What do the Iran nuclear talks mean for Israel?

(Photo by Michael Gruber/Getty Images)

We’re curious…

The U.S. is “preparing for a world in which there is no return” to the Iran nuclear deal, an American official told reporters, as the seventh round of indirect talks between Iran and the U.S. came to a close without any progress

Since April, the Biden administration has been talking with Iran via European intermediaries in hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken now says the U.S. will “pursue other options” if diplomacy fails.

Blinken said the latest round of talks ended because Iran “does not seem to be serious about doing what’s necessary to return to compliance.” American and European officials added that Iran backtracked on all compromises it made in previous rounds of negotiations.

Meanwhile, according to reporting by Barak Ravid of Axios, Israeli intelligence reports show that “Iran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon.” Iran is currently enriching uranium to 60%, far exceeding the 3.67% level allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal.

So, what happens next? Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad chief David Barnea are scheduled to meet with senior Biden officials in Washington this week, and will ask the U.S. to carry out a military strike on Iranian targets, Israeli media reported.

With these developments, we wanted to unpack what this latest round of failed talks means for Israel and how Israelis are responding to the increasingly tense situation with Iran. How will the U.S. and Israel respond and what is next in this escalating crisis? Are military strikes a serious option being considered?

Background up to this point

First, here’s a brief overview of how we got here. In 2015, the Obama administration signed the nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or “JCPOA”) with Iran. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union also signed.

Supporters hoped the deal would limit Iran’s nuclear program and prevent it from developing a weapon. However, the agreement was overwhelmingly unpopular with both Israeli politicians and citizens. 

A few months before the deal was announced, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a controversial speech before the U.S. Congress (because the plans were made without consulting the White House) in which he argued that the deal “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

In May 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, arguing that Iran continued to pose a threat to the U.S., and that the deal would enable Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon in the future.

The Trump administration instituted a strategy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, primarily in the form of economic sanctions. However, this did not stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Instead, Iran began breaching the deal by producing advanced centrifuges and enriching uranium far beyond what the agreement permitted.

On the campaign trail, then presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would rejoin the JCPOA if Iran returned to strict compliance.

Between April and June 2021, the U.S. engaged in six rounds of indirect talks with Iran to try to revive the deal. Then, following the election of its new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi in June, Iran suspended the talks and continued progressing with its nuclear program.

Does the world understand the threat of Iran?

So, how are Israelis reacting to all of this? As the nuclear talks resumed and then stalled, many Israelis questioned whether the U.S. and other world leaders really grasp the gravity of the threat posed by Iran.

David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel, underscored in an op-ed that even though Biden has vowed the U.S. will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, “the president and his team prefer to not even talk about a military option if diplomacy fails, choosing instead to speak vaguely about ‘other options.’”

Horovitz argued that this language shows that there is a “U.S.-led refusal to fully internalize the nature of the enemy regime in Tehran and the dangers it poses.” The Americans need to realize that “Nothing short of a credible military threat — not maximum economic pressure… is going to deter the ideologically and territorially rapacious ayatollahs now.”

Meanwhile, last week, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid met with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron to emphasize Israel’s position that “Sanctions on Iran must not be removed. Sanctions must be tightened, a credible military threat must be applied, because only that will stop its nuclear race.” The Foreign Ministry described his meeting with Macron as “warm and long.”

Lapid’s trip was part of Israel’s effort “to establish a coalition of countries who understand the threat of Iran turning nuclear to the free world, to the Middle East, to Israel and to the Iranian people,” David Menashri, founding director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the Jewish News Syndicate.

“I think it’s very important to explain the Israeli point of view, to explain the Iranian threat to the world — above all, the nuclear threat,” Menashri added. “But, you know, the world doesn’t want to listen. You have to speak with them again and again, and to open their minds.”

Will Israel take military action alone?

Whether or not Israel convinces its partners to take military action against Iran, the Jewish state is preparing to take action on its own.

“We don’t want it to be the sole responsibility of Israel to deal with the Iranian threat, but if it will come to a point that there will be no other option, we are getting ready for that challenge,” former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon said on the Fox News Rundown podcast. 

