Israel Approaches a Red Line as Iran's Nuclear Dreams Near Fulfillment | Opinion

For years, the Jewish State has anticipated the need for an independent military option to eliminate—or at least erode—Iran's burgeoning nuclear capability. For just as long, though, Israeli policymakers have preferred to take a backseat to U.S. policymakers in dealing with the threat posed by a nearly nuclear Islamic Republic. Recently, however, at least two factors have suggested that Jerusalem may not be willing to sit on the sidelines for much longer.

The first is Iran's continued nuclear progress. At a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Colin Kahl, the Biden administration's Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, dropped a bombshell when he told lawmakers that the Iranian regime can now produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb in "about 12 days." Kahl, of course, was quick to blame former President Donald Trump's 2018 decision to abandon the Obama-era nuclear deal with Tehran for this state of affairs. In truth, however, Iran's rapid nuclear progress of recent years is much more of a statement about the degree to which the current administration has mishandled the Iranian file.

Since taking office, the White House has pursued a policy of what some have termed "maximum deference," intended to cajole Tehran back to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear effort. This approach has carried with it enormous opportunity costs. The United States has been relegated to the role of a bystander in the current ferment taking place within Iran, fearful to take much of a stand in support of the country's brave protesters lest it somehow harm the prospects for its nuclear diplomacy. It has also, in many cases, failed to meaningfully enforce existing sanctions against the Iranian regime, thereby providing countries like China and Russia the incentive to step up their commerce with Iran—and giving Iran a much-needed shot in the economic arm in the process. What the Biden administration's policy has not done, however, is prompt Iran's ayatollahs to seriously rethink their pursuit of the bomb.

Protest at Nuclear Conference
Iranian opposition protesters stand outside of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s Board of Governors meeting at the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 16. JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

The result is, as Kahl noted, that the Islamic Republic is now closer than ever before to the nuclear threshold. That's a worry for Israel, where—despite today's massive domestic divisions—there is a durable consensus that Iran's clerical regime represents an existential threat, and where the commitment to preventing Iran from going nuclear transcends coalition governments and partisan political shifts.

The second factor impacting Israeli thinking is the growing strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran. As I've explained elsewhere, Russian President Vladimir Putin's current war of choice has caused what amounts to a sea change in the Russo-Iranian partnership, and positioned Tehran as an important lifeline for a Kremlin now facing serious setbacks in its campaign against Ukraine. The result has been a dramatic tightening of the already close strategic ties between the two countries. Among many other indicators, Iran has emerged as a major provider of drones and munitions to the Russian military, and the two countries are said to have inked a secret new deal expanding nuclear cooperation. Moreover, if Iran gets its way, Russia could deliver advanced S-400 air defense systems to the Islamic Republic in the near future.

All of which is most unwelcome news for Israel. That's because the success of any military strike depends on Israel being able to degrade Iran's nuclear complex—a job that will become considerably more difficult if and when sophisticated Russian S-400s are deployed to defend Iran's nuclear sites.

As a result, Israel's strategic calculus is changing—and its timeframe for action is accelerating. "I think we are moving to the point that the chance of success for doing something effective militarily is getting slimmer," renowned Israeli nonproliferation expert Avner Cohen recently told the Jerusalem Post. That's a sentiment shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, who has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to do everything in his power to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

If the foregoing is any indicator, the time for Bibi to make good on his word is rapidly running out. And if Israel does, no one in the Biden administration should be surprised. After all, Washington has had plenty of warning about the gravity of the Iranian threat.

Ilan Berman is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.