Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to US Secretary of State John Kerry on Dec. 5. Kerry insisted that Israel's security was a top priority in talks with Iran on its controversial nuclear program. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
TEL AVIV — As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to clash with US President Barack Obama over a nuclear disarmament deal with Tehran, security leaders here are working discreetly with US counterparts to preserve credible military options as an extension of diplomacy.
In the two weeks since conclusion of an interim deal between the US and Iran, Netanyahu has intensified pressure on Washington and other world powers to maintain tough economic sanctions until Tehran commits to fully dismantling its nuclear program.
He continues to maintain that Israel is not bound by the Geneva agreement and would act “to defend itself, by itself” against the Iranian nuclear threat.
At a Dec. 2 press conference in Rome, Netanyahu renewed implicit threats of military action, warning that an end to sanctions would “mark the end of the possibility of reaching a peaceful resolution to the question of ending Iran’s military nuclear program.”
In contrast to Netanyahu’s confrontational, high-profile bid to preserve sanctions, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and top military planners are honing military options for the months ahead.
Despite a clear US preference for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear threat, Israeli interlocutors are seeking a common assessment of Iran’s anticipated response options and a common follow-on strategy in the event of a limited Israeli attack.
While the content of bilateral talks remains closely guarded, a paper released Dec. 3 by Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) offers the most detailed indication to date of the ongoing debate. In it, INSS Director Amos Yadlin, a former director of Israeli military intelligence, and Avner Golov dispute assessments that preventive military action against Iran would ignite a regional war.
Overestimation of the consequences of military action, they maintain, erodes the credibility of Washington’s professed military option, encourages Iranian intransigence at the negotiating table and ultimately leaves no recourse other than military action to derail the Iranian nuclear threat.
“The common Western assessment, which envisions a horror scenario of Iranian responses and consequent developments, serves as an excellent deterrence tool for the Iranians by undermining the threat of the military option and reducing the likelihood that the regime in Tehran will agree to a diplomatic solution,” the authors write.
Yadlin and Golov concede that an attack on Iran — no matter how successful — cannot halt indefinitely Tehran’s nuclear weapon program. However, a limited attack that only damages Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but spares its regime “should be seen as a tool to promote the goal of stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomatic means, to the extent possible, and not as a solution in and of itself.”
INSS authors offer four recommendations for a long-term diplomatic strategy “that does not end on the day of the strike,” but rather minimizes risk of a broader Western strike against Iran “if it does not display willingness to reach a diplomatic solution that guarantees it cannot develop military nuclear capabilities.”
■Surgical strike “over the course of a few days” aimed at maximum damage to Iran’s military nuclear program while sparing “other assets that are important to the Iranian economy and the survival of the regime.”
■Deterring Iran from massive retaliation that would escalate the conflict through a credible threat of “an extensive, powerful third move.” According to the authors, “An Iranian response can be expected in any case; the challenge is to limit and contain it.” This can be done, they claim, through “a comprehensive and powerful American and Israeli response, which would also include political, economic and regime assets.”
■Strengthened Israeli defenses — through early warning, emergency procedures and a layered network of anti-missile and anti-rocket intercepting systems — to blunt the impact of Iran’s retaliatory attack.
■A plan for the “day after” that ensures continued international sanctions and preservation of a credible military threat to “improve conditions for reaching a diplomatic agreement” that keeps Tehran “a number of years away” from a nuclear bomb. ■