How Saudi Arabia and Israel Are Bracing for the Iran Deal's Collapse

IRGC amphibious forces in a naval exercise, 2015. Wikimedia Commons/Shahab-o-din Vajedi.

They’re watching carefully for any slip-ups.

In discussing the reaction to the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that was signed by Iran and the international community in July 2015, scholars have warned about the possible cascade of proliferation in the Middle East. They have been particularly concerned about the responses of two key Middle Eastern countries—Israel and Saudi Arabia—to the JCPOA. While the architects of the nuclear agreement hailed it as a way to limit proliferation in the region, critics have contended that the deal would actually spur a nuclear race.

According to the JCPOA, Iran committed itself to a serious rollback of its nuclear project in exchange for lifting sanctions. In December 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified Iran in compliance with the agreement, thus paving the way for sanction relief. The IAEA promised stringent oversight of Iran’s remaining civil program for the fifteen-year duration of the agreement. All sides to the agreement expressed optimism that the historical deal would prevent proliferation in the Middle East.

However, Iran has a long history of fomenting tensions in the region and an equally long record of deception in dealing with the Safeguard Division of the IAEA. As a result, a strong residue of mistrust has clouded the achievements of the JCPOA. Concerns have been raised that, despite stringent oversight, Iran could manage an illicit weapons program. Questions about Iran’s ultimate intention of achieving nuclear dominance in the Middle East have also not been put to rest.

Two countries—Israel and Saudi Arabia—offered guarded acceptance of the JCPOA, but reserved the right to reevaluate their decision should Iran fail to comply with the deal. Iran’s future behavior is thus of critical importance in shaping their respective responses. Israel, the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, has emerged as a leading opponent of the nuclear agreement.

As envisaged by David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli nuclear arsenal was to provide deterrence against threats from Arab countries with numerically strong armies. To sustain this deterrent power, however, Israel has to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the region. As a result of this assumption, under the so-called Begin doctrine, the Israel Air Force bombed the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 and a Syrian reactor in 2007.

Following the discovery of Iran’s nuclear program in the 1990s, Israel launched a multifaceted campaign to roll it back. Using an array of clandestine tools, the intelligence services, working alone or with the United States, sought to expose and damage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. On the diplomatic front, Jerusalem had led the drive to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran. By 2009, however, the newly elected Likud government concluded that, in spite of some guarded success, these measures would fail to stop Iran’s nuclear progress.

Instead, Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak planned to execute a preemptive strike on Tehran’s nuclear facility. On a number of different occasions between 2010 and 2012, Netanyahu and Barak tried to persuade the security cabinet to launch a strike. They failed because of strong objections of the IDF, the intelligence chiefs and several cabinet members. Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, took a lead in organizing a strong opposition to the proposed mission in the assumption that the action was ill conceived because Iran was still several years ahead of weaponization. More to the point, they argued that an attack on Iran presented a vastly more complex military challenge, which could not be carried out without the help of the United States.

Forced to revert to the diplomatic route, the Likud government urged the United States to negotiate for a zero-enrichment deal, a position that the Obama administration viewed as unrealistic, since the NPT entitled Iran to a civilian program. Though the JCPOA represented a severe setback to Iran, Netanyahu mobilized the Israel lobby in Washington to defeat it in Congress. During a bitterly fought campaign, Netanyahu and his American supporters accused the Obama administration of exposing Israel to a second Holocaust at the hand of a nuclear Iran.

Showing defiance, however, the Revolutionary Guards have probed the soft underbelly of JCPOA-related restrictions on ballistic missiles. In the final weeks of negotiations, Iranian officials sought to soften Security Council Resolution 1929, which “dictated that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” UNSC Resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015, which endorsed the nuclear pact, was more permissive: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Essentially, the new resolution, which is not as legally binding as the JCPOA, created a loophole for Iran to exploit and complicated the effort to define of what kind of missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. According to the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal group that works on nuclear-capable missile technology, missiles with a range of three hundred kilometers and a payload of five hundred kilograms can deliver a nuclear payload.

Iran’s missiles tests evidently violated Resolutions 1929 and 2231. In December, the Revolutionary Guards fired the midrange Emad and Ghadr missiles, capable of carrying nuclear payloads. It did not help that the missiles were marked with the words “Israel must be wiped out.”

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