The US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was a huge personal achievement for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a leaked video, he boasted of personally convincing Donald Trump to scrap the 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers.
“I had to stand up against the whole world and speak out against this deal,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud party in the 2018 clip. “And we didn’t give up.”
But four years later, the Israeli leader was ousted – as was Trump. Both Congress and the Knesset contain more left-wing votes, while in Iran moderate Hassan Rouhani lost last year’s presidential election to hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
International negotiators are in Vienna come closer which amounts to a watered down version of the original deal. In the process, what was recently believed by many Israelis to be Netanyahu’s greatest geopolitical victory has become a growing source of concern for Israel’s political and security establishment.
“The US has tried to exert maximum pressure with sanctions, Israel has assassinated nuclear scientists and carried out attacks to limit Iranian military activities in the region. But none of that worked,” said Danny Citrinowicz, who led research for Israel’s military intelligence agency between 2013 and 2016.
“All it has done is push Iran forward with its nuclear program. Now we have no options and I worry that Israel and Iran are on a collision course in the near future.”
The 2015 deal, spearheaded by Barack Obama, lifted crippling international sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s economy in exchange for 10-15 years of restricting its nuclear activities.
Since it was unraveled in 2018, Iran has pushed ahead with uranium enrichment. Although the Iranian government claims its nuclear program is peaceful, experts generally agree that Tehran could have operational nuclear weapons within two years should it so choose.
The restored deal is expected to maintain the timeframe of the original, meaning uranium enrichment limits will expire in 2025.
For Israel, the outcome is far worse than the maligned 2015 deal.
Not only has Tehran made significant technological advances that will only be monitored over the next three years, it is on the verge of receiving $7 billion in declassified asset freezes, as well as sanctions relief on exports like oil.
Israel believes this money is channeled to Iran’s proxies across the region, and the international legitimacy bestowed by the nuclear deal could embolden the Islamic Republic to be bolder in its regional ambitions.
Israel has a long history of conducting land and air strikes on its borders against Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran-funded groups in Syria and Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip, as well as naval combat against Iranian and Israeli cargo ships in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Iran also dominates Shiite militias in Iraq and sees Yemen’s Houthi rebels as partners of growing regional importance. In January, the Houthis proved their drones and missiles can reach Abu Dhabi – meaning Tel Aviv could soon be a target within their reach.
“Iran is now entrenched in many theaters in the region, not only militarily, but also economically and culturally. Combined with the proliferation of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones] and UAS [unmanned aerial systems]this is hybrid warfare,” said an IDF official, who asked not to be named.
“If they want to hurt Israelis, they already have numerous axes to try.”
Compared to the Netanyahu era, this time Israeli officials have quietly watched on the sidelines as the nuclear negotiations unfold. The Israeli government, aware that there is little it can do to influence the outcome, seems instead to be urging its US allies towards a bilateral deal the day after to assuage Israeli concerns.
This week, President Naftali Bennett reiterated Israel’s longstanding position that the country “will always retain its freedom of action to defend itself.”
In November, the Knesset passed a budget that would increase Defense Ministry spending by 7 billion shekels (1.6 billion pounds) to prepare for the Iranian threat. Israel is also ready to deepen security ties with its new Abraham Accords partners in the Gulf, who also fear Iranian military capabilities: A security pact was signed this month signed with Bahrain.
And while the revival of the Iran nuclear deal may represent limited success for the Biden administration, the stakes in the Middle East are still rising.
“These problems no longer exist in isolation. For example during Operation Guardian of the Walls [the May 2021 war between Hamas and Israel], we have seen that you cannot simply attack Hamas. Hezbollah also got involved and we had rocket fire from Lebanon,” Citrinowicz said.
“We are active in the shadow war, but we must play by the rules of the game. If we do something dramatic in Iran, such as attacking nuclear facilities, it will trigger a severe escalation on many fronts.”