A satellite image shows a closeup view of the Natanz nuclear facility in June 2020.
Opinion by Max Boot
The Washington Post
Congratulations — presumably — are due to Israeli intelligence for a devastating fire at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility over the weekend. Details are scarce, with the New York Times reporting that the site was hit by an apparent explosion and The Post citing an Israeli media report that it was a cyberattack.
So it goes in Israel’s shadow war against Iran’s nuclear program. Recent attacks attributed to Israel included the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist last fall and a mysterious series of explosions that struck various sites in Iran, including a major missile facility, last summer. The most successful attack of all was the Stuxnet virus — part of a joint U.S.-Israeli covert program code-named Olympic Games — that reportedly took nearly 1,000 of 5,000 centrifuges at Natanz offline in 2010.
For all of the Iranian caterwauling about “a crime against humanity” and “nuclear terrorism,” Israel has every right to strike back against a regime that repeatedly threatens its existence. Just last year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said: “The Zionist regime is a deadly, cancerous growth and a detriment to this region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed.”
So spare me any claims that Israel is in violation of international law. Iran, a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty has no right to nuclear weapons, and Israel has every right to do anything that it can to stop Iran from developing them.
But Israeli sabotage operations can only slightly delay Iran’s nuclear program. The Israelis simply do not have the capacity to eradicate the program — which probably explains why it has never mounted an airstrike on Iran. The United States has greater military capability to act but only at the cost of a full-scale war that nobody wants — and even U.S. airstrikes would only set back and not end the Iranian program.
So what does that leave? Diplomacy. The 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was decidedly imperfect. It allowed Iran to retain residual enrichment capacity, it included sunset provisions and it did not cover Iran’s missile program or regional activities — which was why I and other critics opposed it at the time. But in hindsight, it’s obvious that the JCPOA was the most effective blow yet struck against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It reduced Iran’s uranium stockpile by 98 percent and established 24/7 monitoring of its key nuclear facilities.
President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to leave the JCPOA in spite of Iranian compliance was the worst U.S. foreign policy blunder since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on May 21, 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out a series of 12 demands on Iran — including the end of all of its destabilizing regional activities, along with the end of its nuclear and missile programs. Not a single one of those demands has been met in the nearly three years since that hubristic address.
Despite the Trump administration’s program of harsh sanctions, the Iranian regime’s support for murderous proxies has not diminished one iota. The Iranian-backed Houthis, for example, have actually stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Iran has rapidly increased uranium production. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in March 2020 that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was five times larger than allowed under the 2015 deal. Iran is also now producing 20 percent enriched material, far above the 3.67 percent threshold allowed by the deal and closer to the 90 percent needed for a nuclear weapon. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says that Iran’s “breakout time” to amass enough fissile material for a bomb has gone from more than a year to only three to four months. Israel says the breakout time is six months — but that’s cold comfort. That’s still far less than it was before Trump left the JCPOA.
Critics of the JCPOA such as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies write that “the regime in Iran can’t be permitted to keep its nuke weapons program,” but they have no plan to eradicate that program beyond more sanctions and more pressure ad nauseam. There is no reason to imagine that the sanctions will cause Iran to reverse course. U.S. sanctions have failed to compel compliance from rogue regimes such as Cuba and North Korea over the course of many decades — and Iran, which recently struck a massive trade deal with China, is actually less isolated than those countries.
It is, therefore, good news that Iran and the United States have now launched indirect talks in Vienna on how to structure an Iranian return to the nuclear deal. The Iranians have been demanding that the United States lift all sanctions before Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. The Biden administration has been demanding that Iran return to compliance before any sanctions are lifted — and also is seeking to expand the deal’s timeline and to cover other areas such as missiles. Let us hope this is simply the posturing that precedes a deal that both sides need and want.
I, too, would oppose a renewal of the JCPOA if I thought that there was any other way to stop the Iranian nuclear program. But there simply isn’t. Israeli cloak-and-dagger operations won’t get the job done.
Max Boot is a historian, best-selling author and foreign-policy analyst who has been called one of the “world’s leading authorities on armed conflict” by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a columnist for The Washington Post.