April 27, 2021, 7:54 a.m.
Israel’s clandestine activities in Iran have undoubtedly delayed the production of materials that Iran uses to make a bomb – in spectacular ways. Spies deployed months in advance to plant explosives at an Iranian nuclear power plant, a deadly cyberattack on corrupt computers controlling uranium-spinning centrifuges, and bullets fired at a leading nuclear scientist by remote activation of a machine gun – any of these incidents could one Episode its a gripping spy thriller.
However, whether they were successful is another question. These covert attacks, along with the weakening sanctions Washington has imposed in recent years, have inflicted setbacks on Iran, but it has failed to convince the country to give up its nuclear ambitions altogether. Instead, they have failed to change Iran’s approach to nuclear negotiations. If anything, they have strengthened their determination to continue enriching uranium and thus achieve a nuclear weapon “breakout capacity”. As impressive as Israel’s attacks are, they don’t seem like a sustainable strategy.
On April 11, an explosion caused a power outage at the Natanz uranium enrichment site, one of Iran’s well-known nuclear facilities. According to Israeli and US intelligence officials quoted in news reports, nuclear activities there have been suspended from a few weeks to nine months, Iranian officials said. This was the third attack and the second in a year on the Natanz nuclear power plant. Last July, a bomb exploded in part of the site where a new set of centrifuges was being manufactured, delaying the program for months. Experts said both attacks could only have been carried out with physical infiltration.
The first attack on Natanz was launched more than a decade ago. A cyber weapon called Stuxnet deactivated 1,000 out of a total of 5,000 centrifuges. Centrifuges are cylindrical devices that spin at high speed to isolate uranium-235, a radioactive isotope that generates electricity when it is less than 5 percent enriched and becomes fuel for an atomic bomb when it is 90 percent enriched. This attack rolled back the program by 18 months to two years. Last November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist believed to be the brains of the Iranian nuclear program, was shot dead by an unmanned weapon near Tehran. Seven other Iranian scientists and military officials linked to the nuclear program have been murdered since 2007.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in any of these attacks. It only admitted to stealing a plethora of documents in 2018 showing how Fakhrizadeh made extensive plans to develop a bomb in secret, in stealthy violation of the provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers including the United States to violate.
Israel’s clandestine activities have indeed slowed the production of a bomb, and some Israeli intelligence officers believe this is the way to curb Iran’s nuclear program. They say the nuclear deal revival is not a deterrent to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but an unjustified reward that would legitimize uranium enrichment and pave the way for a bomb-ready Iran. Lifting the sanctions would allow Iran to sell its oil, fill its empty coffers and use a piece of money to fund its various militias in the region. They say that instead of an agreement, economic and military pressure must be used to force Iran to limit its influence in the region.
But many others disagree, arguing that repeated Israeli sabotages have not convinced Iran to abandon bomb readiness or convince the Biden government to do tougher business in the recently renewed talks.
Neither Iran nor the United States left the Vienna meetings. Instead, Iran used the latest attack to increase uranium enrichment from 20 to 60 percent and further reduce the time it takes to build a bomb. Ali Vaez, the Iranian project leader at the International Crisis Group, said Israel’s covert attacks only delayed Iran’s nuclear activities, not permanently. If they continued, they would strengthen Iranian hardliners who are pushing for the development of a nuclear weapon. “Sabotage and sanctions have only allowed the Iranian nuclear program to grow exponentially,” said Vaez. “Only diplomacy turned it back.”
Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli army and head of research on military intelligence, defended clandestine activities as part of a broader effort that included economic pressure and a credible military option. “It is a long-term policy, so it makes no sense to ask every day whether the policy has been successful,” said Kuperwasser. “At this point, the secret activities also serve to make it clear that there are other ways to deal with the Iranian nuclear project than to buy time to guarantee Iran a safe route to a large nuclear arsenal.”
Israel has long spoken out against the agreement, and not without justified concern. The agreement, formerly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), only banned Iran from 90 percent (weapon grade) enrichment of uranium until 2031 and did not prohibit the development of long-range ballistic missiles, which Iran is likely to target in Israel’s direction . The Israelis insist that the deal is not a panacea for their conflict with Iran and that it brings with it additional security risks such as the expansion of Iranian militias on Israel’s borders.
But unlike former US President Donald Trump, who granted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu one wish after another, Joe Biden is playing no ball. The recent attacks, many say, were intended to convey a message to the Biden administration, the Iranian nuclear program should bother you even more. The idea was to stop the United States from having talks, or at least take advantage of Iran’s inability to guard its nuclear site to make more concessions in negotiations. Israel is concerned that Biden might rejoin the deal as it was. The recent attacks were intended to show the United States that Israel would stand alone against Iran, whether Biden approved it or not.
Sanam Vakil, assistant director and senior research fellow in Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, said Israel’s proactive strategy is to pressurize the Biden government to deal with Iran’s regional activities. “The Biden team is not currently trying to change the JCPOA. The current goal is for Iran to return to compliance and reverse the progress made in its program, ”she said. Vakil ruled out the United States seeking further concessions that could allay Israeli concerns. “If this process is successful, the aim over time will be to strengthen and extend the timetable-building agreement and some provisions, and possibly even to address the ICBM problem.”
Iran has called for the United States to revert to the deal first and only then reverse the steps it has taken to undermine the deal. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University, said Iran had fully complied with the deal even a year after Trump’s rejection, and the United States had a duty to prove its commitment first. “The ultimate state of continued Israeli sabotage would be a nuclear Iran that would break Israel’s nuclear supremacy in the Middle East,” warned Mousavian. He added that long-range missiles cannot be denied to Iran if its enemies in the region are well armed.
“The range of Iranian ballistic missiles is a maximum of 2,000 kilometers, while the range of ballistic missiles in Saudi Arabia and Israel is 5,000 kilometers. The first step should be for Israel and Saudi Arabia to limit their long-range missiles to 2,000 km. Iran is sanctioned for conventional weapons, while Israel, Saudi Arabia and other US allies import hundreds of billions of dollars of the most sophisticated weapons from the US and all other world powers. Therefore, the second step should be a fair conventional arms regime for all countries in the Middle East, ”said Mousavian.
Sabotage and ongoing economic sanctions have had a tactical impact by weakening Iran’s negotiating position in negotiating the future of its nuclear program. The important strategic question is whether and when Israel and the United States will understand that neither is a long-term solution to the deadlock with Iran.