What steps could Israel take if nuclear talks with Iran fail?

Officials expected to back sanctions and diplomatic pressure before any military action against Tehran

An Israeli air force F-35 fighter. Israeli leaders have previously spoken of using military force to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Israel sees Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat and has been outspoken about international efforts to reach an accord with Iran.

But as talks on curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme progress in Vienna, Israeli officials have somewhat softened their stance on the matter.

“For sure there can be a good agreement,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said last week.

“Is that expected to happen now in the current dynamics? No. Because there needs to be a much firmer position,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.

The acknowledgement that a deal may be welcome marks a turning point for Israel, which has previously spoken of using military force to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Mr Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the 2015 accord reached between world powers and Tehran was an “historic” mistake.

Israel has not, however, ruled out the possibility that it could act unilaterally if the Vienna talks fail and Iran advances its nuclear programme.

“I look forward to deepening our dialogue and co-operation vis-a-vis Iran, including on topics of military readiness,” Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister, told his US counterpart last month.

“Iran is the biggest threat to global and regional peace and stability and building an existential threat to Israel,” he said at a meeting with Lloyd Austin.

Days later, Mr Gantz told Israeli MPs that the government was “deepening international co-operation” regarding Iran.

“I am certain that soon both overt and covert actions will be expanded, by a variety of means,” he said on December 22.

Sima Shine, who heads the Iran programme at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said direct military action would be a “last resort” if the Vienna talks collapse.

“I think many other responses will be done before open military activity will be considered,” said Ms Shine, who previously led the research unit at Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

“I assume that Israel will be hoping for a ‘snapback’ in the [UN] Security Council, a tightening of the economic sanctions that are already in place.”

The 2015 deal included the so-called snapback mechanism through which the UN could reimpose sanctions if Tehran breached the terms.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, said that Israel would hold off on taking action alone.

“If there isn’t an agreement and the US and the other powers start imposing tightened sanctions and diplomatic pressure, I also think Israel won’t [act unilaterally],” he said.

“If and when every other option has been exhausted, then I believe Israel has no choice but to take military action.”

Iran has previously blamed Israel for covert attacks on its nuclear programme, such as the assassination of top scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020.

Tehran has also accused Israel of sabotaging its nuclear plants, including a power cut at the Natanz site last April.

Iran vows revenge against Israel after Natanz 'attack'

Iran vows revenge against Israel after Natanz 'attack'

Israeli officials do not comment on such incidents.

Ms Shine suggested that while all options would be on the table for Israel, hitting the nuclear sites themselves would likely take precedence over attacking personnel.

Such a move would elicit a response from Tehran, which may attack Israel through its forces or proxies stationed across the Middle East.

Reaching this point would lead to an unprecedented level of violence, Mr Freilich said.

“There will be a price to be paid,” he said. “That first and foremost, Israel will be hit militarily in a way that it’s never been hit before.”

Agencies contributed to this article

Updated: January 09, 2022, 11:05 AM