Israel has faced Iran’s threats to develop a nuclear weapon for more than a decade. Now Tehran is once again indicating it may enrich uranium upwards of sixty percent and is moving to install advanced centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, key nuclear facilities. While Iran’s posturing may be designed initially as leverage to get the United States to enter a new nuclear deal, as Washington once signed in 2015, the larger context is how Israeli strategy sees the threat.
In a conversation with a senior defense official in Israel, the key issues facing the country’s regional assessment were laid out. What follows is based on the discussion with the official, underlining some key assessments of the region and the U.S. approach today. It also touches on Israel’s hope that France’s President Emmanuel Macron will support Israel’s position and the larger regional partnerships Israel now has in the Gulf. With a new U.S. administration, there are expected changes in how much focus will be placed on the Middle East by President Joe Biden and his team. His phone calls to world leaders bypassed Israel initially. Now he is reaching out, but expectations are that he will focus on the domestic Covid-19 crisis and also big picture issues like China’s challenge.
For Israel, everything in the region is connected. The decision by the Obama administration from 2013 to 2015 to walk away from airstrikes in Syria and move towards an Iran deal fueled Iran’s increased role in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran already had a hand in Lebanon through Hezbollah, now it has transferred missiles and drones to Syria, as well as played a role in rocket attacks on the United States in Iraq and exports drone and missile technology to the Houthis in Yemen. Recent weeks have shown how pro-Iranian groups are using these weapons. The Houthis launch drone attacks on Saudi Arabia frequently, and in Iraq rockets killed a contractor at a U.S.-led Coalition facility in Erbil and also targeted the embassy. This isn’t new, these attacks have gone on for years, but the question is how the United States intends to deter the attacks.
From Israel’s perspective, the Iranian threat is not new. Back in 2012 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned at the United Nations about Iran’s enrichment of uranium. However, Iran had largely failed to export its revolution between 1979 and the 2010s. In the last decade, it has increased its influence, feeding off the breakdown of state structures in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran has also vastly improved its drone and rocket capabilities. It unveiled this in an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility in September 2019 using drones and cruise missiles. Israel has increased its air defense capabilities in recent years to confront exactly these kinds of threats, such as drone swarms and cruise missiles. Israel is also working on the Arrow-4 program with the United States to increase its abilities against ballistic missiles. At the same time, Israel is buying more KC-46s and will likely get more F-35s and helicopters from the United States. While Iran’s threat is now new, the technology Iran is fielding is a growing threat and Israel is seeking to be one step ahead, with U.S. support.
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal, was widely seen as a deal that would prevent war in the region. However, wars have increased. Iran has supported the Houthis in Yemen, carving out a foothold near the Red Sea. While Iran has lost opportunities in Sudan, it has gained a huge amount of influence in Iraq through paramilitaries called the Hashd al-Shaabi who are now on the government payroll. It has also entrenched in Syria, moving drones and munitions to the T-4 base and its Imam Ali base near Albukamal. This led to what Israel calls the “war between the wars,” a conflict that simmers in Syria.
“We want a robust America in the region. There is no substitute for the US and US influence,” the senior Israeli defense official said this week. The United States in the past did not focus on Syria as important to its role in the region. At the same time, U.S. Gulf partners, such as Saudi Arabia, have reduced their role in places like Syria and Lebanon. Today U.S. forces are present in eastern Syria. This is a large piece of influence and a group of journalists was recently flown from Erbil to eastern Syria to take part in an American patrol. That shows that U.S. Central Command and hopefully the White House is committed to stabilizing Syria. NATO has announced more support for forces in Iraq. All in all, this is good because it keeps a power void from developing and empowering Iran or others.
In Israel’s assessment, these are the trends that the country faces. Uranium enrichment is a red line and Israel’s prime minister and defense minister have indicated that in statements in late February. However, at the same time reports in Israel say Jerusalem wants quiet talks with the United States about the Iranian threat. Meanwhile, Iran is walking away from provisions of the nuclear deal and creating increased missile capabilities.
On a positive note for Israel, there are new relationships in the Gulf with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel views Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE as a visionary and courageous leader who played a key role in the Abraham Accords. Relations are on a promising trajectory. For instance, Israeli defense companies took part in IDEX in Abu Dhabi for the first time this year. In addition, UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef Al-Otaiba received major praise from Israel for his role in the new peace accords. “He masterfully facilitated” behind the scenes, the official said this week. Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was key to the current peace deals by giving a green light for the UAE and Bahrain to proceed. These Gulf states are all close and coordinate policy, especially in the wake of the Gulf crisis of 2017 which saw Riyadh lead allies to break relations with Qatar. Now that crisis is patched up a bit, but the larger Saudi strategic outlook and concerns remain the same.
Last year there were rumors that Riyadh could also make a peace deal with Israel. That hasn’t happened yet, but overall Saudi Arabia’s role is essential to the new peace deals. What is important to Israel today is that the region remains stable and that the United States continues its bipartisan support for Israel, as well as its support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The larger picture with Saudi Arabia is that it is supporting reform and moderation, compared to the extremist groups like Hezbollah or Hamas. This is a seismic shift and it should be recognized, despite criticism of the kingdom on human rights, say those familiar with current Israeli concerns.
The problem is that when the United States signals it no longer supports a key regional leader, such as Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the results can affect the whole region as the Arab Spring eventually did. The continued conflict in Libya and Syria, as well as the way Iran exploited the ISIS war to grow its influence in Iraq and Syria, is partly a result of the chaos unleashed in 2011.
Israel has generally thrived when there is stability and investment in the economies of the region. Extremism has tended to eat away at states and led to threats to the West, the United States, and U.S. partners and allies in the region. “The special relationship with US is an essential part of Israel’s national security, alongside the peace with Egypt, Jordan, UAE, and Bahrain,” the defense official said. It’s no surprise then that the current peace between Israel the Gulf is rapidly seeing business ties pushed by both sides. Whether at IDEX or initiatives with the Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre (DMCC) and recent visits by Emiratis to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, the peace is underpinned by hi-tech and investment. A new UAE ambassador was sworn in this month, a symbol of the commitment. More has been accomplished in months of these rapidly growing ties with the UAE than we have done in years with Egypt and Jordan, where a kind of colder peace prevailed. However, some positive developments came in mid-February 2021 as Egypt’s energy minister visited Israel.
What might come next? Israel has warned about continued Iranian enrichment. Israel acted in the past to prevent nuclear reactors from being completed and operated in Iraq and Syria. “All of us, regardless of politics, will not allow or accept anything that endangers Israel,” said the defense official this week. Israel acted to stop the Syrian reactor in 2007 in the wake of a controversial war with Hezbollah in 2006 in Lebanon. Many Israelis thought the war was a failure at the time, but not long after the Syrian reactor was struck, quiet has prevailed mostly with Hezbollah over the last decade and a half. Recently Hezbollah launched a missile at an Israeli drone, piercing some of that quiet.