Iran, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett warned on June 12, “is dangerously close to getting their hands on a nuclear weapon.” In an interview with The Telegraph, the premier pointed out that “Iran is enriching uranium at an unprecedented rate.” Bennett added: “Iran’s nuclear program won’t stop until it’s stopped.”
Bennett isn’t alone in expressing concern.
The United States has also raised alarm. In a March 2022 hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) observed that “Iran has made key advances” and has “decreased its [nuclear] breakout time to several weeks from a year” compared to what it was under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal. Indeed, in April 2022, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken said that Iran’s breakout time was “down to a couple of weeks.”
On June 6, 2022, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, said that Tehran was “very close” to crossing the nuclear threshold and that it “cannot be avoided at this point.” Grossi also presented the board with a report “showing that Iran effectively already has enough enriched uranium for three bombs,” the news service JNS reported.
Grossi also told the IAEA’s board of governors that “Iran has not provided explanations that are technically credible in relation to the Agency’s findings at three undeclared locations in Iran.” Grossi noted that Iran has also failed to provide the IAEA with “the current location, or locations, of the nuclear material and/or of the equipment contaminated with the nuclear material” that was moved from the site of Turquzabad in 2018.
Adding to concerns, the Islamic Republic has begun installing advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its underground enrichment plant in Natanz and has said that it plans to install more at other sites. The centrifuges will enable the Islamic Republic to increase enrichment by as much as 50 percent.
The agency formally censured Iran for its activities.
In response, the Islamic Republic called the IAEA “ungrateful” and cut off the agency’s camera feeds which monitor Tehran’s nuclear activities at declared facilities. This, Grossi asserted, was a “fatal blow” to negotiations between the United States and Tehran over its nuclear weapons program. But this overlooks some key points.
As Reuters, among others, has noted, the IAEA hasn’t had access to the data collected by the cameras for more than a year. The agency “hopes that it will gain access to that data, which remains with Iran, at a later date.”
Hope, however, is not a good basis for policy—particularly when it’s a policy designed to prevent the world’s leading state sponsor of terror from acquiring nuclear weapons.
But while several analysts have pointed to a stall in U.S.-Iran negotiations as increasing tensions and making a breakout possible, it is worth noting the following: the very terms of the JCPOA did not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. And Israel will not allow the Islamic Republic to become such a power. It is that simple.
The JCPOA’s sunset provisions and poor verifications regime enabled Iran to eventually join the nuclear club. Indeed, in a 2015 interview, then-President Barack Obama admitted that the deal would enable Iran to have “near zero” breakout time in as little as thirteen years—or six years from now.
But even this assessment was overly optimistic: the JCPOA did not require Iran to come clean about its past nuclear behavior—thus preventing an accurate benchmark of its progress. Similarly, the JCPOA only allowed inspections at “declared” facilities. And it didn’t fully restrict research and development in key areas, thereby allowing Iran to reduce the time of a nuclear breakout potentially further. This, of course, is to say nothing of the decision by JCPOA architects not to address Iran’s other “malign activities”—code for its support for terrorism and development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, among other things.
The limits of that policy were highlighted in 2018 when Israel revealed that it had broken into Iran’s so-called “nuclear archive.” The findings, later authenticated by the United States, showed that Iran not only lied about its nuclear program but was engaged in hiding it during negotiations with the United States and others.
Iran may lie about its nuclear activities, but it doesn’t always hide its intentions.
Regime apparatchiks from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on down have called for Israel’s destruction. The history of both the Jewish people and the Jewish state show that such calls aren’t to be taken lightly.
In June 1981, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) successfully took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor. And in September 2007, the IDF carried out a strike against Syria’s nuclear program. Israel has been clear: it will not tolerate a hostile power acquiring nuclear weapons. But this time promises to be different.
Unlike the 1981 and 2007 strikes, Israel faces a more difficult security predicament. The Islamic Republic has proxies wrapped around Israel like a snake. Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas are funded, trained, and equipped by Tehran. And both have documented histories of using human shields.
Hezbollah alone is widely regarded as the most well-armed terrorist group in the world and maintains a global presence with operatives in dozens of countries. And it has carried out attacks against Jewish communities worldwide, murdering hundreds.
Similarly, Iran is also deeply embedded in both Syria and Iraq, with capabilities to strike Israel from these satrapies.
In recent weeks, Israel has carried out several targeted assassinations in Iran itself, taking out top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operatives as well as nuclear scientists. It is not the first time that Israel has taken out high-level targets inside Iran. But the increase in strikes—nearly half a dozen in less than a month—suggests a shift.
Ditto for Bennett’s vow to implement the “Octopus Doctrine.” The Israeli prime minister recently stated: “We no longer play with the tentacles, with Iran’s proxies: we’ve created a new equation by going for the head.” By letting Tehran know that it can and will be struck, Israel is changing the rules of the game. Jerusalem is no longer content to “mow the grass”—an expression for strategically limited strikes—but is upping the ante in response to what it sees as a growing threat.
Israel has also stepped up the scale and scope of its strikes in Syria, recently hitting the Damascus airport. The IDF recently held the largest military drill in decades, dubbed “Chariots of Fire.” In its own words, the exercises “aim to both increase the IDF’s defensive readiness and examine its preparedness for an intensive and prolonged campaign.”
In late May 2022, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) conducted drills which included “long-range flights, aerial refueling and striking distant targets.” It was, the Times of Israel noted, meant to simulate striking Iranian nuclear facilities. According to Israel’s Channel 13 news, the exercises spanned more than 10,000 kilometers and included more than 100 aircraft and navy submarines.
The IAF, the Jerusalem Post reported in early June 2022, can now fly F-35 fighter jets from Israel to Iran without refueling. And now they can be equipped with a new one-ton bomb “that can be carried inside the plane’s internal weapons compartment without jeopardizing its stealth radar signature.”
The IDF is, of course, an exceptionally well-trained military. It isn’t a stranger to major drills and exercises. But it seems clear that something is afoot and the parameters of the long-running conflict between Israel and Iran are changing. Coupled with Tehran’s imminent “nuclear break out,” such developments indicate that Jerusalem is doing more than mowing the grass—it might be preparing to get rid of the entire yard.
Should Israel strike Iran’s nuclear facilities it would likely bring about the worst war that the Middle East has seen in decades—if not longer. The conflict that would follow would look nothing like many of the recent wars between Israel and Iranian proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. For both Israel and the Islamic Republic, it would be an existential battle, with the fate of both the Jewish state and the regime in Tehran hinging on the war’s outcome. The losses and destruction would be devastating.
Hezbollah is estimated to have 130-150,000 rockets and missiles and Hamas is thought to have at least 30,000. Both hide their arsenals behind human shields.
Indeed, according to a 2021 study by the Alma Center, numerous Hezbollah military sites in southern Lebanon are “located in buildings within populated villages and areas very close to villages.” Researcher Tal Beeri found that “each of the 200 Shi’ite villages in the area south of the Zaharani River up to the border with Israel and the adjacent areas have become part of Hezbollah’s military infrastructure,” constituting part of the terror group’s “regional defensive plan.” Further away, Hezbollah is also firmly ensconced in major cities like Beirut.
And costs will likely extend beyond the Middle East. Iranian proxies have shown themselves to be capable of attacking both Jewish and American targets throughout the world. It also seems likely that a war will fuel anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere—just as the conflict between Iranian proxies and Israel did in the spring of 2021.