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Israel Confronts the Iran Threat
Going it alone.
By Hugh Fitzgerald
In World War II, after Germany had conquered most of Europe, and just after the Fall of France, leaving England alone in Europe to carry on against the Nazis, a cartoon by the artist Low appeared, showing a defiant Englishman shaking his fist at the sky, and underneath was the caption “Very well, then — alone.” This cartoon comes naturally to mind when we consider the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran poses to the world, and the certainty that only one country can be counted on to prevent that threat from being realizing. Tiny Israel is now having its “very well then – alone” moment. More on Israel confronting Iran alone can be found here: “Israel Must Prepare to Save the World from a Nuclear Iran,” by Richard Goldberg, FDD, February 24, 2023:
This month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Europe “identifies more with the Israeli position” on Iran’s nuclear program, a conclusion he reached after meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. But as Tehran enriches uranium to near weapons-grade purity and European powers resist triggering the snapback of UN sanctions, a dim reality comes into view that only one country — Israel — has the political will and military capability to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.
When Macron met recently with Netanyahu, the French president apparently agreed with Israel’s prime minister on the Iranian threat, recognizing that Tehran had now enriched uranium to the level of 84% purity — with 90% being weapons-grade – a feat which would allow it within a matter of weeks, if Tehran chose, to produce three atomic bombs. Having agreed with Netanyahu on the problem, Macron nonetheless did not offer to take part in any military campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The issue of “snapback” is a complicated one, but essential to better understand the bleak reality Israel now faces. Snapback is the name for a mechanism that can be used to restore all international restrictions and sanctions on Iran that were lifted by the UN Security Council alongside the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“the nuclear deal”). UN Security Council Resolution 2231 replaced all prior resolutions on Iran — removing the international demand that Iran halt all enrichment activities, striking the outright UN prohibition on Iranian ballistic missile testing, and establishing a series of expirations dates on other key international restrictions.
In 2020, the UN conventional arms embargo on Iran expired. This October, a missile embargo on Iran will expire, despite Tehran’s provision of drones — and potential future transfer of missiles — to Russia to attack Ukraine. Nuclear restrictions sunset soon after, eventually legitimizing Iran’s production of weapons-grade enriched uranium and perfection of missile systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran has steadily seen the sanctions regime against it weaken. As part of the 2015 JCPOA, previous restrictions and prohibitions on Iran were lifted. The previous international demand that Iran halt all enrichment activities was stricken, as was the former UN prohibition on Iranian ballistic missile testing, while expiration dates were established for other international restrictions on Tehran. In 2020 the UN embargo on conventional weapons for Iran ended, and in October 2023, the missile embargo will also expire. And the remaining nuclear restrictions on Iran will “sunset,” one by one, until 2030, when any last restrictions on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons will come off.
But UNSCR 2231 came with one condition: If Iran ever violated its own commitments under the nuclear deal, any party to the agreement could notify the Security Council and restore all prior sanctions and restrictions in 30 days. This process is called “snapback,” and France — like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany — has the individual power and prerogative to trigger it.
In January 2020, after Iran began producing low-enriched uranium at its underground Fordow nuclear site, the so-called “E3” of Paris, London, and Berlin initiated the nuclear deal’s dispute process — a preliminary step to snapback, aimed at bringing Iran back into compliance with its commitments. But as 2020 dragged on and public polls indicated Donald Trump would likely lose re-election, Europe opted to keep the deal alive in hopes that Joe Biden’s pledge to rejoin the pact would induce improved Iranian behavior.
Once it was clear that Biden would be president, rather than reward Europe’s decision to maintain the nuclear deal’s sunsets, Iran began a two-year undeterred push toward nuclear threshold status.
No longer worried about what President Trump might do, the Iranians took the new president’s measure and concluded that Biden – so eager to revive the 2015 Iran deal — would do little or nothing if Iran started up again its headlong rush toward enriching uranium nearly to weapons-grade level, putting Iran on the threshold of being able to manufacture nuclear weapons.
