Squaring the circle between Washington and Tehran
By Amir Oren
The Director of Military Intelligence is responsible for issuing Israel’s National Estimates. It was the the DMI’s unofficial authority since the mid 1960’s, what with war being always around the corner and early warning the most crucial issue deriving from estimates, but Yitzhak Rabin, a former Chief of General Staff turned Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, and thus supervising all services in the Intelligence community, made it official.
While it does not mean that the career Major General serving as DMI is necessarily senior to his civilian or retired military counterparts heading MOSSAD (foreign intelligence) and Shabak (internal security), and their pay grade is actually higher than his, the equivalent of a Lieutenant General’s, it gives the uniformed Officer priority in sorting out the various and conflicting views, coming up with a conclusion and deriving from it a tasking order, in the eternal cycle of assessment and collection. When he puts country X above organization Y as a target to be monitored, it is translated into the relative allocation of resources.
Earlier this week, Tamir Hayman, the quiet-spoken Armor combat officer appointed DMI by former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, shared parts of his annual assessment with Israeli reporters. He covered most of Israel’s national security concerns, but did not divulge secrets having to do with the other half his portfolio – commanding clandestine operations by elite units and Cyber forces.
What emerged from this summary is that Israel is enjoying a limited-time only, special edition of success. Its enemies, from Gaza to Golan and Hezbollah in between, are being contained and detered. They think better of starting a full-scale war, for the time being. The problem and the paradox – maintaining this fragile state of affairs includes actions which will eventually push those being hit over the edge. At some point, theoretically understood but in practice difficult to project, the bucket will be full to capacity, spilling over into hostilities.
The most prominent dialectical issue to feature in Israel’s deliberations, as well in other nations’, has to do with Iran’s Nuclear project. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 deal made it harder for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to finance his Nuke dreams, to the extent he pursues then, but also gave him free rein to do so. As a result, Iran has more pre-bomb quality fissile material than it would have had if Hillary Clinton won the 2016 elections.
Israeli officials, along with their American colleagues, have recently presented alarming estimates regarding Iran’s proximity to a “Trinity” – the first Manhattan Project Atomic bomb, tested in New Mexico before Hiroshima. Months, even weeks, were ominously mentioned, if Iran keeps the pace.
The Iranians did not rush to deny these warnings, as they served their purposes by bringing home the simple message of a direct connection between returning to the JCPOA and curbing the race to Nuclear capability. The more the world realizes that the deal’s revival is a price worth paying to avert escalation, the better for Tehran.
By that measure, Gen. Hayman’s assessment also worked on two levels. Israel’s Military Intelligence believes that Iran is much farther away from its first bomb – two years, not from today but from whenever it makes the decision to go for it. Since 2007, when the CIA issued its National Intelligence Estimate with the surprise conclusion that such a decision has yet to be made, and was definitely not made until 2003, it has become the received wisdom. So prior to early 2023, there is not going to be a domestically produced Iranian Nuclear weapon.
Even if the Iranians accumulate enough enriched Uranium, they will not catch up with the two other lines of effort needed to convert material into munitions – designing a warhead and marrying it to a missile or a bomber. It is like being stuck in the desert an hour’s ride away from an oasis – with no camel around for the next two years and no chance to survive the passage on foot without water.
That is certainly reassuring to an Israeli audience, but also means that there is no rush to return to the JCPOA. That, however, has to do with policy and the “Blue” force, one’s own, rather than “Red”, which is the Intelligence officer’s charge. And it is not for any foreigner, any Israeli, any IDF General Officer, to tell the United States how to conduct its national security and foreign policy. President Biden’s policy is his prerogative, provided he has the support of the American people and Congress.
There seems to be a rare agreement between Biden and Khamenei on the wish to trade an American return to the JCPOA – and then try to expand on it – for an Iranian return to its limits. This is a strategic meeting of the minds. The difference is tactical – who goes first. Is Biden, who already said “No” when publicly asked whether he will remove the sanctions before Iran re-complies, show a sudden generosity, saying “Yes” with a short grace period, as a face-saving gesture to Khamenei? Could the Ayatollah win PR points by pre-empting this move?
There is yet another diplomatic maneuver, with a Middle Eastern precedent: The Deposit. Neither side is first to concede, and both do – conditionaly.
When Yitzhak Rabin and Hafez Assad, too extremely cautios leaders suspicious of each other yet willing to trust a mediator, provided they do not appear too weak to their domestic rivals and publics, negotiated in 1993 peace for territory, that is the quantity and modalities of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, they would first not budge. Veterans of earlier rounds, they knew that once a concession is made, it is irretrievable. A ceiling becomes a floor.
The solution was a provisional concession to a third party – Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Rabin “deposited” his more moderate position in Christopher’s “pocket”, to be handed over to Assad once a similar deposit is made on the Syrian side.
This approach, reportedly hidden from all but Rabin’s trusted associates and revealed to the grief-stricken Shimon Peres only when he succeeded the assassinated Prime Minister, did not fulfill its potential, because Christopher was orherwise occupied that summer and Rabin felt politically pressed to make good on a campaign pledge to deliver a diplomatic breakthrough. Failing to do it fast enough in the Syrian track, and realizing that Jordan would follow rather than lead, he reluctantly accepted the Peres-sponsored Oslo initiative vis-a-vis the PLO.
The idea, though, has not lost its appeal. One can imagine French President Macron, who came on the scene during Trump’s term and tried to suggest a formula which would salvage the JCPOA, volunteering his pockets for the double deposit, which he will present to the parties as an honest broker upon mutual request. It is quite conceivable, and if an impasse remains for more than a few more weeks, almost inevitable.