Destruction of Iranian Nuclear Facility Should Remind Democrats of Israel’s Unique Value as an Ally
An explosion at the Natanz nuclear complex on July 2 laid waste to the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC), a workshop designed to mass produce thousands of advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium. Satellite pictures strongly suggest that the blast's cause was a powerful bomb placed at a critical juncture inside the facility. Not implausibly, many experts pointed to Israel—not least because “a Middle Eastern intelligence official,” widely suspected to be Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, told the New York Times that Israel was, in fact, responsible. If true, it’s a potent reminder of Israel’s enormous value as a strategic partner of the United States, one that combines the will, capabilities, and tactical skill to confront the region’s most dangerous threats in ways that are largely unrivaled by any other American ally. The point may be particularly worth underscoring in the run up to the 2020 elections, especially for a Democratic Party where support for Israel has seemed increasingly under stress.
The destruction of the ICAC was a significant blow to Iran’s nuclear program. Once deployed, the advanced centrifuges being assembled there would have dramatically reduced the time required to produce enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) not just for one nuclear bomb, but for a small arsenal. Their mass production would also have made it much easier for Iran to divert a critical number of advanced centrifuges to a covert site, where any rapid breakout to develop nuclear weapons could proceed in secret. With a single exquisitely executed act of sabotage, cloaked in mystery, and avoiding the attendant risks of war associated with an overt military strike, those powerful Iranian cards have now been swept from the table—at least for the time being. Estimates are that the explosion could have set back Iran’s centrifuge program by up to two years.
That’s not to say that the danger has been eliminated, far from it. Deep underground, at a different facility in Natanz and at another in Fordow, several thousand older centrifuges, known as IR-1s, continue to churn outgrowing quantities of enriched uranium under the gaze of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Over the last year, in response to the re-imposition of crippling U.S. sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, Iran has slowly but surely begun violating several of the deal’s restrictions—including on enrichment levels, stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, and research and development on advanced centrifuges. Roughly 1000 next-generation IR-2m centrifuges that were dismantled under the JCPOA could also be available for re-installation, leaving Iran’s breakout time for producing sufficient HEU for one nuclear bomb as low as 3 to 4 months—significantly less than the JCPOA’s 12-month target.
Nevertheless, there’s no question that the risks from Iran’s nuclear program are significantly more manageable without the looming danger posed by the thousands of far more powerful centrifuges that the ICAC was set to produce. The facility’s destruction has almost certainly bought those determined to contain the Iranian nuclear threat important time and space that, before the explosion, were rapidly dwindling in the face of Iran’s JCPOA violations.
A prospective Joe Biden administration, in particular, should take note. Democrats, not without reason, have been signaling their growing alarm about Iran’s renewed nuclear expansion and their eagerness to bring it back into compliance with the JCPOA. In exchange, they have made clear that the United States would also return to the deal—in essence, reversing Trump’s maximum pressure strategy by lifting the crippling sanctions that it has re-imposed since 2018. Doing so, however, would surrender an enormous amount of leverage now in U.S. hands in exchange for little more than going back to a deal that even many of Biden’s aides privately acknowledge is flawed. While Democrats are right that maximum pressure has failed to produce any positive changes in Iran’s malign behavior, it’s also true that sanctions have subjected the Iranian regime to unprecedented economic and political pressures--all exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis--from which it badly needs relief sooner rather than later.
With the Natanz explosion largely removing the immediate threat of a large-scale deployment of advanced centrifuges, a prospective Biden administration might well have more time than it thought before July 2 to address the Iranian nuclear challenge. The ICAC’s destruction may have reduced the urgency for any precipitous rush back into the JCPOA. Instead. Biden could have more room for maneuver to play the sanctions card that Trump would be handing off to him and exploit the Iranian regime’s profound distress to drive a much harder bargain that would ideally not just restore the JCPOA, but begin to address some of its most problematic shortcomings as well—from its soon-to-expire sunset clauses to the failure to constrain Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal.
If, as so many suspect, Israel was behind the explosion, it has both inflicted serious damage on Iran’s nuclear program and strengthened America’s diplomatic position in confronting Iran’s efforts at nuclear blackmail. But more than that, the bombing would also emphatically underscore some of the truly extraordinary capabilities that Israel brings to the table of the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership. The ability to place an agent inside one of the crown jewels of the Iranian nuclear program, much less smuggle in a powerful bomb and detonate it at the point of maximum damage, is an absolutely stunning intelligence accomplishment. It’s not at all clear that there’s another intelligence service in the world, including the United States, that would have been capable of pulling off an operation of such difficulty, danger and daring so flawlessly. Given the downside risks, most probably wouldn’t even have tried.
Of course, it would hardly be the first time. Just two years ago, in an operation no less audacious than the ICAC bombing, Israel spirited out of a Tehran warehouse a huge chunk of what became known as the Nuclear Archive—tens of thousands of pages and more than 150 compact discs detailing the history of Iran’s crash program in the 1990s and early 2000s to develop a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and conceal it from the world. Over the course of two years, a team of Israeli agents—mostly made up of Iranians—operated under the noses of one of the world’s most ruthless and effective security establishments, collecting intelligence, conducting reconnaissance, and planning and expertly executing a James Bond-like break-in, burning through safes with high-powered blow torches, securing the most important parts of the archive, and then getting the treasure trove of the Iranian regime’s most important secrets out of the country without a trace.
These are remarkable success stories that go largely unappreciated by most Americans in part because it’s the sort of brilliant professionalism that people have been conditioned to expect from Israel’s security services. It’s almost taken for granted that a tiny country of 8 million people will on a regular basis undertake operations of enormous risk and danger to confront and contain, if not necessarily eliminate, the Middle East’s most dangerous threat: nuclear weapons in the hands of dictators with a predisposition toward large-scale bloodletting. From the destruction of nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 to the Stuxnet cyberattack (in collaboration with the United States) on Iranian centrifuges and the targeted killing of top Iranian nuclear scientists a decade ago, Israel has arguably been the world’s greatest force for keeping at bay the nightmare scenario of a fully nuclearized Middle East.
With Israel’s value as an American ally increasingly up for debate, particularly within the Democratic Party, that is a lesson worth highlighting in an election year. The United States has grown tired of the Middle East. It wants to do less there, not more, and divert resources to containing higher priority threats from great-power competitors like China in the Indo-Pacific and Russia in Europe.
But at the same time, America still has important interests in the Middle East that need to be secured—not least preventing a hostile Iran, born in the crucible of “Death to America,” from dominating the region and wielding nuclear weapons. In that context, what’s the value of a local partner like Israel that has the capabilities, will and competence to take on the burden of serving as the tip of the spear in the shared effort to mitigate such threats? Especially after a two-decade period when the United States spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives directly engaging in military conflicts in the region, a $3.8 billion per year investment in Israel, one of the world’s leading military and intelligence powers that is unabashedly pro-American and prepared to act in defense of U.S. interests, looks like an absolute bargain. The mysterious, but highly fortuitous, destruction of the ICAC, and the significant setback it inflicted on the nuclear program of America’s most dangerous Middle East adversary, should serve as a useful reminder of that essential reality.
John Hannah, senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.