Israel's Election and the Iran Crisis

An in-depth analysis of the strategic and political trends driving the Iran issue in Israel.

Israel’s January 22 elections will produce a new government. The extent to which it will differ from the outgoing government remains to be seen. But efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons might be affected. Could the composition of a new Israeli government indirectly impact the Israeli-U.S. discourse on Iran's nuclear program?

Context

Assuming the January 22 Israeli elections will be followed by some three to six weeks of negotiations on the formation of the country's next governing coalition, Israel's new government will be sworn in sometime between mid-February and mid-March 2013. By that time, the decision making environment surrounding Iran's nuclear efforts is likely to be affected by two vectors: One is the expected further evolution of Iran's nuclear program. The other is the likely efforts of the United States to reach a negotiated resolution of the nuclear conflict with Iran.

If the pace of Iran's uranium enrichment activities are projected into the next six to nine months, by late spring or early summer 2013 Iran will likely possess enough uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent to allow the construction of some 2–3 bombs within 2–3 months of a decision to do so being taken. At that point, Israeli leaders will become uncertain about the extent to which the difference between a nuclear-capable and nuclear-armed Iran will remain relevant. Even the more cautious, balanced, and level-headed among the Israeli defense and intelligence chiefs will then become very nervous, as so much would then rest on the ability to detect the decision of Iran's supreme leader to order the production of nuclear weapons.

The second expected vector is a heroic U.S.-led effort to negotiate a grand bargain with Iran to prevent it from "going nuclear." This effort will be motivated by the Obama administration's assessments that following the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is war-weary; that even a limited military strike against Iran's nuclear installations might escalate, requiring another major U.S. military commitment in the Middle East; and that given the state of the U.S. economy and that of the national economies of America's principal trading partners, a military attack aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons may prove too costly. Given their positions on this issue, the recently announced nominations of senator John Kerry and former senator Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. secretaries of state and defense, respectively, point to this likely effort.

While these two vectors may come to head as early as late-spring or early- summer of 2013, a word of caution is needed. First, precisely because these trajectories may trigger irreversible steps, the most extreme of which would be a military strike, one can expect Iranian measures to avoid such a collision by extending the aforementioned timeline. One way Iran could do so is to slow the pace of its uranium-enrichment activities or earmark some of the uranium already enriched for peaceful purposes (such as the Tehran Research Reactor [TRR]) in an effort to signal that there is still time for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Indeed, in late December 2012, there were indications that Iran has already taken such steps.

Second, once a heroic last-ditch effort to reach a negotiated grand bargain with Iran is underway, there will be great reluctance on the part of the United States and its European allies to admit that these efforts have failed. Precisely because such an announcement may trigger military action, pressures will mount to keep trying until it becomes completely clear that Iran is unwilling to yield any significant nuclear ground.

These two vectors will compel the next Israeli government to take decisions and confront challenges in at least three critically important realms: First, at what point should it regard Iran's nuclear efforts as having crossed a red line that requires activating existing contingency plans to abort or decapitate these efforts militarily? Second, what would be the components of a minimally acceptable deal with Iran, particularly with regard to its uranium-enrichment activities? It seems that to be acceptable to Iran such a deal would have to include some international recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium, some enrichment to 3.5 percent on Iranian soil, and some 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel the TRR. Would a deal that includes such concessions be acceptable to Israel? And, from Israel’s perspective, how intrusive would the monitoring measures applied to verify that Iran is complying with these limitations have to be?

The third challenge that the next Israeli government will have to face in this area is how to best conduct its discourse with the Obama administration regarding the aforementioned questions. This would require striking the right balance between guarding Israel's national-security interests while maintaining the very close Israel-U.S. relationship, especially in the defense and intelligence realms.

Iran and the Israeli Domestic Scene

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