Geopolitics: Israel Weighs Its Options on Iran

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• Israel’s new government has taken office at a potentially decisive moment of change for the region. • A US push to renew the nuclear deal with Iran could trigger a wider regional realignment. • But amid an uncertain outcome and ever-present regional tensions, the Naftali Bennett administration is preparing multiple scenarios for multiple outcomes. The Issue As the US seeks to put some distance between itself and Mideast problems, Israel does not have that luxury. Missile attacks launched from Lebanon this month saw tensions ratchet up, and a covert tanker war with Iran continues. The renewal or collapse of the Iran nuclear deal will see Israel seeking ways to maximize its influence while maintaining the flexibility to act quickly should Tehran near the nuclear breakout stage (EC Apr.16'21). So far, the Bennett administration looks to be reaching out to key partner Washington and regional players alike -- bridge-building that may underscore its limited options. Working With Washington Is Key The biggest change on Iran strategy to emerge in the post-Benjamin Netanyahu era appears to be a willingness to work with Washington on the Iran issue rather than to openly antagonize it, and to avoid the tension that endured between Netanyahu and former US President Barack Obama (EC Apr.16'21). “The lesson from the Netanyahu era was that an all-out campaign against the US [on this issue] ultimately did not work,” says Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (EC Oct.30'15). CIA Director William Burns arrived in Israel this week, and talks are focused on the region and Iran in particular, the Israeli prime minister’s office said. Tel Aviv-based think tank the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) laid out much of the current thinking on Israel's options on Iran. If there is a return to a US-Iran deal, Israel must seek influence on a “longer and stronger follow-up deal” that seeks to restrain Iran's missile capacities and rein in its regional behavior but retains Israel’s freedom of action, the think tank said this month (EC Jul.2'21). In parallel, Israel must also maintain a “credible Israeli military option” against Iran and prepare for scenarios such as no deal, and Iran reaching a “near [nuclear] threshold situation and even a nuclear breakout.” There is also a commitment to maintain Israel’s campaign to counter Iranian influence and regional activity, which it terms the “campaign between wars.” More likely, the next few days will see Israeli officials try hard to bake Israeli red lines and interests into the US negotiating position with Tehran if talks resume. “Israel has to make sure the US presents policies that Israel cares about,” says Goren. Toward that end, it has named Michael Herzog, Israel's current ambassador to the UN and long active in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as its ambassador to the US. After Netanyahu had hitched his and Israel's fortunes to the former Donald Trump administration, the appointment of Herzog, with no strong political party links, is seen as an important step back from such intense partisanship in a now Democrat-led Washington. Limited Israeli Options Beyond seeking to influence US thinking on an Iran nuclear deal, however, Israel mostly appears to be out of options. Some favoring regime change in Iran have pointed to the exploitation of minorities as a means to achieve that goal. Recent protests over a severe water crisis in southwestern Khuzestan province drew attention to the marginalization of ethnic minorities in the country (EC Aug.6'21). But such groups have little or no pull among Iranians, and promoting inter-ethnic strife as a means of regime change is “fantasy,” argues Raz Zimmt of INSS. Not only does the prospect of exploiting divisions to incite revolt against Tehran seem slim, it could also prove counterproductive and encourage many Iranians to “rally around the flag,” he argued in an Atlantic Council article. Israel will, however, continue its “campaign between wars,” which despite airstrikes on Iranian personnel and assets in Syria and Lebanon has not prevented Tehran from extending its influence there. To contain Iran's nuclear program absent a deal, it may also choose to intensify assassinations of Iranian scientists and military officials, as well as escalate tit-for-tat tanker strikes. This aggressive posture with Iran has arguably yielded tactical successes, but it leaves the long-term strategic goal of improving Israel's security outlook vis-a-vis Iran unmet.

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