*This is a slightly modified policy memo I wrote last semester. To be clear, I am a strong proponent of the JCPOA. However, I think it’s interesting and important to consider the agreement from Israel’s perspective, and that is what this memo seeks to do.

Sam Seitz

Introduction and Problem Definition:

This memo addresses the strategic implications of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for Israel. Signed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5), Germany, and Iran in 2015, the JCPOA has in some ways improved Israel’s position by constraining Iran’s immediate ability to proliferate. However, the JCPOA has also undermined Israel’s strategic situation vis-a-vis Iran by both removing sanctions, thus providing the Islamic theocracy with a major influx of cash with which to finance its military proxies like Hezbollah, and by excluding any prohibitions on ballistic missile testing. So while the JCPOA likely improves Israel’s short-term situation, it threatens Israel’s position in the medium to long term by increasing Iranian fiscal capacity and allowing Tehran to continue improving centrifuge and missile technology that could later be used to rapidly develop nuclear weapons. Additionally, Israel is disadvantaged by the legitimacy this deal confers upon Iran, constraining Israel’s options when addressing the Iranian challenge.

Issue Analysis:

The door to the Iranian nuclear program remains open While the JCPOA ensures that the time needed to produce a nuclear weapon has increased from a matter of weeks to more than a year[1], the potential for future Iranian nuclear proliferation remains. Iran is unlikely to develop secret centrifuges while being closely monitored by US and Israeli intelligence as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, the JCPOA explicitly permits Iran to develop a civilian nuclear infrastructure that could be rapidly converted into a weapons program, an aspect of the agreement which is of grave concern to Israel.[2] Given that developing a military nuclear capability remains a major objective of the Iranian government, Israeli concerns seem justified.

Potential for a regional nuclear arms race Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would likely induce at least some Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, for example – to acquire a nuclear arsenal of their own.[3] While economic and technical limitations, not to mention international pressure, might limit the scope of a regional arms race, it is likely that at least one or two more states would seek to proliferate if they feel Iran poses an existential threat. The worst case scenario is a domino effect in which even relatively less influential countries in the region seek to proliferate in order to improve their security. While regional proliferation is far from a certainty, even the threat of domino proliferation would destabilize the region and force Israel to deal with multiple crises and a rapidly changing strategic situation.

Increased Iranian legitimacy The nuclear agreement has increased Iranian legitimacy and status within the Middle East.[4] The overt nature of the agreement has made any Israeli attack on Iran more problematic, as Iran could easily garner international sympathy and even claim that the attack validates Iran’s need for nuclear weapons in order to deter Israeli aggression.

Stability-Instability paradox – Israel will have to confront the stability-instability paradox, which suggests that Iranian nuclear weapons will embolden Iranian leaders by granting the regime existential security. In other words, Iranian leaders, feeling secure in the belief that their nuclear threat offers them some security from escalating reprisals, might feel comfortable precipitating a crisis. This could entail, for example, Iranian instigation of an Israel-Hezbollah conflict or further escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through support for Hamas.

Proposed Solutions:

Bolster intelligence monitoring and cooperation – Israel should attempt to work within the framework of the JCPOA to avoid alienating potential partners. However, Israel can strengthen the effectiveness of the nuclear deal by cooperating with the U.S. and regional Sunni states on intelligence collection against Iran. This would minimize the risk of Iran cheating on the nuclear agreement and, by strengthening operational ties with the U.S., potentially grant Israel greater influence over any potential modifications to the JCPOA.

Maintain a credible strike capability to deter Iran – Although the JCPOA, by granting Iran a degree of international legitimacy, limits Israel’s ability to unilaterally act against Iran, Israel should continue to develop strike options against the Islamic Republic. Pursuing this kind of hedging strategy would guarantee Israeli freedom of action and also ensure that Israel maintains the ability to react if Iran attempts either to break out of the deal or proliferate after the JCPOA expires.

Deter Iranian proxies – Israel can limit the negative strategic consequences of sanctions relief by continuing to invest heavily in its deterrent posture against Iranian proxies. Although this strategy would not directly address the Iranian nuclear threat, it would mitigate the negative second-order effects of the JCPOA by limiting Iran’s ability to invest the money from sanctions relief into aggressive proxy attacks on Israel.

