to go pound sand.
To his credit, Biden seems to have realized that both of his original lines of strategic action in the Middle East—appeasing Tehran and alienating Riyadh—have reached a dead end and require serious adjustment. Thus, his decision to travel to Israel and Saudi Arabia later this month, with the apparent goal of not only repairing relations with MBS, but of rallying Washington’s traditional regional partners behind what could be a new U.S.-led alliance system grounded in unprecedented Arab-Israeli cooperation against the Iranian threat.
That historic opportunity exists, of course, because of the Abraham Accords, the process of regional normalization supercharged by the series of peace deals that Donald Trump brokered in the final months of 2020 between Israel and four Arab states. While members of Biden’s senior team have regularly paid lip service to the accords, the administration’s actual level of investment in their advancement has been relatively paltry. There’s no sign whatsoever that Biden himself has expended any significant presidential capital on the effort to deepen and expand the accords during his first 16 months in office. For anyone who knows anything about the history of Middle East peacemaking, that’s hardly a recipe for getting big things done.
Indeed, if anything, Biden’s Saudi and Iran policies have been an impediment to progress. The Saudis are the big prize in the normalization sweepstakes, and MBS has made clear that he sees enormous benefits from making peace with Israel, the region’s dominant military and technological power. But such a game-changing move would also carry significant risks for the kingdom—with religious extremists both at home and abroad only too eager to wield the incendiary charge of “betrayer of Islam” against the House of Saud. The chances that MBS will be prepared to take on the radicals by making significant steps toward Israel are inversely correlated to his belief that Saudi Arabia’s most important security partner, the United States, not only doesn’t have his back, but is working to empower his greatest enemy in Iran.
If Biden can begin correcting that perception during his upcoming trip (which will include not only bilateral discussions with Israel and Saudi Arabia, but a summit in Jeddah with leaders from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq), the table is now being set for a major breakthrough in regional military cooperation, specifically on the issue of building an integrated air defense network to combat Iran’s increasingly lethal arsenal of missiles and drones, the largest in the Middle East.
The Wall Street Journal reported on June 26 that, in March the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East secretly convened his counterparts from Israel and six Arab states to discuss expanding air defense cooperation against the growing Iranian threat. Despite their lack of formal diplomatic relations, the top generals from both Israel and Saudi Arabia attended.
It’s not hard to figure out why. Thanks to the Yemen war, no country on earth has endured more attacks from Iranian-supplied missiles and drones than Saudi Arabia. No country stands to benefit more from gaining access to Israel’s unparalleled experience in building the world’s most successful missile defense system. It’s a match ready to be made, waiting only for a president prepared to put the full weight of America’s power and leadership behind it.
It would be a major victory for Biden, the cornerstone of a new American-led security order that would pay huge dividends not only in containing the escalating threat from Iran, but in stemming the dangerous rise of Chinese and Russian influence in the region. Better yet, Biden would be certain to have broad support in Congress, where earlier this month a bipartisan group of legislators from both chambers introduced the DEFEND Act, urging the administration to move rapidly to help build an integrated air defense system between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Despite all Biden’s missteps, history is calling him in the Middle East. The opportunity to transform the region in ways overwhelmingly favorable to America’s interests lies within his grasp—if he’s prepared to seize it. Going to the region is an important first step. But reversing his failed policies of the past year will be the key.
John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the Randi and Charles Wax senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. He was the lead author of the Institute’s recent report, “A Stronger and Wider Peace: A U.S. Strategy for Advancing the Abraham Accords.”