When asked when the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan might end, retired General David Petraeus would deploy a useful quip. "The enemy gets a vote," he would say, meaning that both sides need to agree to stop fighting.
There is a corollary to Petraeus's adage that is relevant not to war but to peace agreements: The allies get a vote, too. In the context of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, the allies include Israel, which was not a party to the deal but is almost certainly responsible for last weekend's assassination of Iran's top nuclear weapons scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Israel has repeatedly declined comment on the Fakrhizadeh operation, which comes after a string of Israeli sabotage actions over the summer against some of Iran's most sensitive nuclear sites. Earlier this month, it was reported that Israeli teams killed al-Qaeda's deputy outside of Tehran. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced to the world that Israeli operatives had stolen reams of detailed Iranian schematics and plans for building a nuclear weapon in 2018, he urged the audience to remember Fakhrizadeh's name, revealing a memo from the late scientist describing covert nuclear activities.
Since the news broke of the assassination, the European Union as well as several former officials of the Barack Obama administration have issued condemnations. Former CIA director John Brennan, for example, mused that if a foreign country was responsible, it would be "an act of state-sponsored terrorism."
That's myopic. To start, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to Israel and Gulf Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates. It's not that Iran would launch a first strike against one of these nations. Rather, it's that all of Iran's other destabilizing actions — supporting terrorists, arming regional insurgents, building up a long-range missile capability — would be much harder to deter if Iran possessed an atomic weapon.
In this sense, it's mistaken to view Israel's likely strike against Fakhrizadeh through the lens of its effect on President-elect Joe Biden's goal of re-entering the Iran nuclear deal and negotiating a stronger follow-on agreement. Israel has already proved it has extraordinary intelligence capabilities inside Iran. But the opportunity to take out a high-value target such as Fakhrizadeh does not come along often. It's more likely that the opportunity presented itself and Israel pounced.
More important, Israel has showed in the last three years that it is willing to use its intelligence capabilities to stymie Iran's nuclear program. Israel killed some nuclear scientists inside Iran during negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Back then, most observers believed that Israel's only chance to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure was an overt action, such as a missile strike, drone attack or bombing run. The explosions at Iranian sites over the summer suggest Israel can accomplish much of this task through intelligence operations.
The upshot is that any future deal with Iran will have to address Israel's security needs. That is not what happened five years ago. The tensions of the nuclear deal became so dramatic that in 2015, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress to make the case against the deal Obama was negotiating. Netanyahu was willing to risk Israel's most important alliance to oppose a deal that he believed imperiled his country's future. So it's highly unlikely that Israel would be willing to end its activities in Iran so the U.S. can rejoin that same deeply flawed nuclear agreement.
Israel may agree not to launch any strikes for a time, such as the first few months of the Biden administration. But it won't give up the capability to strike inside Iran unless Iran agrees to abandon the aspects of its nuclear program suitable for building bombs. If Biden is smart, he will use this dynamic to his advantage as he tests Iran's willingness to negotiate.
Israel's sabotage and assassinations have not destroyed Iran's nuclear program. But they have set it back. As the architect of that program, Fakhrizadeh will be hard to replace. What will be even harder for the regime, however, is persuading its other scientists that they will be safe if they continue the quest for a nuclear weapon.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. Read Eli Lake's Reports — More Here.
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