In July 1977, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, sent Lieutenant General Hassan Toufanian, his Deputy Minister of War and Armaments, to Israel to hold secret talks with the newly formed Likud government of Menachem Begin. In April that year, the Shah had signed six ‘oil for arms’ contracts with Shimon Peres, the Defence Minister in the previous Labor government. One of the contracts, code named ‘Flower’, sought Israel to modify its advanced surface-to-surface missiles and sell them to Iran. Gen. Toufanian’s mission was to ensure that the change of government in Israel would not affect the deal. He met Major General Ezer Weizman, Defence Minister in the Begin government, and both of them agreed to build a military co-production line — Israel was to provide the technical know-how and Iran the finances and test sites. As part of it, Israel promised to supply Iran ballistic surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 700 kilometres that could carry a nuclear warhead, writes journalist Ronen Bergman in his book, The Secret War with Iran.
A shift in West Asia
Counterfactually speaking, had the Islamic Revolution not taken place, Iran would have had Israel-supplied nuclear missiles in the 1980s that could strike deep inside the Sunni kingdoms across the Persian Gulf. But the 1979 revolution that brought down the Shah’s monarchy and turned the country into a theocratic republic radically altered not just Iran but the whole region as well. West Asia would never be the same again. The revolution moved Iran, one of the natural powers in the region in terms of resources, geography and population, from an American ally to its top enemy. For the Sunni Gulf monarchies, a Shia theocratic republic across the Gulf waters not only posed geopolitical challenges but also existential and ideological threats. For Israel, the region’s only nuclear power, its most prominent rival was just born. But despite their shared concerns, these three pillars could not come together immediately as there were pre-existing contradictions between Israel and the Arab world. Four decades later, as Iran’s regional profile keeps rising despite American sanctions, Israel and the Arab world, under the aegis of the United States, are coming together to counter their common foe. If Israel was ready to supply nuclear missiles to Tehran in the 1970s, its primary foreign policy objective today is to stop Iran from getting nuclear capability.
There is already a shadow war going on between Israel and Iran. Israel has carried out covert operations inside Iran targeting its nuclear and missile programmes, in what former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the “Octopus doctrine” — hit the octopus at its head, not just at its tentacles. Iran has responded with drone attacks, targeting what it claimed was a compound used by Israeli operatives in northern Iraq. Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes inside Syria in recent years, targeting Iranian supplies and proxies, while a naval conflict between the countries, where ships linked to them have come under attacks in the Gulf, Arabian and the Mediterranean waters, is escalating.
There is a consensus among West Asia’s anti-Iran axis (the U.S., Israel and the Gulf kingdoms) that Iran’s nuclear programme should be scuttled. If Iran achieves nuclear capabilities (even if it does not make a bomb), it could alter the regional balance of power, which is now in favour of Israel. But there is no consensus on how to address this challenge. The Obama administration signed the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which practically cut off its path towards nuclear capability. But Israel and the Gulf kingdoms were not happy with the JCPOA (or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known) because in return for limiting Iran’s nuclear programme, the agreement promised economic rewards to the Islamic Republic, which could transform Iran into a non-nuclear conventional, mainstream power in West Asia. Israel wants not just Iran’s nuclear programme to be scuttled but also its rise to be contained. Israel saw its concerns being heard in Washington when the Trump administration decided to unilaterally pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran in 2018.
Pressure and resistance
U.S. President Donald Trump thought the administration’s ‘maximum pressure” approach would force Iran to flinch and return to the table to renegotiate the deal. Mr. Trump wanted concessions from Iran on its weapons programmes and regional activism (support for non-state actors). But Iran took a ‘maximum resistance’ policy to Mr. Trump’s maximum pressure — it carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf waters, stepped up support for its proxies, especially the Houthis in Yemen who now pose a direct security challenge to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and started enriching large amounts of uranium to a higher purity and developing advanced centrifuges. The situation now is more complicated than it was in 2015. Iran is facing domestic pressure over its economic woes, but the regime, all branches of which are now controlled by hardliners, is highly unlikely to compromise on its weapons programme or regional policy. The U.S. wants to address the nuclear programme but it wants to do so through talks as it does not want to get stuck in another conflict in West Asia — certainly not now when its priorities are in Europe and Indo-Pacific.
In late February, a few days after Russia’s Ukraine invasion began, a senior Iranian official told this writer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran’s National Garden that “we are very close” to agree on reviving of the deal (“the U.S. returning to the agreement which, legally speaking, is still alive but in reality on life support”, according to him) “while at the same time very far”. It is close because Iran and world powers had broadly agreed on bringing the agreement back to life. But it was also far because Iran wanted “objective guarantees” from the U.S. that it would not renege on its promises once again. Iran would continue to resist any attempt by the U.S. to bring non-nuclear programme-related issues (read weapons programme) under the ambit of the nuclear deal, he said. Four months later, a deal is still elusive.
Different stakeholders in this geopolitical vortex have different views on how it should be resolved. Iran wants the sanctions to be lifted in return for going back to its 2015 commitments. But it also wants to emerge from the crisis economically stronger. The U.S. wants to scuttle Iran’s nuclear programme through talks, but it wants a “stronger and longer” deal that would address not just Iran’s nuclear programme but also its “destabilising” activities in the region. One of the reasons for the collapse of the Vienna talks was the Biden administration’s refusal to undo the Trump decision of designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group. Israel’s goals (and that of its Gulf partners) are way more ambitious; it wants to scuttle Iran’s nuclear programme, debilitate its military programme, build stronger region-wide defences against its proxies, and contain its rise. And it does not necessarily believe that Iran should be stopped through talks. Israel has come up with a multi-directional approach driven by a common goal — escalate the shadow war with Iran and forge a stronger security partnership with the Gulf kingdoms which could prepare them both for any full-scale war in the future, while the U.S. and Europe continue to hold talks with Iran. This strategy elevates Israel’s role as a new security provider in the Gulf at a time when the U.S. is preoccupied with its priorities elsewhere.
But the Israeli strategy is laden with risks. It is true that the rise of a more cohesive anti-Iran axis is a significant challenge to the Islamic Republic. Iran is clearly under pressure after the Israeli attacks, which was evident when it recently fired the powerful IRGC spy chief. The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the elite Quds Force chief, by the U.S. in January 2020 seems to have blunted Iran’s clandestine operations abroad. Yet, Israel’s repeated attempts at sabotage have not stopped Iran from enriching uranium, which is now a step away from weapons grade level or building advanced centrifuges. Besides occasional setbacks, the attacks have not derailed Iran’s ballistic missiles or armed drones programme either. So if the nuclear talks collapse, Israel would be left with not many options. It would have to escalate its shadow war further to meet its goals. It is a very dangerous slope.