In March 2007, agents from Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, broke into the Vienna suite of the director of Syria’s atomic energy agency and secretly downloaded the contents of his computer. They discovered that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with the assistance of the North Korean regime, in a region known as Deir al-Zour near the Euphrates River. Additional intelligence showed that the reactor was just months away from being activated, posing an urgent, existential threat to Israel – one found not in a more remote country like Iran or Iraq, but in Israel’s backyard, just over the border with Syria.
Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shared the intelligence with President George W. Bush, hoping to persuade Bush that the U.S. military should launch a strike that would destroy Syria’s reactor, believing that if America, not Israel, carried out an attack, it would send a message to the Iranian government that it should halt its own nuclear program – also a threat to Israel – before meeting a similar fate. Bush declined but didn’t stand in the way of Israel taking its own military action, and in September 2007, Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter jets crossed into Syria, acting decisively to destroy the reactor. “Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light and I hadn’t given one,” Bush later wrote in his memoir. “He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel.”
Now, it seems increasingly likely that Israel might once again bear the burden, this time in Iran, to neutralize a potential nuclear threat, using the same approach that was used 12 years ago.
Less than a year ago, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, tweeted:
“Our stance against Israel is the same stance we have always taken. #Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated: it is possible and it will happen. 7/31/91#GreatReturnMarch.”
A week later, he made a convoluted attempt to tone down the rhetoric, but Iran unquestionably presents a grave threat to Israel due to the combination of dangerous rhetoric – like Khamenei’s call for Israel to be “eradicated” – with the possibility that it will likely one day have nuclear weapons and the means to act on what it openly says it wants to do.
So when the Iranian government signaled last week that it will halt compliance with some of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – including increasing its enrichment of uranium and resuming construction of its heavy water reactor near the city of Arak, it ratcheted up its threat to Israel’s existence.
The JCPOA already seemed to be in jeopardy after the U.S. withdrew from the agreement last May. Now, however, it appears increasingly likely that Iran will speed up its race to build a nuclear weapon, forcing Israel to return to the same strategy and tactics it used to eliminate Syrian nuclear power.
Israel’s defense establishment has long believed that to avoid the necessity of striking Iran’s reactors, and for diplomacy to have a chance to work, a genuine military deterrent must first be on the table to make the Iranian regime reconsider its nuclear ambitions. Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s former defense minister and former chief of staff of the Israeli military – currently a member of Israel’s parliament with the Blue and White opposition party – points to the events of 2003 as proof that this is possible: Back then, when the U.S. was building up its Middle East forces in preparation to invade Iraq, Tehran suspended its nuclear program, thinking that it might be next. “But after the ayatollahs saw that the Americans were not coming,” Ya’alon told me, Iran’s leaders were emboldened and, a few years later, “Iran renewed its program.”
For this reason, Israeli officials are quietly supportive of the Trump administration’s decision in recent days to deploy the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf. It’s a move, they believe, that conveys a message to Iran that a credible deterrent exists. But if that fails to convince Iran’s government to stick to the deal or negotiate a new one, military force might be the only option left to try to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
This is where the lessons of 2007 can be applied. As the only country in the world to have successfully destroyed two nuclear reactors – Syria’s in 2007 and Iraq’s in 1981 – Israel’s military has not only proven its capability to carry out such operations, but Israel’s government has also demonstrated its willingness to use military force when it concludes that it is facing a threat of this magnitude.
Dan Meridor, Israel’s former minister of intelligence and principal author of the country’s national defense doctrine, told me that for Israel to consider preemptive action against another country’s nuclear program, two criteria must be met: The country must be one of Israel’s enemies and must have demonstrated the potential to one day consider using a nuclear weapon against Israel. Syria and Iraq both fit those criteria. So does Iran.
The difference is that Iranian leaders learned a key lesson from Iraq and Syria: Iran’s nuclear program is not focused on one above-ground location. For example, Natanz, Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility, was built deep underground, where it is protected from conventional air strikes. Despite this, Israeli military planners have been confident for some time that the air force can cause enough damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities to stall its nuclear program by a few years. Israel won’t be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear know-how, but the goal of a strike would be to disable Iran’s program and then work with Western powers to impose tough sanctions with the aim of preventing reconstitution of the program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will, no doubt, rely on his warm relationship with President Donald Trump – already a key ingredient in Trump’s decisions to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights – to coordinate the response to Iran’s new posture.
But as close as these two leaders are Israeli leaders learned, in Syria and Iraq, that while Israel and the U.S. might be aligned in identifying the threats they face, they approach them from different vantage points. Today, Iran’s military boasts that Israel is within range of Iran’s long-range ballistic missiles. The U.S. isn’t. That’s why, with Iran’s announcement last week, Israel’s next test might not be that far away.
Special To The Washington Post · Yaakov Katz