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Israel steps up military planning against Iran’s nuclear program

Recent reports on Iran accelerating its uranium enrichment are pushing Israeli leaders to inspect concrete plans.
Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media on the Iranian nuclear issue at the Foreign Ministry, Jerusalem, Sept. 9, 2019.

TEL AVIV — Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant agreed on Wednesday night on a multiyear defense budget, a large portion of which will be dedicated to preparations for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

Indeed, reports confirm that Israel is stepping up its preparations to attack Iran's military nuclear infrastructure. Since Netanyahu returned to power in late December, this possibility is being discussed on a practical level, reflecting the coveted goal of his career. As things look now, the question is not really whether Israel will attack Iran, but when it will do so and whether it will go it alone or with US logistical, political and perhaps even “kinetic” backing.

Israel’s top security brass took part this week in the Defense Ministry’s 2023 annual work plan conference, among them Gallant, Ministry Director General Maj. Gen. (Res.) Eyal Zamir and the head of the Ministry’s Political-Security Division, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Dror Shalom. Addressing the participants, all three agreed that a real war was being waged between Israel and Iran. Shalom, the most outspoken of the three, said Israel must shift gears and realize that it is already engaged in a war of varying intensity with Iran.

Gallant said that recent reports about Iran's 84% uranium enrichment level, within touching distance of military-grade level, is of great concern to Israel. He said that it was not clear at the moment whether Iran reached this level unintentionally as part of its accelerated research and development program, whether it was a local initiative by zealous scientists or based on the orders of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Either way, according to Shalom, the achievement suggests that Iran is capable of reaching a military nuclear breakout in a matter of weeks.

According to Shalom's analysis, even if it takes Iran two more years to develop a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile capable of carrying it hundreds and thousands of miles, Israel knows that the time frame for attacking Iran to counter this threat is shrinking.

According to Shalom, Iran's rush to achieve nuclear capability is similar to a heavily loaded freight train speeding along the tracks — right now, this train can still be hit, but it will soon enter a tunnel where it will be completely immune. Once it emerges on the other side of the tunnel, it will already be a nuclear state, he warned. According to the assessments voiced in this closed-door discussion, Israel must not let Iran achieve this immunity. We must stop this train ahead of time, Shalom said. Cooperation with the United States would be preferable, but even without such help, Israel cannot avoid such a move and will go it alone, he noted.

The conference included a detailed presentation of Israel's attack preparations, the means acquired and developed to carry it out, and the resources being invested in this action plan. Attacking Iran now will be far more difficult than it would have been had Israel taken advantage of the window of opportunity that opened up a decade ago.

Gallant stressed that Iran's nuclear infrastructure is no longer limited to one site or to low-grade centrifuges. Iran’s current nuclear program, he added, is an extensive industry comprising large infrastructure installations, research institutes, various enrichment sites and, of course, knowledge acquired by a large number of scientists and engineers. Gallant suggested that an Israeli attack should be creative, damaging the entire infrastructure, not just individual sites, as was the case with the previous two attacks that Israel mounted against nuclear-wannabe states Iraq and Syria. The message was clear: There are many different ways to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The conference discussions were by no means intended to deliver a public attack threat against Iran, the kind that Israeli leaders, especially Netanyahu, have often voiced over the past 15 years. Rather, it was an internal discussion in which senior Defense Ministry officials were given action plans and details of preparations for such an attack.

Since he returned to power almost two months ago, Netanyahu has already publicly threatened to attack Iran several times, although not with the intensity that characterized his threats in the past. While Gallant is not considered partial to military adventures, he will carry out his boss’ orders. Zamir, meanwhile, is the unknown figure among this trio at the top of Israel’s security hierarchy.

Zamir was a candidate for the post of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief, but former Defense Minister Benny Gantz preferred Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi, who took office Jan. 1. Zamir is considered close to Netanyahu. While Gantz was mulling over his choice for the army’s next top soldier, Zamir was in Washington as a research fellow at the Institute for Near East Policy, where he wrote a detailed position paper in 2022 titled “Countering Iran's Regional Strategy - A Long-Term, Comprehensive Approach.”

Zamir advocated not only an Israeli military attack on Iran, but also inflicting damage on its oil infrastructure and other sites considered the administration's "soft underbelly." Israel should adopt a policy of divide and rule both within Iran, targeting the various minority groups comprising its population, and outside Iran, and offer Iran's proxies incentives to walk away from the struggle with Israel. In Zamir's words, Israel should take "the approach of strategically differentiating Iran's regional proxies, driving a wedge between Tehran and its proxies, by proposing inducements to stop the activities of the proxies in the target countries."

Another interesting proposal by Zamir was "waging an ideological-cultural campaign to win the hearts and minds of the region’s sects, tribes and population groups, in a way that highlights the advantages, especially for Shiite communities, of moderate Islam and the values of democracy, as opposed to authoritarianism and dictatorship.”

However, these plans aside, Israel is currently facing completely different existential problems stemming from the Netanyahu government's rush to carry out a regime coup by overhauling the judicial system. The legislative blitz mounted by the government and Knesset is deeply divisive and poses detrimental implications for Israel’s security. Israel's Channel 13 TV reported this week that a reserve brigadier general, who plays a major command role when called up for reserve duty, announced that he would no longer perform reserve service.

There is growing evidence, especially in air force squadrons, of "gray insubordination" — dodging reserve duty that is the backbone of the IDF and, presumably, of any Iran attack plan. "If Israel ceases to be a democracy, I have no intention of standing up and fighting for it," a senior reserve squadron commander told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. There are many more like him. In other words, Netanyahu currently appears to have more burning and explosive problems to deal with than Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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