Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visits the Iranian centrifuges in Tehran, Iran June 11, 2023.

Amid Serious Iran-Israel Tension, The Nuclear Elephant Is In The Room

Tuesday, 04/09/2024

April 7 marked the sixth month of Hamas-Israel open conflict. Six days before this semi-anniversary, Israel’s April 1 strike on Iran’s embassy in Damascus punctuated an alarming turning point.

Israel's action did not only corner Hezbollah, Iran's primary quasi-state proxy on the bloody chessboard of their ongoing conflict but have also eliminated key military leaders. Amid various pundits attempting to predict Iran's next move, many are acknowledging the significant factor of Iran's nuclear program lurking in the background.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's "fatwa" and opinion on the prohibition of producing nuclear weapons "may change tomorrow," Mahmoud-Reza Aghamiri, the president of Tehran's Beheshti University and a pro-regime professor of nuclear physics, told Iran's state TV this week. Aghamiri says Iran currently has the technology and capability to develop a nuclear bomb, and under such circumstances, developing it is easier than not making it.

The punditry and analyses on a possible “direct” clash between Iran and Israel is indeed all over the map. Some, whilst citing “warnings from unnamed Israeli officials behind the scenes” wonder whether or not Iran will strike Israel back from its own territory. Others probe whether it will have its proxies to escalate their asymmetrical strikes against Israel. And last but not least, a handful quibble over whether Israel’s strike would give President Joe Biden the occasion to proclaim support for Israel against Iran but further pressure Israel to heed the US’ demands on the conclusion of the war in Gaza and negotiations with Hamas for the release of the hostages.

On this very outlet, in an article published four days after Hamas attack on October 11, 2023, Benjamin Weinthal covered various sides of a debate on the (unlikely) possibility of a joint US-Israeli attack against Iran as a state sponsor of Hamas.

On the conventional front, The gravity of Israel’s situation cannot be exaggerated. The Hezbollah of Lebanon is armed with thousands of conventional rockets and cruise missiles that can potentially swarm and overwhelm the Israeli Air Defense Shield and Iron Dome and the analyses of Israel’s ability to take all Hezbollah’s arsenal preemptively has been the subject of much debate.

What most observers do not take into account is the possibility that the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus may trigger a rude awakening amongst the IRGC top brass and Khamenei. It might prompt them to hasten the development of their nuclear deterrence capabilities. Despite the regime's longstanding vow to eliminate Israel, dating back to before 1979, the tensions between Iran and Israel are mutual and deep-rooted.

Israel is presently wary of the Iranian ability to deploy a handful of nuclear warheads and the IDF has been preparing itself for a decisive strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities for quite some time before the Hamas October 7 attack on Israel. Israel, as is discussed below, has been acutely aware of Iran’s ever growing weaponization capacity as early as 2018.

Yet Israel’s collective sense of insecurity is not simply rooted in its fear of its enemies or the deep-seated collective trauma of the Holocaust. Israel’s primary source of insecurity is rooted in its historical roller coaster experience of its alliances. The Soviet de jure recognition of Israel and support for its war of independence against the Arab nations was short-lived and inadequate. France was Israel’s major military supplier for much of the 1950s to the mid-1960s, and upon her aid Israel developed its conventional and unconventional nuclear programs. But France proved unreliable when President De Gaulle sought a rapprochement with Israel’s Arab enemies and abandoned Israel in the mid-1960s. From the mid-1960s, the United States became Israel’s sole guarantor and ally in all aspects of economy and military from research and development, joint aeronautical and space projects to the development of the sophisticated air-defense systems, namely, “the Iron-Dome”, and the latest sophisticated UAVs.

The United States itself has wavered in its “unequivocal support” for Israel at least on three different occasions. First, President Dwight Eisenhower refused to support Israel in its collusion with the Anglo-French powers during the 1956 Suez Crisis. In fact, Eisenhower turned his back on Israel as he feared escalation with the Soviet Union. Incidentally, there are commentators who believe that President Biden should treat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a similar set of measures that Eisenhower imposed on Israel in 1956.

