Over the next six months, while Washington and other world powers bend to the nitty-gritty of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program through talks, Israel will likely continue to dissent, while making conspicuous efforts to rehabilitate the military threat that did so much to bring Tehran’s project onto the agenda.
“The strategic decision is to continue to make noise,” a high-ranking Israeli officer tells TIME. The racket, the official says, will come to a head in six months, just as the interim agreement signed on Sunday is due to expire.
“In May there’s going to be a joint training exercise with the Americans,” says the officer, who asked not to be identified since he was discussing operations not yet officially announced. “It’s going to be big.”
Israel and the U.S. routinely hold joint exercises, and a spokesman for the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) said the exercise in the spring was planned independent of events unfolding in the region. “I think we’re still in the process of deciding the scale of the exercise,” says Captain John W. Ross, the EUCOM spokesman.
But if war is the continuation of politics by other means, as the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously put it, war games are an opportunity to make a statement without spilling blood — especially given the view (which increased sharply after U.S. President Barack Obama demurred on his vow to strike Syria) that Washington has cooled on the prospect of new military operations. “The wind from the Americans into the Israeli sails is, ‘We will maintain our capability to strike in Iran, and one of the ways we show it is to train,’” the senior Israeli officer tells TIME. “It will send signals both to Israel and to the Iranians that we are maintaining our capabilities in the military option. The atmosphere is we have to do it big time, we have to do a big show of capabilities and connections.”
Months remain for that to change, of course. But to those watching closely — including Tehran — full-throated U.S. participation in a May 2014 joint exercise would stand in especially vivid contrast to what transpired in the last large joint exercise: Washington quietly scaled back its level of participation, amid fears that Israel was growing too bold.
Since then, if anything, Israeli threats to strike Iran on its own have lost a good deal of their punch, analysts say. “It’s become irrelevant,” says Yiftah Shapir, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Part of the problem is that the window of opportunity for an effective Israeli air strike closed in February when Iran opened the Fordow enrichment facility deep in a mountain outside Qom, deeper than Israel’s bunker busters could reach. And politically, the drums of war were muffled when Iranians surprisingly elected as President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a platform of reaching out to the West to reconcile concerns about its nuclear program. Since then, diplomacy has taken center stage.
Israel appears resigned to allowing diplomats the room to work — while both intensely lobbying Obama and other leaders to toughen the terms of any final deal, and keeping a close watch for evidence of Iranian duplicity: “The focus will be to gather intelligence in order to reveal a fraud, and not to gather intelligence for an attack,” says the senior Israeli officer.
At the same time, Israel shows signs of working to rehabilitate the military option. In “If Attacked, How Would Iran Respond?” published in the INSS journal Strategic Assessment recently, the last-serving head of Israel’s sprawling military-intelligence apparatus offers a detailed rebuttal to arguments that striking Iran’s nuclear program would provoke a thunderous response that would engulf the entire Middle East.
Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, who now heads the INSS think tank heavily staffed by former security officials, concedes that Iran’s Shahab-3 and missiles can reach Israel, but not very accurately. Likewise, the unguided rockets that might be launched from Lebanon by the powerful Shi‘ite organization (and Iranian client) Hizballah. Iran’s once vaunted covert capabilities, which gave it the reputation as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, lately appear feeble, and in terms of airpower, “the most relevant threat scenario is suicide drones being sent from Lebanon or Syria.”
From the sea, the worst Iran can manage is suicide attacks launched
from midget submarines — “Iran has several such submarines” — launched from civilian vessels. “These scenarios are far from large-scale war, and their impact would be primarily psychological,” Yadlin writes, with co-author Avner Golov.
Yadlin has voiced qualified support for the interim deal, saying Israel can afford to wait the six months before exploring alternatives. But as a pilot in the Israeli air strike that destroyed a heavy-water nuclear reactor outside Baghdad in 1981, Yadlin is clear about what the alternative would be. In other words: Israel can both strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, and handle the blowback.
Israeli preparations for action against Iran have acquired an almost institutional momentum. “Many people have been working on this option for many, many years, and I don’t think they can think of anything else,” says Shapir, the senior researcher. In assembling its order of battle, Israel has steadily acquired the long-range fighter-bombers and bunker busters meant to address the threat from Tehran. “What happened to the more than 10 billion shekels [about $3 billion] that Israel spent on preparations for an attack?” analyst Shimon Shiffer asked in Yedioth Ahronoth on Nov. 21, in a piece blaming Netanyahu for allowing Iran to become a “nuclear threshold” state, one only a leadership decision away from constructing an atomic weapon.
The answer: the attack is still threatened — repeatedly by Netanyahu, who declared at the U.N. in September that, if the rest of the world is charmed by the new Iranian leadership, Israel “will stand alone.”
“This threat is the way to tell the Iranians not to cheat,” says Efraim Inbar, who heads a think tank at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, which last week published his paper titled, “A Strike on Iran: Complex, but Possible.”
“There are two issues,” Inbar says. “One is intention: Is Netanyahu really ready to do it? Probably my answer would be yes. And the second issue is international legitimacy. Now, after this agreement, ‘peace’ has arrived!”
But if Israel’s actions are constrained by the force of world opinion, it still has the power of words. Israel drove the Iranian program onto the global agenda with seemingly credible, almost constant threats of attacking Tehran — frequently reinforced by alarmist headlines inside Israel, where senior security professionals warned that Netanyahu and his then Defense Minister Ehud Barak were obsessed with launching air strikes. At one point, in 2010, the two ordered Israeli forces to prepare for an attack that has yet to occur.
“He most likely decided not to because there are great advantages to waiting until Israel comes as close as possible to the limits of its tolerance,” Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud party lawmaker who is close to Netanyahu, told the Times of Israel recently. “Because when that point is reached, we can use all of the previous restraint as a very powerful tool for strengthening the legitimacy of our actions.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to point out that the Geneva pact will not restrain Israel, a warning that analysts say can be backed up in the real world. In Monday’s edition of Israel’s largest-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, military-affairs specialist Alex Fishman wrote: “We should not be surprised if Israel not only makes threats but also demonstrates capabilities that make it clear to anyone who needed a clarification that a strike on these facilities is not just a theoretical possibility.”