Is Iran Still Israel’s Top Threat?

How the nuclear agreement looks in the country where its consequences are the gravest

Israel's Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, speaks at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv. (Baz Ratner / Reuters)

Six months after the United States Senate failed to block the Iranian nuclear agreement, the Islamic Republic has taken major steps to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is monitoring the country’s compliance, declared that Iran has fulfilled its initial nuclear commitments, and most international sanctions on Iran have been lifted.

Offering any final judgment on the agreement would of course be premature. But it is useful to listen carefully to the views of security professionals who have to face numerous competing threats and allocate attention and resources among them. Where does Iran’s nuclear program rank among their priorities now?

For a telling case in point, consider the following assessment:

  • “Without a doubt the nuclear deal between Iran and the West is a historic turning point. It is a big change in terms of the direction that Iran was headed, and in the way that we saw things.”
  • “It has many risks, but also presents many opportunities. Our role is to look at the risk prism and the capability prism and to judge from that—not to assume that the worst-case scenario will take place, because that is as dangerous as the best-case scenario. Therefore, we are now revisiting our strategy.”
  • “In the 15-year timeframe that we are looking towards, we are still keeping Iran high on our priority lists because we need to monitor its nuclear program. But this is a real change. This is a strategic turning point.”

At a recent meeting in Washington, I challenged the participants to identify the author of these quotes. The most frequently proposed answer was Secretary of State John Kerry’s speechwriter nominating his boss for the Nobel Peace Prize. No one guessed correctly.

These are the words of the individual who has primary responsibility for the defense of the state of Israel: Israeli Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot. Eizenkot, who commands the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), offered these unvarnished judgments publicly in a January speech to colleagues at Israel’s premier national-security think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies. In speaking so explicitly about a deal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called a “historic mistake” that raises the specter of a second Holocaust, Eizenkot settled the debate in Israel about where he and the IDF stand on this question.

This debate erupted last summer when Eizenkot, for the first time in Israeli history, released a public defense strategy. When the document was published, Israeli analysts found it almost unbelievable that the strategy said nothing about an Iranian nuclear threat. The omission was so blatant that members of the press speculated that a secret annex outlines the true scope of the Iranian nuclear threat, while others contended that the omission was the ultimate putdown to the prime minister. Eizenkot’s January speech ended this speculation.

If Iran’s nuclear threat has been postponed for the foreseeable future, what does the chief of the general staff see as the No. 1 threat to Israel? Eizenkot’s answer is Iran: not its nuclear program, but its drive for hegemony in the region, from its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, for Hamas in Gaza, and for the Houthis in Yemen, to its position as the dominant influence in Baghdad. As he says: “The main rival the IDF has at this time is Hezbollah.” Indeed, “Iran is having a war through proxy with Israel. Hezbollah is budgeted, trained, and even steered since 2006 by the Iranians.” Eizenkot added that Hezbollah’s growing capabilities are “challenging the intelligence, aerial, and ground superiority of the IDF.”

Having recently returned from a week of off-the-record discussions with leaders of Israel’s security establishment, I can confirm that Eizenkot’s assessment is not an exception: Israel’s security professionals see a dramatically different threat environment in the wake of the nuclear agreement. For the past decade, Iran’s nuclear advance has required their laser-like concentration on what, if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, would pose an existential threat to their nation. They now believe that that threat has been postponed for at least five years, and more likely a decade or more, which allows them to address other serious challenges. To quote the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin: “The agreement rolls back the Iranian nuclear program to the point of a breakout time [to produce enough fuel for one nuclear weapon] of one year, reduces the scope of the program, and places it under a verification regime that is much more invasive than the current system and includes access to military facilities. For at least the next ten years, the threat of nuclear armament in Iran has been reduced.”

This kind of assessment is not limited to Israel’s military professionals. Ephraim Halevy, the former chief of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, issued a similar assessment: “I believe this agreement closes the roads and blocks the road to Iranian nuclear military capabilities for at least a decade. And I believe that the arrangements that have been agreed between the parties are such that [they] give us a credible answer to the Iranian military threat, at least for a decade, if not longer.”

A year ago, American and Israeli politicians and security professionals agreed that Iran’s nuclear ambitions posed the preeminent security threat to both nations. Since then, a negotiated agreement has been signed requiring Iran to ship most of its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country, dismantle most of its centrifuges, destroy the core of the reactor that would have produced bomb-usable plutonium, and to do so in ways that allowed outsiders to verify this was happening. In January, the IAEA verified these steps, and the UN-mandated sanctions were repealed. What the future holds, no one knows. But in reflecting on these issues six months after the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action withstood congressional scrutiny, it would be foolhardy to ignore the views of the professionals who are defending the nation for whom Iran’s nuclear ambitions have the gravest consequences.