The Four Scenarios Facing Israel as the U.S. Withdraws From the Iran Deal

President Trump’s decision to depart the JCPOA leaves Israel to try to advance its strategic objectives across a very different geopolitical landscape.

President Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on March 5, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has left Israel to reassess its policy toward Iran—and how to advance its key national-security objectives: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, thwarting Iran’s aspirations for hegemony, changing the fundamentally hostile and radical orientation of the regime, and preventing future military conflict. The deal made some progress on the first two fronts—delaying Iran’s nuclear-weapons program by more than a decade, and preventing war from breaking out in the near term—but failed on the other two metrics, fortifying the regime and giving it a free hand to build and use its conventional forces.

Tehran made better use of the time bought by the agreement, expanding its conventional capabilities to the point that its advanced missiles and militias have become nearly as dangerous as its, momentarily halted, nuclear threat. In fact, they are complementary components in a unified Iranian strategy to establish two mutually reinforcing strategic forces: the build-up of formidable conventional forces to guarantee impunity in the development of nuclear weapons, and the acquisition of a nuclear umbrella to support the expansion of conventional offensive capabilities throughout the region. And the post-deal influx of funds did not moderate Iran’s regional policies as some of the agreement’s architects had hoped, but instead allowed it to better fund them.

In Syria, for example, Iran sought to prepare for the deal’s sunset by building up a conventional threat that could hold Tel Aviv hostage, just as North Korea has done with Seoul. That would take the military option for forestalling its nuclear program off the table for the U.S. and its allies. Tehran did so by deploying precise ballistic missiles, advanced anti-aircraft systems capable of threatening Israeli air traffic, stealth drones, and anti-ship missiles; training and deploying Shia infantry divisions recruited from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq; and building terror infrastructure for use against Israel in the Golan. And Iran acted with a sense of impunity because, it reasoned, no U.S. president would risk a nuclear arms-control agreement in order to push back on conventional activities.

President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—leaves Israel to try to advance these same strategic objectives on a very different geopolitical landscape. It now faces four potential scenarios, based on how Iran may plausibly respond to the U.S. withdrawal.

It’s possible that the JCPOA will survive, with the Iranians remaining in the agreement and trying to minimize the effects of sanctions in an effort to retain ties with Europe, China, and Russia. Assuming that the United States would take no significant action beyond withdrawal, such as resurrecting crippling financial sanctions on Iran, this scenario would not differ dramatically from the period during which America was a party to the deal.

If Washington finds itself on the sidelines of an agreement between the P4+1 and Iran, though, it will have to find a different means of achieving its goals. Israel, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia could reach a “parallel agreement” on a plan of action focusing primarily on the issues that led Washington to withdraw from the deal, including both Iran’s harmful non-nuclear activities and the danger posed by the expiration of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.

Alternatively, perhaps Iran will concede. Rigorously enforced U.S. sanctions during a period of economic instability in Iran, along with the credible threat of a military strike, may bring Tehran back to the negotiating table to make a “better deal.” Israel should insist that any such agreement include permanent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity, allow for more intrusive nuclear inspections, and cover Iran’s malign non-nuclear activity in the region as well as its ballistic missile program. In his recent declaration regarding U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Iran, newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared those objectives among the many that the U.S. intends to achieve. If Washington succeeds in striking an agreement according to the demands it has outlined, it would be a major success by all of Israel’s national-security parameters. Of course, it is also worth noting that despite the appeal of a more comprehensive deal, some White House officials appear to be holding out hope that U.S. pressure goes even further and pushes the Iranian regime to collapse.

The American withdrawal from the JCPOA, however, can also lead to far more dangerous scenarios. Iran, for example, could leave the agreement to return to pre-2013 enrichment activity; Supreme Leader Khamenei has already ordered the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to prepare for increased enrichment and “other” unspecified arrangements earlier this week. In this case, within a few years Iran will have reached nuclear capabilities that would have taken over a decade to achieve under the JCPOA. The Europeans and Americans may agree on the need to respond and impose harsh sanctions on Iran, but because Iran remains under the constraints of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), any further steps, including military or covert action to stop Iran’s advances, would have to be very carefully considered. Actions to restrain Iran would obtain only limited international legitimacy, because the U.S. instigated the collapse of a deal that would have achieved that restraint, albeit temporarily.

In those circumstances, to avoid an unintended war while still preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the United States and Israel would need to demarcate a clear red line that Iran’s nuclear program would not be allowed to cross. In contrast to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position in 2012, the red line should not focus only on enrichment levels, but also the enrichment of large quantities of uranium to a low level or spinning a large number of centrifuges, two alternative routes that could bring Iran within a short breakout period to the bomb.

And then, there’s the worst-case scenario. Iran may adopt an extreme response to the change in U.S. policy, leaving the JCPOA and NPT and then breaking out to a bomb. That would raise the chances of military confrontation.

Military action to prevent the Ayatollahs from acquiring a nuclear weapon would have much broader diplomatic support than in the previous scenario in the U.S. as well as Europe. However, Israel would be well-advised to note that Trump’s explicit promise to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East makes him less likely to order U.S. forces to strike. In this case, Israel would probably find itself acting alone, albeit with a “green light” and support from Washington. Israel would have to consider exercising the Begin Doctrine, which calls for preventing any regime that seeks to wipe it off the map from acquiring nuclear weapons. One of us—Amos Yadlin—participated in two strikes on nuclear reactors, as a pilot in the 1981 attack on the Osirak site in Iraq, and as chief of military intelligence during the 2007 strike on the Al Kibar site in Syria. Israel might now be forced to contemplate a third.

The key for Israel, in such a scenario, would be finding ways to avoid further escalation. Fear that a strike could spiral into a wider war is what prompted the Obama administration to warn Israel not to strike. But a surgical strike could actually provide a middle ground between inaction and escalation to full-scale war. And if Israel can obtain full-fledged and public support from Washington and endorsements in private from the Sunni Arab leadership, it may be able to deter Iran from retaliating and escalating the conflict.

These four scenarios are unlikely to emerge immediately and all together, but rather they will take shape in two successive stages. For the remainder of 2018, all parties will seek to determine the actual effects of U.S. reimposition of sanctions, and so the first two scenarios will be on the table. In the year that follows, if the deal collapses and Iran proves unwilling to sign a new agreement, Tehran will likely adopt more defiant and dangerous policies, bringing the latter two scenarios into play.

With or without an agreement, the U.S. and Israel will need to prepare to take on Iran on both fronts without losing sight of Israel’s primary objectives: keeping nuclear weapons out of the regime’s hands, halting Tehran’s aggressive actions in the region, preventing war, and changing the hostile orientation of the regime toward the West, the Arabs, and Israel. Achieving that last goal could have the added benefit of presenting Israelis and Iranians with the historic opportunity to renew the long-standing ties that existed between the Jewish and Persian peoples until 1979.