2021 Annual Assessment

Neither the harsh sanctions imposed on Iran, nor Iran’s problematic economic situation (major water shortage, power outages, violent demonstrations, labor strikes), have halted progress on the country’s nuclear program or prevented its regional subversion –palpable in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. The election of Ebrahim Raisi (June 19, 2021) as president, a loyalist of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and known to be directly responsible for the mass execution of opposition figures, does not herald moderation (senior representatives of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad sat in the front row of Raisi’s swearing in ceremony). Indeed, at the time of writing, Iran does not seem to be in hurry to reach understandings that would allow the US to return to the nuclear deal (JCPOA).

Israel believes that the Biden administration’s intention to return to the JCPOA, if implemented without significant amendments, will bring Iran closer to military nuclear capability, lift the levers of economic pressure on it, and encourage its aggressive pursuit of regional hegemony. According to the JCPOA, in 2030 most of the restrictions on Iran will expire (as early as 2023, restrictions on ballistic missile development, imposed by the Security Council in Resolution 2231, will be eliminated). However, Iran has not complied with the agreement since it was abandoned by the United States, and is now operating advanced centrifuges, enriching uranium to 60% (the deal allows a level of 3.67%) and producing uranium metal (essential to the core of a nuclear bomb). According to Secretary Blinken, this could reduce Iran’s “breakout time” for amassing enough fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon to a matter of weeks.

Washington’s desire to return to the JCPOA could limit Israel’s military freedom of action in the face of the Iranian threat, as an Israeli move would be interpreted in the US as an attempt to torpedo its policy and even drag it into violent confrontation with Iran. Paradoxically, instead of American power helping Israel undermine Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Iranians may benefit from Washington’s desire to reach an agreement with them, as that would motivate the US to block Israeli action. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, have made it clear that Israel opposes an American return to the JCPOA, or any softening of sanctions against Iran, in the absence of meaningful amendments to the agreement. Israel argues that it must utilize a variety of measures to not only halt Iran’s nuclear program, but also its development of advanced ballistic missiles and aspirations to regional hegemony. In the meantime, it is not clear that the US accepts Israel’s position and seems willing to delay efforts to obtain amendments until after resumption of the deal.

Military actions against Iran attributed to Israel amplify the possibility of deteriorating into widespread military confrontation. In Iran’s eyes, Israel is responsible for the assassination of the father of the Iranian nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (November 27, 2020); for damage to Iranian tankers carrying oil to Syria; for cyber-attacks; and for sabotage of the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz (April 11, 2021) – all in addition to ongoing attacks on Iranian forces and its allies in Syrian territory, on the supply of advanced arms to Hezbollah and the facilities designed to upgrade the accuracy of the missiles it possesses . Iran is making good on its threats to respond to Israeli attacks and has struck Israeli-owned tankers (an incident from late July, the first to cause loss of human life, was recognized by the US and the UK as an Iranian operation).

The development of the Israel-Iran conflict has been affected by Biden administration decisions that directly pertain to the Iranian arena, but also by US actions in the superpower arena. American hostility toward China is motivating Beijing to deepen ties with Iran and extricate it from the isolation and sanctions imposed on it. This is evidenced by a $400 billion economic and military cooperation agreement promising Chinese investment in Iranian infrastructure, and the supply of Iranian oil to China, for a period of 25 years (March 27, 2021).

The bottom line is that Israel is facing a torturous dilemma: how to reach an understanding with the US that would keep the Iranian nuclear threat at bay without sliding into crisis with its main ally.

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