Iran Deal Causes Discomfort, But Military Action Unlikely


BMI View: Israel will continue to feel very uncomfortable with the deal between Iran and the 'Great Powers' over Tehran's nuclear programme, but will refrain from military action against the Islamic Republic for the next six months. As long as Iran and world powers appear to make progress on a rapprochement, an Israeli attack would cause widespread international condemnation, and risk an open break with the US.

Israel will remain sceptical towards the deal between Iran and the world's major powers that freezes the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions. The November 24, 2013 agreement was made possible by the election of a relatively moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran's president in June, which apparently reflected ordinary Iranians' desire to end the nuclear deadlock that had resulted in ever tighter sanctions, thereby crippling the economy. From the outset, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been sceptical towards President Rouhani, describing him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing". Netanyahu subsequently described the November 24 deal as a "historic mistake", and warned that Israel would not be bound by it. Israel is mindful that a major deal signed between the US and North Korea in 1994 to freeze the latter's nuclear programme did not prevent Pyongyang from building and testing atomic warheads in the 2000s.

Israel Views Nuclear Iran As An 'Existential' Threat

Israel has long viewed Iran as its number one security threat, due to Tehran's fierce rhetoric against the Jewish state, and its long-standing support for anti-Israeli groups such as the Shi'a militant organisation Hizbullah and radical Palestinian factions. Israel's concerns were heightened in the 2000s, when suspicions emerged that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, and Iran elected a conservative hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president in 2005 and re-elected him in 2009. For Israeli security planners, a nuclear-armed Iran would represent an 'existential threat', because it would only take a small number of nuclear strikes by Tehran to devastate the Jewish state, due to its heavily concentrated urban population.

Even though Israel is believed to possess dozens of nuclear weapons, and is thus more than capable of deterring a nuclear Iran, there are concerns that a nuclear exchange could still ensue as a result of miscalculation at a time of heightened tensions. In addition, Israel fears that even if a nuclear-armed Iran refrained from using its atomic weapons, Tehran's nuclear status would encourage it to behave more aggressively towards Israel, safe in the knowledge that it was immune to Israeli retaliation. Furthermore, Israel fears that even if Iran could be trusted with a nuclear arsenal, Tehran's possession of the bomb would encourage other Middle Eastern states such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, none of which are friendly towards the Jewish state, to develop atomic bombs. Therefore, Israeli leaders feel a strong urgency in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and have threatened military action against the Islamic Republic.

Israel Sees US As Soft On Iran

Israeli leaders have long viewed US President Barack Obama as being soft on the US's traditional enemies, including Iran. Israel was alarmed by President Obama's willingness to withdraw support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a close American ally for 30 years, during the 'Arab Spring' in February 2011. In addition, Obama's decision in September 2013 to refrain from airstrikes against the Syrian regime (Iran's closest ally in the Middle East) following the latter's alleged use of chemical weapons may have led some Israeli policymakers to conclude that Washington lacks the willingness to use force against regional security threats. Furthermore, there are concerns that Obama's willingness to engage with Iran is motivated more by his desire to accomplish a foreign policy 'success' in his final years in office than his desire to genuinely reduce the regional threat posed by Tehran.

Israel Unlikely To Strike Iran, For Now

Despite its discomfort with the nuclear deal, Israel is unlikely to take military action against Iran's atomic facilities for as long as the arrangement appears to be making progress towards a more permanent agreement. It is quite clear that the US, as well as China, Russia, the UK, France, and Germany, all support the rapprochement with Iran, and have invested considerable political capital in the process. If Israel were to attack Iran, it would face considerable condemnation from the major world powers, and risk an extended disruption in relations with the US, its most dedicated ally. In addition, it is unclear if Netanyahu would be able to muster domestic support for such a risky move. Several former Israeli military and intelligence leaders are believed to favour the November 24 deal, because it freezes the Iranian nuclear programme, thus delaying Tehran's alleged quest to develop nuclear weapons. The deal also appears to have won the cautious acceptance (albeit hesitant) of two prominent Jewish-American lobbying groups, namely the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which carry out considerable lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel.

Israel is not the only Middle Eastern state to view the Iran nuclear deal negatively. Saudi Arabia also regards Iran as a threat to regional stability, and in recent years Riyadh and Tehran have intensified their geopolitical competition, with the former spearheading Sunni Muslim countries and the latter drawing support from Shi'a-majority countries and Shi'a groups. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, was particularly dismayed by Obama's abandonment of Egypt's Mubarak regime in 2011 and by Obama's backtracking from planned airstrikes on Syria in September 2013. (Syria has emerged as a major battleground in the Iran-Saudi Arabia struggle for influence.) Moreover, it was precisely Riyadh's fears of a nuclear Iran that led to speculation in the autumn of 2013 that Saudi Arabia could acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan.

Thus, events of late 2013 have left Israel and Saudi Arabia in broad agreement. This raises the possibility that the Kingdom and possibly other like-minded Arab states could privately welcome an Israeli strike on Iran.

Risks To Outlook

Although we believe that Israel will refrain from attacking Iran over the coming six months, our view hinges on the November 24 nuclear deal remaining intact and making progress. We caution that there is still scope for disagreements over its implementation, and any obstructionism on Tehran's part could undermine the deal, thus providing Israel with a pretext to act unilaterally. In addition, we cannot entirely preclude Israeli military action even if the deal remains intact, if the Jewish state concludes that the world's major powers are providing too much leeway to Iran.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: Israel, Iran