Although not a member of the P5+1 itself, Israel has always loomed large over the negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program. For example, in explaining French opposition to a possible nuclear deal earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated: “The security concerns of Israel and all the countries of the region have to be taken into account.”
Part of Fabius’ concern derives from the long-held fear that Israel will launch a preventive strike against Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. For some, this possibility remains all too real despite the important interim agreement the P5+1 and Iran reached this weekend. For example, when asked on ABC’s This Week whether Israel would attack Iran while the interim deal is in place, William Kristol responded: “I don't think the prime minister will think he is constrained by the U.S. deciding to have a six-month deal. […] six months, one year, I mean, if they're going to break out, they're going to break out.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done little to dispel this notion. Besides blasting the deal as a “historic mistake,” Netanyahu said Israel “is not obliged to the agreement” and warned “the regime in Iran is dedicated to destroying Israel and Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself with its own forces against every threat.”
Many dismiss this talk as bluster, however. Over at Bloomberg View, for instance, Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the nuclear deal has “boxed-in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so comprehensively that it's unimaginable Israel will strike Iran in the foreseeable future.” Eurasia Group's Cliff Kupchan similarly argued: “The chance of Israeli strikes during the period of the interim agreement drops to virtually zero.”
Although the interim deal does further reduce Israel’s propensity to attack, the truth is that the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities has always been greatly exaggerated. There are at least five reasons why Israel isn’t likely to attack Iran.
1. You Snooze, You Lose
First, if Israel was going to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, it would have done so a long time ago. Since getting caught off-guard at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel has generally acted proactively to thwart security threats. On no issue has this been truer than with nuclear-weapon programs. For example, Israel bombed Saddam Hussein’s program when it consisted of just a single nuclear reactor. According to ABC News, Israel struck Syria’s lone nuclear reactor just months after discovering it. The IAEA had been completely in the dark about the reactor, and took years to confirm the building was in fact housing one.
Contrast this with Israel’s policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. The uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz and the heavy-water reactor at Arak first became public knowledge in 2002. For more than a decade now, Tel Aviv has watched as the program has expanded into two fully operational nuclear facilities, a budding nuclear-research reactor, and countless other well-protected and -dispersed sites. Furthermore, America’s extreme reluctance to initiate strikes on Iran was made clear to Israel at least as far back as 2008. It would be completely at odds with how Israel operates for it to standby until the last minute when faced with what it views as an existential threat.
2. Bombing Iran Makes an Iranian Bomb More Likely
Much like a U.S. strike, only with much less tactical impact, an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would only increase the likelihood that Iran would build the bomb. At home, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could use the attack to justify rescinding his fatwa against possessing a nuclear-weapons program, while using the greater domestic support for the regime and the nuclear program to mobilize greater resources for the country’s nuclear efforts.
Israel’s attack would also give the Iranian regime a legitimate (in much of the world’s eyes) reason to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and kick out international inspectors. If Tehran’s membership didn’t even prevent it from being attacked, how could it justify staying in the regime? Finally, support for international sanctions will crumble in the aftermath of an Israeli attack, giving Iran more resources with which to rebuild its nuclear facilities.
3. Helps Iran, Hurts Israel
Relatedly, an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program would be a net gain for Iran and a huge loss for Tel Aviv. Iran could use the strike to regain its popularity with the Arab street and increase the pressure against Arab rulers. As noted above, it would also lead to international sanctions collapsing, and an outpouring of sympathy for Iran in many countries around the world.
Meanwhile, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would leave Israel in a far worse-off position. Were Iran to respond by attacking U.S. regional assets, this could greatly hurt Israel’s ties with the United States at both the elite and mass levels. Indeed, a war-weary American public is adamantly opposed to its own leaders dragging it into another conflict in the Middle East. Americans would be even more hostile to an ally taking actions that they fully understood would put the U.S. in danger.
Furthermore, the quiet but growing cooperation Israel is enjoying with Sunni Arab nations against Iran would evaporate overnight. Even though many of the political elites in these countries would secretly support Israel’s action, their explosive domestic situations would force them to distance themselves from Tel Aviv for an extended period of time. Israel’s reputation would also take a further blow in Europe and Asia, neither of which would soon forgive Tel Aviv.
4. Israel’s Veto Players
Although Netanyahu may be ready to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, he operates within a democracy with a strong elite structure, particularly in the field of national security. It seems unlikely that he would have enough elite support for him to seriously consider such a daring and risky operation.
For one thing, Israel has strong institutional checks on using military force. As then vice prime minister and current defense minister Moshe Yaalon explained last year: “In the State of Israel, any process of a military operation, and any military move, undergoes the approval of the security cabinet and in certain cases, the full cabinet… the decision is not made by two people, nor three, nor eight.” It’s far from clear Netanyahu, a fairly divisive figure in Israeli politics, could gain this support. In fact, Menachem Begin struggled to gain sufficient support for the 1981 attack on Iraq even though Baghdad presented a more clear and present danger to Israel than Iran does today.
What is clearer is that Netanyahu lacks the support of much of Israel’s highly respected national security establishment. Many former top intelligence and military officials have spoken out publicly against Netanyahu’s hardline Iran policy, with at least one of them questioning whether Iran is actually seeking a nuclear weapon. Another former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces told The Independent that, “It is quite clear that much if not all of the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] leadership do not support military action at this point…. In the past the advice of the head of the IDF and the head of Mossad had led to military action being stopped.”
5. A Deal is Better Than No Deal
Finally, Israel won’t attack Iran because it is ultimately in its interests for the US and Iran to reach an agreement, even if it is a less than an ideal one. To begin with, an agreement is the only way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons short of an invasion and occupation of the country. Moreover, Israel would benefit both directly and indirectly from a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal and especially larger rapprochement. Israel would gain a number of direct benefits from a larger warming of U.S.-Iranian relations, which a nuclear deal could help facilitate. Iran currently pays no costs while benefiting significantly from its anti-Israeli tirades and actions. A rapprochement with the U.S. would force Iranian leaders to constrain their anti-Israeli rhetoric and actions, or risk losing their new partner. While Israel and Iran might not enjoy the same relationship they did under the Shah or the first decade of the Islamic Republic, a U.S.-allied Iran would be much less of a burden for Israel. History is quite clear on this point: U.S. Middle Eastern allies—notable Egypt under Sadat—have been much less hostile to the Jewish state than countries that have been U.S. adversaries.
Tel Aviv would also benefit indirectly from a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal and possible rapprochement. That’s because either of these agreements would spark panic in Sunni Arab capitals. For the foreseeable future, then, Israel would enjoy some breathing room, which would obtain as these governments would be preoccupied with Iran for the foreseeable future. Indeed, just the possibility of an interim nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran has created rumors of Saudi Arabia seeking tighter cooperation with Israel.
For these reasons, the interim nuclear deal has made it less likely that Israel will attack Iran. That being said, the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran was already remote long before Iran and the P5+1 held their talks in Geneva last month.