There are indeed those in the US who believe Johnson failed to act to prevent Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967 and this is a legacy from which Biden must take harsh lessons and act accordingly. Finally, President Barack Obama’s administration sidelined Israel’s Netanyahu to cajole Tehran’s ruling mullahs into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over their nuclear program causing Israel to distance itself ever farther from the Euro-American alliance. Israel has been less than forthcoming about sharing the details of its assassination and sabotage operations with its Euro-American allies ever since. According to some reports, “the CIA does not know if Israel plans to bomb Iran.”

Today, Israel and Netanyahu are almost identical in their shared sense of insecurities. Even though a majority of Israelis may not vote him to office if elections were held today, they share the same sense of insecurity that has been the compass of his five mandates over the past thirty years. At the core of this sense of insecurity lies Iran’s nuclear program. Since 2018, Israel has taken possession of thousands of documents that lay bear all the militaristic directions of the Iranian nuclear program (Revealed: Emptying of the Iranian “Atomic Warehouse” at Turquz Abad). Over nearly 15 years, Israel is alleged to have succeeded in sabotaging many critical sites of the Iranian nuclear industrial complex. Moreover, Israel is accused of having masterminded the operations that eliminated Iranian nuclear scientists in the same period. Nonetheless, since Donald Trump left the JCPOA, the Iranian regime has progressively accelerated its uranium enrichment and proved Israel’s, read Netanyahu’s, worst fears. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is effectively and totally is in the dark per the latest reports of IAEA and its dire warnings about the exact state of the Iranian nuclear program. In view of the above, it appears that Israel’s assassination and sabotage operations against the Iranian scientists and nuclear sites have effectively failed.

Israeli tank maneuvers near Israel's border with Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in southern Israel, April 7, 2024.

Israeli-American air forces joint drills for long range operations in the summer of 2023 revealed how alarmed both US and Israel were about the Iranian nuclear program. It was speculated at the time that such drills were to prepare both air forces for a joint operation on the Iranian nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, the Americans were in the midst of secret negotiation with the Iranians to reach an “informal nuclear agreement”.

However, joint exercises of such magnitude with any ally are always planned long in advance and are indicative of longstanding concerns. Accordingly, the joint US-Israeli hint at the fact that the Biden administration did neither have any confidence in the success of those secret negotiations with Iran, nor was it assured of the Iranian side’s honoring any such accord. Three weeks before Hamas attack on Israel, a most telling paragraph in the IDF statement on Israeli and Hellenic air forces’ joint drills for long range operations reads as follows: “The exercise is part of a series of exercises and models carried out by the IAF in the past year and their purpose is to improve operational and mental competence for long-range flights, refueling, attacks in the depth [of enemy territory] and achieving air superiority.”

Khamenei, per his religious edict, fatwa, has stated time and again that the manufacturing and usage of nuclear weapons is forbidden. However, Israel’s elimination of two high-ranking IRGC general inside the Iranian embassy’s compound in Damascus has established that there is no red line that it will not cross to maximize its security and minimize all risks. Such an escalating assault may cause the Iranian ruling clerics and the IRGC to wonder if their nuclear facilities will be next on Israel’s target list and they may consider attaining a deterrence greater than a conventional one. Khamenei may indeed invoke the principle of expediency to overrule his own “anti-Nuclear” fatwa. The principle of expediency, as decreed by the regime’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini in January 1988, stipulates that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic may even violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith in order to preserve “the Islamic Regime” as the preservation of the Islamic Regime supersedes all else.

Thus, if Israel continues to expand its unrelenting attacks on IRGC top brass and Iranian military and diplomatic facilities in the region, and the Iranian regime continues to plunge into the depths of a maelstrom of economic troubles, will Khamenei perceive such an assault as compromising the survival of the regime? And if so what will he do? Will he invoke the principle of expediency and order the rapid manufacturing of nuclear devices and their deployment in the form of a dozen or so warheads? Or will he be resigned to Israel’s overwhelming assault on its proxies and, like his predecessor, will drink from the poisonous chalice of surrender?

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