Strategic Recommendations:

  1. Israel should continue to work closely with its American intelligence partners to monitor Iranian nuclear activities. But Israel should also reach out to Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that share Israel’s concerns about a nuclear Iran. Although these Sunni Arab states lack the intelligence capacity of the U.S. and Israel, they can still contribute important intelligence capabilities on the margins. And, by including regional states in intelligence cooperation, Israel can ensure that it will have broad regional support if it is forced to publicly accuse Iran of violating any provision of the JCPOA.
  2. Israel should pursue a number of strategies to ensure its ability to hold Iranian targets at risk. First, Jerusalem should continue to purchase F-35 Joint Strike Fighters whose stealth and capabilities would allow Israel to penetrate Iranian airspace. Second, it should also coordinate closely with the United States on potential strike plans. While the U.S. has historically been far more reticent than Israel to pursue airstrikes against Iran, its support for Israeli action is likely crucial for success. In particular, U.S. specialty capabilities, such as bunker-busting bombs, and American support for Israeli action in international institutions would likely be crucial for a successful operation. Finally, Israel should continue to pursue ties with Azerbaijan. The former Soviet republic’s location on Iran’s border would provide Israel with a valuable location from which to launch strikes, allowing Israel to subject Iran to the same kind of proxy strategy that Iran has pursued against Israel.[5]
  3. To reinforce deterrence against Hezbollah, Israel should endeavor to expand missile defense coverage in northern Israel and relocate industrial facilities such as chemical and energy plants out of range of Hezbollah’s short-range rockets. This strategy would disincentivize a Hezbollah bolt from the blue by reducing its potential targets, and it would improve the security of Israeli citizens. Israel should also continue to voice its commitment to the Dahiya Doctrine of massive retaliation, increase the quality and quantity of IDF forces along its border with Lebanon, and publicly clarify its redlines regarding Hezbollah’s actions.[6] These steps would deter Hezbollah by raising the costs of a potential war and lower the potential for miscalculations by making Israeli red lines transparent and clear.

Limitations:

  1. Israel is unable to unilaterally alter the JCPOA, and intelligence collection may prove insufficient if the P5+1 proves unwilling to accept evidence of Iranian cheating. Coordinating with American intelligence and military agencies partially ameliorates this problem, and France’s Emmanuel Macron has also publicly expressed sympathy for Israel’s concerns, especially regarding the sunset provision within the JCPOA.[7] Nonetheless, Israel may be forced to act without the support of its allies and partners in the P5+1. Were this to occur, Israel would likely face serious reputational damage.
  2. Due to the public nature of the JCPOA and the increased credibility it has granted Iran, Israel is fairly constrained in its ability to conduct strikes against the Islamic Republic. Jerusalem would likely face international condemnation for attacking, and the reputational consequences it would suffer might outweigh the strategic benefits it would accrue, especially if Israel failed to garner American support. Iran is aware of this circumstance, and thus Israel may struggle to credibly threaten Iran with airstrikes.
  3. While deterrence of Iranian proxies might limit the strategic risks created by the JCPOA, it would not address the long-term problem of Iranian nuclear proliferation. Once Iran develops a nuclear capability, it will achieve existential security, and deterrence will become more difficult. In particular, Israel will have to confront the stability-instability paradox, which suggests that Iran would feel more secure in precipitating a crisis were it to eventually acquire nuclear weapons. At best, therefore, deterrence of Iranian proxies represents only a partial, short-term solution.

 

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Notes:

[1] Jake Sullivan, “Confronting the Full Range of Iranian Threats,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 11 Oct. 2017. carnegieendowment.org/2017/10/11/confronting-full-range-of-iranian-threats-pub-73379.

[2] Ibid.

[3]  “A Nuclear Iran: The Spur to a Regional Arms Race?” Strategic Assessment 15, No. 3 (October 2012): 7-12.

[4] Ephraim Kam, “The Nuclear Agreement and Iran’s Ambitions for Regional Hegemony,” (Tel Aviv, Israel: Institute for National Security Studies, 2016).

[5] Yossi Alpher, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, (New York, N.Y.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 111-112.

[6] Andrew Sobelman, “Deterrence has Kept Hezbollah and Israel at Bay for 10 Years,” The National Interest, 7-14-2017. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/deterrence-has-kept-hezbollah-israel-bay-10-years-16970.

[7] “Macron wants to amend Iran nuclear deal to avoid Tehran’s ‘hegemony’ in Middle East,” RT, November 10, 2017. https://www.rt.com/news/409418-macron-amend-iran-nuclear-deal/.