“We are preparing our military” and “have allocated substantial amounts [in the budget for 2022-2023] in order to be ready for that scenario,” Danon added. According to reporting by Channel 12 News, Israel approved a budget of $1.5 billion to be used for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav confirmed that the military is getting ready for this, telling the Israeli Reshet Bet radio network last week, “When I say that we are accelerating the plans against Iran, I mean it… As we’ve said in the past, we are preparing for all possibilities.”

Meanwhile, in a meeting with incoming U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, Israeli president Isaac Herzog underscored that Israel will take steps to “protect itself” in the event that the international community does not prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

The idea that the Jewish state must “defend itself by itself” against any threat is deeply ingrained in the Israeli psyche — and Israel has carried out successful attacks on its own in the past, against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. But many Israelis underscored that this is far from the ideal scenario.

“I don’t know if Israel has the — I wish we didn’t have to do it alone,” Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, said on the Hartman podcast, referring to a potential military strike against Iran.

“I really wish that we didn’t have to do this because there are other people who have the capacity to do it in a far more significant manner with repercussions, which would be much less significant for the whole Middle East,” he said.

Will the U.S. take military action against Iran? According to Michael Makovsky, president of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, “Israeli leaders see the U.S. as weakened from a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and were shocked…that the U.S. did not retaliate after an attack on American forces last month by Iranian-backed forces.”

He added that senior military officials in Israel “no longer have hope that America will step in militarily to deter a nuclear Iran.” He argued that if the U.S. is not going to take action itself, it should supply Israel with the military tools it needs as soon as possible.

Is this an existential threat for Israel?

Meanwhile, Israelis were grappling with the severity of the threat and if this is a “never again” moment for the Jewish state. 

In an op-ed for the Jewish News Syndicate, Nir Barkat, Likud Knesset member and a former mayor of Jerusalem, warned that “Iran, a terrorist state behind a global axis of evil, is once again getting the last laugh. It is hard to watch as the United States and Europe politely attempt to reach a deal with Tehran at the cost of an existential threat to Israel.”

Barkat wrote that “the Iranians are planning to strike Israel on six fronts: From Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria, internally with the assistance of some Arab Israelis, and through the use of long-range missiles from Iran and Yemen.” He added that he is personally carrying out a diplomacy campaign and meeting with U.S. officials to “wake Washington up from its stupor” regarding Iran.

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi had a similar assessment of the situation, stating on the Hartman Institute podcast, “This is a ‘never again’ moment for Israel…“I’m very wary of Holocaust analogies. But for me, this is a ‘never again’ moment.”

However, Alon Pinkas, an Israeli diplomat who served as consul general of Israel in the U.S., assessed the situation a bit differently. In an op-ed for Haaretz titled, “Stop the hysteria: Nuclear deal or not, this isn’t 1938,” Pinkas acknowledged that a scenario in which Iran obtained nuclear weapons “poses a potential existential threat.”

But Pinkas cautioned against “public hysteria emanating from Jerusalem,” arguing, “Replicating Netanyahu’s populist alarmism about ‘This is 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany’ is not a policy. It is hollow rhetoric for domestic consumption and political expediency.”

“Israel is strong and capable of projecting its power in a multitude of ways, means and technologies,” Pinkas added. “Israel can and should be patient before making grandstanding statements.”

Hysteria or not, Iran has made it clear that its intentions are to destroy Israel. Last week, a top Iranian commander told the Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, that if Israel starts a war, Iran will be the one to end it, stating, “Any mistake by Israel in dealing with Tehran will accelerate its destruction.”

Similarly, Iranian army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi recently declared that Israel’s annihilation is his country’s “greatest ideal before us and the greatest goal we pursue.”

In assessing the threat, Judah Ari Gross, military correspondent for The Times of Israel, argued that Israelis need to anticipate what happens after a potential strike, “which is of far greater significance” than the potential strike itself.

Gross noted that, “For decades, Tehran has been building up a number of proxies throughout the region, the most formidable of which is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a terrorist group with an arsenal of rockets, missiles and mortar shells that matches and even surpasses many Western states’.”

“The IDF firmly believes that this network of proxies would be brought to bear against Israel if it conducts a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities,” Gross wrote, concluding that “it’s not about the strike, but the war that follows.”

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