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Israel opposed the Iran nuclear deal, but former Israeli officials increasingly say U.S. pullout was a mistake

Cameras stand outside Palais Coburg, the site of talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in Vienna on Nov. 29, 2021. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

TEL AVIV — A growing number of former Israeli security officials are publicly faulting their government for opposing a nuclear deal negotiated in 2015 between Iran and world powers, and warning that economic sanctions on Iran are not deterring it from dangerously advancing its nuclear program.

While Israel had applauded President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the accord in 2018, these former officials have concluded that his “maximum pressure” policy built primarily on sanctions has failed to prevent Iran from increasing the quantity and quality of its enriched uranium.

With negotiations over reviving the nuclear accord now struggling in Vienna, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been echoing the ominous rhetoric of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and accusing Iran of using “nuclear blackmail” as a bargaining tactic by escalating its uranium enrichment.

But former Israel security officials are increasingly critical of the role Netanyahu played in opposing the original agreement and urging Trump to abandon it. These officials say the accord was imperfect but that the alternative has been worse.

This approach enabled “Iran to accumulate a lot more material, work on advanced centrifuges, and maybe other things that we don’t know about, all which brought Iran closer than ever before” to acquiring a nuclear bomb, said Yoel Guzansky, former head of the Iran desk at Israel’s National Security Council and a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “The nuclear deal was flawed, but at least it put a lid on Iran’s advancement, which we don’t have now.”

Iran denies that it has any intention of building a nuclear bomb and has not renounced its pledge in the 2015 deal “that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” While dramatically escalating its uranium enrichment in response to Trump’s reimposition of sanctions, Iran has stopped short of enriching to weapons-grade, and it remains a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Israel has declined to join.

The former Israeli officials say the 2015 pact had subjected Iran to restrictions and to international inspections that held in check crucial elements of the nuclear program, while enhanced sanctions have achieved far less.

“Today, it’s clear that maximum pressure did not yield its political objectives,” said Raz Zimmt, a former military adviser on Iran. He said the policy may actually have accelerated Iranian nuclear progress and that Iran now has the capability of producing enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb on four weeks’ notice.

“It doesn’t matter how much pressure you put on them, the Iranians see their nuclear program as an insurance for the regime,” said Zimmt, who is now at the INSS, affiliated with Tel Aviv University.

When Trump pulled out of the pact, much of the Israeli public cheered. Netanyahu took credit for making it happen, and Bennett hailed it as “a great day for the free world.” Many Israelis agreed with their government that it was up to Israel to pursue an Iran policy of zero engagement, maximum economic pressure and clandestine sabotage attacks.

After 2018, Israel increasingly publicized its shadow efforts to hamper Iran’s nuclear progress. In the summer of 2020, a series of mysterious explosions took place at or near sensitive Iranian nuclear facilities. In November of last year, the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was ambushed and killed in an assassination near Tehran that was widely attributed to Israel.

But the escalation of alleged sabotage attacks has coincided with unprecedented Iranian production of highly enriched uranium. Earlier this year, Iran enriched uranium to 60 percent purity, approaching the 90 percent purity level needed for a nuclear weapon, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in August. The nuclear deal limits Iran’s enriched uranium to 3.67 percent, a level suitable for use as fuel in its nuclear power plants — the ostensible purpose of its program — and sharply restricts its stockpile of the radioactive material.

U.S. warns it has ‘tools’ to deal with Iran if nuclear talks fail

Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, said on Channel 12 last week that the “issue of material is maybe already behind us. Israel needs to focus on the weaponization phase,” referring to techniques for delivering and triggering a bomb.

Danny Citrinowicz, the former head of the Iran branch of Israel’s military intelligence unit, said the attacks on targets in Iran have played into the hands of that country’s hard-liners, who sought to accelerate the nuclear program and opposed the 2015 agreement.

“History has proven that the attacks were maybe a kind of tactical miracle, like James Bond movies, but they were strategic failures,” said Citrinowicz, now a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzliya. “Even if they delayed the nuclear program for one week or one month, then what?”

He said that Western isolation from Iran also contributed to the weakening of pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies, and to the presidential election victory in June of ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, a disciple of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s hard-line supreme leader. Khamenei has long argued that the “Zionist regime” in Israel is a “cancerous tumor” that should be “uprooted and destroyed,” and he maintains that the West cannot be trusted.

Israeli officials have been increasingly speaking about launching a military strike against Iran, with or without U.S. cooperation, in case negotiations fail. Most Jewish Israelis still see Iran as an existential threat and support Israeli military action — even without American consent — rather than diplomacy to resolve the crisis, according to a November poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Foreign Policy magazine in September that he would accept “the current U.S. approach of putting the Iran nuclear program back in a box,” but he added that Israel was urging the Biden administration to put military options on the table.

Speaking at the Pentagon on Thursday, Gantz said Israel is looking to deepen its dialogue and cooperation with the United States on Iran, “including the topics of joint military readiness to face Iran to stop its regional aggression and nuclear aspiration.” Iran, he said, is “playing poker with a bad hand.”

The Israeli military on Nov. 4 received a $1.5 billion budget allocation for a potential strike on Iran to pay for aircraft, intelligence-gathering drones and armaments, and officials in the Israel Defense Forces assert that military action has always been an option. “We, as the IDF and Israel, are prepared to defend ourselves, by ourselves,” said a senior military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

But former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak wrote on the Israeli news site Ynet that Israel can learn from experience that Iran has the ability to advance its nuclear program, even under sanctions, and that publicly breaking with the United States on Iran policy — as Netanyahu did with the Obama administration — serves no national security purpose.

“This new reality requires a sober assessment of the situation, decisions and actions and not hollow public threats — which may impress some Israeli citizens, but not the Iranians nor their negotiating partners,” he said.

Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed.

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