As efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), continue, one salient criticism is that its full implementation would allow Iran to undermine Israeli security and, potentially, Israel’s very existence. However, it is not Israeli national security per se but rather a certain conception of it that a fully restored deal might threaten.
Critics of the JCPOA regularly evoke the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran to make their point. The JCPOA, they argue, was detrimental to Israeli security because it did not insert enough time between Iran and a potential nuclear bomb. But this argument does not withstand even mild scrutiny, especially in light of how the 2018 U.S. withdrawal from the deal and the imposition of sanctions on Iran pushed Tehran to retaliate by drastically reducing its breakout window — i.e., the time required to amass enough fissile material to build a single bomb. During the deal’s full implementation, that window had been lengthened to over a year and Iran’s nuclear sites had come under the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated. It was in response to then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement and his re-imposition of sanctions that the Iranians drastically shrank that window to a few weeks by ramping up uranium enrichment and reducing access to international weapons inspectors. Given how the undermining of the deal has pushed Iran much closer to a potential nuclear bomb, anyone concerned about Israeli security should presumably rejoice at the prospect of a revived deal. Indeed, why else would a growing chorus of Israel’s senior intelligence and military officials vocally support the deal, arguing that it is good for the country’s security? A case in point is former Military Intelligence Director Major General (Res.) Tamir Hayman, who concluded that “reaching a deal is the right thing [to do].”
But the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is only part of what detractors of the deal mean when they speak of Israeli security.
The other frequently repeated charge is that the JCPOA’s full implementation and the subsequent lifting of crippling sanctions on Iran would have replenished its depleted coffers and, thus, undermined Israeli security by enhancing Tehran’s ability to finance and arm militant groups in places like Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. This line of reasoning was adopted by a group of U.S. Senate Republicans when they discouraged President Joe Biden from negotiating a return to the deal.
But will a JCPOA revival inevitably jeopardize Israel’s security by strengthening Iran’s regional allies and proxies?
Israel’s near-total domination of the Palestinian territories has left it with two main potential challenges emanating from Gaza: close-in combat between Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ground troops and militants as well as the lesser threat posed by self-propelled projectiles launched at Israel from Gaza.
Israel’s Operation Protective Edge (2014) bore an important lesson: The greatest security threat to Israel emanated not from the exceedingly primitive Palestinian “rockets” but from land warfare. Indeed, military fatalities on the ground — rather than standoff projectiles — accounted for 90% of Israel’s total death toll.
The true extent of Iran’s involvement in enhancing Gazan militants’ capacity to conduct ground warfare is uncertain. Nor is it clear if and how U.S. sanctions have substantially affected this supposed Iranian involvement. What is certain is that Palestinian militants can only cause substantial IDF casualties during an Israeli ground assault on the Gaza Strip.
It is also uncertain how U.S. sanctions on Iran keep Israelis safe from Palestinian cross-border barrages. For one thing, the projectiles are extremely ineffective, despite bombastic claims by Hamas about their supposed destructive power, sophistication, and range. One Israeli official has even dismissed them as “pipes” owing to their technologically unsophisticated state. Given the poor state of these rockets, it strains credulity to believe that Iran has been playing a major part in developing this program. Indeed, even a marginal Iranian role in the Palestinian “rocket” program should have caused a detectable leap in the ballistic capabilities of Gazan militants. But thanks in large part to Israel’s almost impenetrable blockade, this has not come to pass. To better appreciate just how limited Iranian influence in Gaza is, one need only look at Yemen, where Iran’s support for the Houthi drone and missile programs proved decisive in turning the tide of war against the Saudis and their allies.
But it is not just the quality of Palestinian projectiles that has remained largely unaffected by U.S. sanctions on Iran. Their quantity, too, appears disconnected from the relative health of the Iranian economy. In 2014, during Israel’s 50-day offensive in Gaza, more than 4,500 projectiles were fired at Israel. During Israel’s 11-day offensive in May 2021, more than 4,300 projectiles were fired. In other words, in 2021 militants could fire four times as many projectiles as they could in 2014. For the better part these seven years, Iran’s economic situation was under intense pressure from multiple waves of U.S. sanctions and the scourge of COVID-19. But the number of projectiles fired at Israel per day not only did not decrease but quadrupled.
Of course, JCPOA critics will say, even if we accept that the impact of sanctions on Iranian military assistance to the Palestinians has been marginal, Iran’s strategic challenge to Israel via Lebanon and Syria is indisputable. Surely, goes their reasoning, suffocating the Iranian economy should impact Tehran’s ability to shore up Lebanese Hezbollah and military allies in Syria.
It is true that Iran’s military allies in Lebanon and Syria are militarily and financially far more dependent on Tehran than militant groups in Gaza. But does this mean that lifting sanctions on Iran will result in strengthening these groups to the point that they could threaten Israel’s security?
Even assuming that lifting sanctions on Iran will drastically enhance its ability to funnel money and arms to militant groups in Lebanon and Syria, there are still immovable bottlenecks on how far Iran could go in assisting these allies. Yes, a Tehran free from sanctions would probably be better placed to cultivate new local military partnerships; financially sponsor partners; provide military training to those partners; help build military infrastructure such as garrisons, tunnel networks, and arms manufacturing plants; and transfer game-changing military hardware such as missiles, drones, and air defense systems. But even if all these capacity-building measures were to materialize, they would at best constitute a deterrent, a wrench in the cogs of the potent Israeli war machine in the event of a full-scale military conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Israel would continue to maintain near-total dominance on sea, air, and land within its internationally recognized borders, regardless of whether U.S. sanctions hurt the Iranian economy or not.
The lifting of sanctions could, however, threaten Israel’s capacity to swiftly and decisively preclude potential military threats inside Lebanese and Syrian territories without suffering painful losses. This might further erode Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Iran and its allies, thus unsettling a longstanding tenet of Israeli strategic thinking: that Israel must at all times be able and willing to eradicate even the most embryonic challenge to its military superiority deep inside enemy territory. But this is a far cry from constituting a serious and immediate threat to Israel’s existence.
Sajjad Safaei is a postdoctoral fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His writings on U.S. foreign policy, Middle Eastern affairs, and non-proliferation have appeared in outlets such as Foreign Policy, Responsible Statecraft, Al Jazeera, Le Monde, and The National Interest.
Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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