From the moment an agreement was reached in 2015, the Israeli government has been implacably opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran. Increasingly, though, high-ranking members of the Israeli defense and intelligence establishments are saying that a new agreement along the lines of that pact would be in Jerusalem’s best interest.
The divide over the Iran nuclear deal runs roughly between the Israeli Defense Forces and its intelligence wing, and the Mossad, the spy agency responsible for collection of intelligence and clandestine operations outside the country’s borders.
The debate had been largely on the back burner since 2018, when President Donald J. Trump abrogated the nuclear pact. But it is becoming more salient as President Biden pushes for the deal’s revival, as he is doing this week in the Middle East, where he is trying to reassure allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia that restoring the pact will enhance their security.
While there are many hurdles to overcome before a deal might be reached, senior Israeli officials believe that both the United States and Iran have significant interests in concluding it. Tehran is anxious to be free of harsh economic sanctions while Washington, in addition to security concerns, would like to get Iranian oil flowing to bring down energy prices.
In a series of interviews in recent weeks, officials on the military side said that the new chief of the I.D.F.’s Intelligence Corps, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, and his aides are arguing in internal discussions that any deal, even one with major flaws, would be better than the status quo, with Tehran making rapid progress in its nuclear program. It would freeze Tehran’s activities at current levels, they say, and give Israel time to rebuild its capacity to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
On the other side, Israeli intelligence officials with detailed knowledge of Mossad’s operations and policy views say that its leaders remain convinced that Iran will never give up its nuclear ambitions without a combination of economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and a campaign of sabotage and assassinations against the nuclear project. A nuclear deal, those officials say, would require the abolition or significant reduction of all those efforts and would pour billions of dollars into the Islamic Republic’s coffers.
Military officials rejected that approach, saying that clandestine sabotage operations in recent years have done little to impede Tehran’s nuclear development. No one has claimed responsibility for those operations, but Iran, confident that Israel was behind them, could retaliate either on its own or through an affiliated militia like Hezbollah, in Lebanon, or Hamas in Gaza.
Neither Prime Minister Yair Lapid nor his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, is as stridently opposed to a nuclear deal as Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who memorably attacked the treaty in a speech before the U.S. Congress. But neither are they about to relax Israel’s longstanding opposition.
Both Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid have tried to confine the disputes with the United States to closed conference rooms. But they have sharpened their tone against Iran and its leadership, saying they would not hesitate to take action against Iran, overt as well as covert, if they felt Israel’s security was at stake.
In contrast, military intelligence officials argue that if a new nuclear deal is not reached, the U.S. and Europe will abandon the topic. In that case, Israel could be left alone in the international arena, facing an Iran racing ahead on its nuclear project, which analysts say is weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead.
Israel did once make preparations to send bombers to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, but called the operation off at the last minute in the face of resistance from the Obama administration. “It was not a bluff, it was real,” Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview with The New York Times in 2019. “And only because it was real were the Americans truly worried about it.”
But some officials think the threat, while indeed seen in Washington as real, backfired on Mr. Netanyahu.
“I was under the impression at the time that the Israeli threat to attack Iran, a threat aimed at getting the United States to take more aggressive action, achieved the exact opposite result,” said Tamir Pardo, Mossad’s chief at that time, in a recent interview. “The Obama administration began talks ahead of signing the nuclear deal to create an international situation in which Israel will not allow itself to take military action.”
Mr. Trump came into office questioning the nuclear deal, and Israel under Mr. Netanyahu did everything it could to convince him to cancel it.
“The Mossad stole Iran’s nuclear archive to provide evidence that Iran lied when it claimed it did not have a military nuclear project,” Udi Lavie, Mossad’s former deputy chief and head of operations, said in an interview. “Those evidences were used to help persuade Trump to withdraw from the nuclear deal.”
After President Trump withdrew from the pact in 2018, Washington and Jerusalem devised a plan called “the Fist” that combined severe sanctions and a series of aggressive operations carried out inside Iran, according to a senior Israeli official who was involved in the strategy sessions.
In the end, though, Iran did not fold under pressure, nor did it take direct military action against the U.S. over nuclear matters, despite the shadow war being waged against it. Instead, Tehran, which meticulously conformed to the terms of the agreement for a year after it was canceled, gradually restarted uranium enrichment and reduced the oversight capabilities of international inspectors.
“The Israeli move to convince Trump to withdraw was one of the most serious strategic mistakes since the establishment of the state,” Mr. Pardo said. “In the end, instead of harming the Iranian nuclear project, we brought ourselves into a situation when they are much closer to a bomb.”
This debate has a direct impact today on Israel’s position on the nuclear agreement. In the event that a new deal is reached, the United States will in all likelihood ask Israel to curb its attacks inside Iran.
A new Mossad chief, David Barnea, took office a few days before the inauguration of the Bennett government on June 13 last year. Ten days later, drones loaded with explosives attacked a centrifuge manufacturing facility in Iran. The New York Times reported that the site was on a list of targets Mossad had presented to the Trump administration a year before.
Mr. Bennett, working in tandem with Mr. Lapid, accepted Mossad’s position on the nuclear question, strongly opposing the agreement, continuing and even strengthening the operations against Iran’s nuclear project, said a senior intelligence official and two other officials who are familiar with the discussions held under Mr. Bennett.
Yet officials say that General Haliva and his senior staff contend that the sabotage and assassination operations have not so far significantly delayed Iran’s nuclear program, let alone stopped it — and in some cases even served as an excuse for Iran to accelerate its activities.
“The choice here is between two very bad alternatives,” said Gideon Frank, who served as head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, in a recent interview. “If there is no agreement, Iran, which is currently around two weeks away from producing enough enriched material for one bomb, and another two months for another, will be able to move forward at a rapid pace.
“If there is an agreement” he continued, “Israel will gain time that will allow it to prepare a significant military option. But on the other hand, the regime there will receive a supply of money that, especially after the surge in oil prices, will help it a lot to survive.
“The solution,” Mr. Frank said, “should be an Israeli effort to persuade the United States to use force against Iran in the event that it crosses the nuclear threshold.”