Israel has reasserted its pre-emptive strike capability against Iran, which would likely lead to a multi-front war with serious ramifications for the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his threats against Iran on Sunday during a cabinet meeting held as part of a mock national war.

“The reality in our region is changing rapidly. We are not stagnating. We are adapting our combat doctrine and our possibilities of action based on these changes,” Netanyahu told the meeting held in an underground military bunker in Tel Aviv. “We are committed to acting against the Iranian nuclear program, against missile attacks ( …) and against (…) what we call a multifront campaign.”

The statement came hours after the Israeli prime minister accused the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of “capitulating” to Iran. Last week, the IAEA closed a case investigating highly enriched uranium particles that had been discovered in Iran. The agency reported that it had received a satisfactory response explaining the presence of the particles, which had been enriched to 83.7%, worryingly close to the 90% needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu called the body’s decision a policy and criticized the IAEA for not taking on the Islamic Republic.

Under the 2015 Comprehensive Plan of Joint Action nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limit its uranium reserves and enrich uranium only to 3.67%, the purity needed to run nuclear power plants. In return, Iran got rid of sanctions imposed by the US, the EU and the UN Security Council. 

Since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran has said it is enriching uranium to 60% purity. Iran’s uranium reserves have also increased tenfold since the fall of the nuclear deal.

“Iran has made a lot of progress on its uranium enrichment,” Danny Citrinowicz, a researcher with the Iran Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line.

At the moment, it is not necessary to take drastic measures

Against the background of numerous statements suggesting that Israel is about to take military action against Iran, Citrinowicz urged caution. “The situation is worrisome, but at this time, it does not warrant dramatic action,” he said.

For years, Israel has watched closely as Iran moved toward nuclear capability.

“Iran cannot be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. It can only be delayed,” Citrinowicz said. Israel’s hesitance to take serious action against Iran could be attributed to the inevitability of Iran’s nuclear capability and the complexities associated with any preemptive strike.

Israel is believed to be behind hundreds of airstrikes and other operations against Iran’s nuclear program. These include assassinations of high-level Iranian scientists and cyberattacks against nuclear facilities.

Israel’s current military exercise is aimed at preparing the country for a protracted war on multiple fronts, the scenario Israel expects should it attack Iran. The “Steady Hand” drill also includes a test of preparation for the civil front.

According to an Israel Defense Forces statement issued before the start of the exercise, the drill includes a multi-arena exercise for the air forces and an attack and defense missions exercise for the navy.

Israeli officials have repeatedly conveyed that they will not tolerate Iran’s nuclear capability. Israel considers Iran its archenemy and the nuclear aspirations of the Islamic Republic its most formidable threat.

Negotiations with Iran have been ongoing since 2013

Iran has been negotiating with world powers since 2013. President Joe Biden took office in 2021, nearly three years after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, and quickly began new negotiations. Those negotiations failed to produce a new deal, and recent media reports have suggested that the United States is now looking to enter into talks with Iran over an interim deal that would limit Iran’s uranium enrichment but not stop it altogether.

Israeli statements are also directed at Iranian ears. If they cross a certain line, Israel will respond and is not committed to any international agreement reached with Iran,” Amidror said. “He is committed to her own security and not to the international belief that the solution to the problem is only diplomatic.”

Since identifying Iran’s nuclear program as its main threat more than two decades ago, Israel has maintained its stance against Iran’s nuclear aspirations and any deal with it.

Iran now appears to be at the pinnacle of nuclear capability, and many experts believe that the country already has the technology and know-how to develop nuclear weapons. Only domestic political will seem to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Faced with this reality, Israel is faced with the dilemma of whether to carry out a preemptive strike against some or all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Destroying Iran’s nuclear program may be an unrealistic goal for Israel. Iranian nuclear facilities are scattered throughout the country, raising questions about Israel’s ability to carry out the complex airstrikes to take them down, more than 1,000 miles from Israeli Air Force bases.

“Israel has the capacity,” Amidror said. He acknowledged that the US ability to hit Iran was significantly superior to Israel’s ability but said that Israel would be willing to use “what it has at its disposal.”

“For Israel, this would be a very complex operation, involving the entire Israeli Air Force being in the air at once, reaching Iran – probably being targeted along the way – and successfully attacking Iran,” Amidror said.

An Israeli attack on Iran would likely be the opening act of a broader, multi-front regional war. Since Iran is expected to urge its regional proxies to attack Israel in response, such a war would presumably cause extensive damage throughout the Middle East and heavy casualties.

Iran is unlikely to abandon its nuclear ambitions after the attack. “The knowledge that Iran has accumulated cannot be erased, even if such an attack is successful. Iran will not give up its plans the day after such an attack and will rebuild them,” Citrinowicz said.

While most of the West is eager to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, Israel has staunchly opposed any negotiations. This dynamic puts Israel in “a position of inferiority,” Citrinowicz said. “There is very little international appetite to deal with Iran other than by negotiating with it,” she added.

In an attempt to avoid a full-scale military confrontation, Washington has pushed forward with negotiations. But the international environment that allowed the signing of the JCPOA with the support of China and Russia cannot be recreated at this time.

Iran has been emboldened by Russia, which is now at odds with many of the negotiating powers over its offensive in Ukraine. Iran’s direct involvement in that war, with a steady supply of armed drones to Russia that have been used to attack Ukraine, drew immediate global criticism directed at Iran.

In this current atmosphere, fewer countries would oppose an offensive against Iran, Amidror said.

That being said, the international community wants to avoid a major regional war, which is almost guaranteed if Israel attacks Iran. Many countries want the Iran issue to be resolved quietly without creating chaos in the region.

Will Israel attack Iran without US support?

An open question is whether Israel would decide to attack without US support.

“Without US backing, an Israeli attack would be a very complex gamble,” Citrinowicz said. “With such significant ramifications of an offensive, coordinating such an attack with the US in advance is critical. Recent Israeli rhetoric suggests otherwise.

“If Israel comes to the conclusion that Iran is close to nuclear power, the threat is so great that it will not wait for international legitimacy,” Amidror said. “For years, the world did not help Israel, so Israel will have no choice.”

Earlier this year, the Israeli and US militaries conducted a massive joint drill, including simulated strikes against targets. But the Biden Administration has not wanted to get more involved in the Middle East until now. The withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 marked the beginning of a policy of less US involvement in the region.

“We won’t see American boots on the ground, which is probably the only thing that could influence Iranian decisions on its nuclear program,” Citrinowicz said.

Israel has expressed deep concern over US progress in negotiations with Iran. Whether Israel will follow through on its preemptive strike threats remains to be seen. With big ramifications expected, Israel appears to be treading carefully before taking steps that would change the face of the Middle East.

Keren Setton