In January 2021, Iran began enriching uranium to 20% purity — the threshold for highly enriched uranium — at its Natanz nuclear facility. Rather than continue his predecessor’s maximum pressure campaign, President Biden pulled back economic pressure and offered to lift US sanctions if Iran returned to compliance with the nuclear deal. Tehran responded by producing 60% enriched uranium at Natanz — then 20% at Fordow, and finally 60% at Fordow by November. At any point, the E3 could have moved forward with the snapback process it started in January 2020, but no party did. Instead, Iran was allowed to amass larger and larger stockpiles of high and low enriched uranium — enough to produce “several” weapons, according to the UN’s top nuclear watchdog.
Neither the E3 nor Washington seemed disturbed enough by Iran’s decision to suspend international monitoring at a key advanced centrifuge manufacturing plant to trigger the snapback. Nor have the E3 felt the need to trigger the snapback in the face of Iran’s refusal over the last four years to answer basic questions about why man-altered uranium particles were discovered at three sites previously unknown and still undeclared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — a fundamental breach of Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty let alone the nuclear deal.
Iran has prevented the IAEA investigators from doing their job. It will not give the IAEA access to data from cameras at a new, advanced centrifuge plant in Esfahan. And according to Rafael Grassi, the head of the IAEA watchdog group, the Iranians still have not offered any explanation about traces of uranium found by IAEA investigators at three undeclared sites
If the recent confirmation that Iran has enriched uranium to just under the 90% weapons-grade threshold [it now stands at 84%— a line many analysts long believed to be a trigger for military action — does not force Paris, Berlin, or London to complete the UN snapback process — a political action — Jerusalem should finally accept the reality that Israel will need to confront this threat on its own terms, in its own ways, and on its own timelines. There is no cavalry coming from Paris or any other Western capital.
What more could Iran possibly do that would persuade France, German, and the U.K. to “snapback” all the restrictions that had been lifted from Iran as part of the 2015 JCPOA deal? Tehran has clearly been blatantly lying to the IAEA, refusing to give it access to camera data both from its new centrifuge plant in Isfahan, and refusing to explain the uranium particles found at three undeclared sites. The refusal of those nations to discuss military options against Iran is deeply disturbing to the Israelis, who keep hoping that others will finally grasp the nettle of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, now that Tehran has reached such a stage that within weeks it could, if it so chose, produce three nuclear bombs.
And what about the U.S.? Biden keeps saying that Iran will not become a nuclear power “on my watch.” But he has done nothing, as Iran has steadily been enriching uranium to ever-increasing levels of purity; he has done nothing about Iran’s misleading the IAEA investigators. He has given no signs that he is prepared to take military action in concert with Israel. Nor has there been any announcement about the delivery of America’s 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the bunker-buster that Israel will likely need if it is to successfully destroy Iranian nuclear facilities built deep underground at Natanz and deep inside a mountain at Fordow. Is America withholding that bomb from Israel’s arsenal in order to discourage an Israeli attack on Iran? It’s hard to fathom the Bidenites’ reasoning. Do they want a nuclear-armed Iran, which would not only threaten Israel, and Saudi Arabia, but also Europe and America? If they won’t join an Israeli attack on Iran, why won’t they at least provide Israel with the bunker-buster bombs it will need to be successful.
Tehran knows the difference between deterrence and deference, between pressure and platitude. Today, it fears only one country: Israel. This tiny democracy of nine million people will soon be forced to act in a manner that preserves freedom and prosperity for every American and European threatened by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. The best Netanyahu can hope for is a “thank you” when the job is done.
Even now the Israelis, while they still keep warning the Europeans and Americans about the Iranian threat, and keep hoping that soon America, at least, will come to its senses and join with Israel in attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, are girding their loins for what is likely to be a solitary campaign by the Jewish state. The situation reminds one of the celebrated movie High Noon, when Gary Cooper straps on his holster and, as one by one the fearful townsfolk of Hadleyville abandon him, goes out to face the Miller Gang alone. That’s the position Israel is in. And at the end, when Iran’s nuclear facilities will have been destroyed by the Israelis — do you doubt that result? — a relieved world will manage to utter a collective “thank you” and then, I fear, will go right back to complaining about Israel’s “illegal settlements” in the “occupied West Bank.”