Israel and Iran: A Tale of Escalation by Design

Main Image Credit Israeli Air Force F-35I 'Adir' and F-16I 'Sufa' jets. Israel has threatened to attack Iran to disrupt its nuclear programme. Courtesy of Israeli Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

With clashing interests and contrasting ambitions, can Israel and Iran find a diplomatic solution to their nuclear standoff?

As negotiators gathered in Vienna in November to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, Israel, though not part of the negotiations, was no doubt in the back of everyone’s minds. For years, the hostility between Israel and Iran has been one of the most dominant and enduring factors in the politics of the Middle East, even before Iran’s nuclear programme became a focal issue of contention between these two sworn enemies.

For both, their enmity is as much a domestic rallying cry as a contest between two countries with clashing interests and contrasting ambitions. In the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, it was the newly installed fundamentalist regime in Tehran that singled out Israel as an enemy for its support of the toppled Shah and its close relations with the US. Since then, relations between Israel and Iran have deteriorated rather rapidly, with rare exceptions, and they turned from being useful antagonists to full-blown enemies.

It is no surprise that Israel is following the resumed nuclear negotiations with anxious anticipation. The Israeli political and security establishment opposes any nuclear deal with Iran, arguing that Tehran cannot be trusted, and that maintaining – even tightening – sanctions and sustaining a credible military threat can halt its march towards a nuclear military capability.

The current government in Israel might differ in style from the Netanyahu administrations, but its approach to the JCPOA is the same as its predecessors. Not without reason, there is deep distrust of the regime in Tehran, of its adherence to agreements and, above all, of its intentions and objectives in the region generally and towards Israel in particular. However, this consensus does not lend itself to a more nuanced approach to the complexities of Iranian politics and foreign policy, and risks losing sight of the need to contain Tehran when it poses a threat to Israel’s vital interests.

There is a genuine risk that a nuclear-capable Iran, feeling shielded from military attacks on its own soil, might increase its support of militant groups

Whether Iran’s motivations for its nuclear programme and more general adventurism in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine are for the purpose of achieving regional hegemony or not, Israel sees an Iranian presence wherever it looks. In all likelihood, Iran’s nuclear programme is not intended for launching a nuclear attack at any point in the future. Instead, it might be leveraged against Israel and other countries in the region, especially GCC countries, in challenging the regional balance of power.

It remains an open question whether a nuclearised Iran would be more confident in its own security or be driven by expansionist goals. Whatever the answer to this conundrum, preventing it from developing a nuclear military capability – preferably through diplomatic negotiations or by other necessary pressure – is paramount. Such a capability could further destabilise the region and lead to a nuclear proliferation frenzy, and might also affect Israel’s nuclear ambiguity. Moreover, while the Abraham Accords and the normalisation between Israel and its neighbours has been a positive development, it has also increased Tehran’s sense of isolation, and with it its insecurity.

There is a genuine risk that a nuclear-capable Iran, feeling shielded from military attacks on its own soil, might increase its support of militant groups such as Hizbullah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad. The enablement of its proxies would pose a real threat (Hizbullah, for example, is armed to its teeth with sophisticated rockets and missiles capable of reaching almost every point within Israel).

In this case, escalation of Iran’s hostile relations with Israel would be inevitable, and likely extend to the latter’s new allies in the Gulf and beyond. For example, considering the volatile political situation in Lebanon, a confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah – which could quickly escalate into an all-out war with horrendous consequences for both sides – is not beyond the realm of possibility.

There is no military option for Israel to eliminate Iran’s nuclear programme, and even limited operations to delay Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state would be risky, with dire consequences should they fail. Moreover, such an operation could not be executed without at least a tacit nod from Washington, which is improbable considering the Biden administration’s eagerness to resurrect the 2015 JCPOA.

Israel's main strategy has been to make everyone believe that it has a readily available military option to attack Iran

One of the limitations of Israel’s approach to Iran is that its leading decision-makers tend to portray the Iranian political system and ideology as monolithic. This has led to a rather one-dimensional approach which is overly reliant on deterrence and disruption through assassinations, cyber attacks and air raids on military personnel and its Hizbullah proxy in Syria. Much of this approach has focused on stopping the transfer of sophisticated weaponry from Iran into Lebanon, but there has been hardly any effort to explore diplomatic channels. This forms part of what is known in Israeli strategic jargon as the ‘war between wars’, which to a large extent suits Israel’s objectives and resonates with its short-term, tactical thinking.

Thus far, Tehran’s retaliation to Israel’s operations has been extremely subdued, even though they have wounded pride and cost the lives of many Iranians and allies, including top nuclear scientists. It remains to be seen at what point, if at all, pressure to retaliate might take hold on the decision-makers in Tehran.

While Israel has operated clandestinely against Iran to slow down its nuclear programme for over two decades, its main strategy has been to make everyone believe that it has a readily available military option to attack Iran. Israel sticks to this strategy in the hope that the international community will act to contain Iran, not only because of the danger it poses, but also out of fear that Israel could initiate a military attack which might escalate conflict in the region.

The irony is that the best option is a diplomatic solution to the current nuclear standoff. This would slow down both the enrichment of uranium and Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear bomb, and see the lifting of the sanctions. While Iran desperately needs the latter to happen, neither country seems capable of admitting their requirements and acting accordingly.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Yossi Mekelberg

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