Israel and Iran edge closer to war, but experts say conflict isn't inevitable

A top Pentagon official testified earlier this week that Tehran has made 'remarkable' progress in enriching uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapon.

(Photo Illustration: Jack Forbes; Photos: Amir Levy/Getty Images, Iranian Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Getty Images (4))
(Photo Illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Amir Levy/Getty Images, Iranian Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Getty Images (4))
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WASHINGTON — Escalating tensions between Iran and Israel have brought the two countries to the verge of war. While experts disagree on the probability of military conflict between the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic, they agree that the present moment is rife with potential pitfalls.

Iran could be approaching the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon; a top Pentagon official testified earlier this week that Tehran has made “remarkable” progress and could be within 12 days of enriching sufficient uranium for a nuclear weapon.

In response, Israel is preparing for military intervention to stop what it and many Western nations believe could be a disastrous development that should be prevented at all costs.

But war could be disastrous, too.

“This is a very, very dangerous situation,” said Bernard Avishai, a professor of government at Dartmouth, who has written extensively on Israel.

The question being asked in Washington and other world capitals is whether the danger today is truly greater than it has been in recent years, or whether the threat of war is being overstated for political ends.

Maybe there is truth to both views.

“The posturing is part of the strategy,” Avishai told Yahoo News. But he and others cautioned that the messaging has appeared to be growing more bellicose as Tehran has continued to enrich uranium to ever greater levels and Israel has responded by signaling an increasing willingness to strike Iranian nuclear facilities at Fordow, Isfahan and Natanz. Those facilities are all heavily fortified; to effectively disrupt the work now taking place there, Israel would have to unleash immensely powerful weapons whose deployment could unleash global (not to mention regional) blowback.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by officials and bodyguards, walks into a hearing.

If Iran was finally able to manufacture enough weapons-grade uranium to place a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, it would instantly represent a dramatically elevated threat to global peace. No country would feel that threat more deeply than Israel, a nation founded in the wake of the Holocaust.

Speaking to a Jewish group in Los Angeles in 2006, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was Israeli prime minister at the time, explicitly tied the genocide that gave rise to Israel in the 20th century to the greatest threat Israel faced in the 21st. “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs,” he said.

The presidency of Barack Obama was geared towards restoring U.S. ties in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe that had been ruptured by George W. Bush and his anti-terrorism campaign. Obama and Netanyahu never got along; the question of how to best curb Tehran’s push to enrich fissile material for a nuclear weapon emerged as an especially contentious issue between them.

During his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, Netanyahu displayed a cartoon rendering of a bomb symbolizing Iran’s accelerating nuclear program. He drew a red line near the bomb’s narrowing stem, meant to represent uranium enriched to weapons-grade 90% purity, in order to make his point that everything had to be done to keep Iran from that achievement.

“Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war,” Netanyahu told the world leaders gathered before him.

A middle-aged man, seen from behind, peers into a pile of debris from a shattered building after an Israeli missile attack.
A man checks the damage from an Israeli missile attack inside the historic citadel in Damascus, Syria, on Feb. 20. (Ammar Safarjalani/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Today, Netanyahu is — improbably — once again Israel’s leader, having been ousted in 2021 amid a flurry of ethical charges, only to return earlier late last year as the head of a far-right nationalist coalition.

Once again, he and his administration are warning of a nuclear Iran.

“If the United States does not establish a credible military threat immediately, either Israel will attack, or Iran will have a nuclear weapon, which we will not allow under any circumstance,” Israel's defense minister Eli Cohen recently said.

Some dismiss Netanyahu’s threats as tactical bluster. This time, however, his warnings come after years of diplomatic efforts that failed to stop Tehran from enriching uranium for military uses. At the same time, deepening Western anger at Iran’s support for Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine could present Israel with a rare opportunity to escape international condemnation, should it decide to attack.

“Israel’s appetite for risk seems to have increased” in “the last several months,” political scientist Dalia Dassa Kaye of the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles wrote in a recent analysis for Foreign Policy.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has “held a series of secret high-level meetings with top military officials aimed at upping preparations for a possible confrontation with Iran,” according to a report from the Israeli television network Keshet 12.

After CIA Director William J. Burns arrived in Jerusalem late last month, Israel launched a devastating drone attack on a military depot in the Iranian city of Isfahan, which also contains part of the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

A bright blast in a low building seen from the other side of a city street, with three passers-by gathered to watch.
Eyewitness footage shows what is said to be the moment of an explosion at a military industry factory in Isfahan, Iran, on Jan. 29, in this still image obtained from a video. (West Asia News Agency via Reuters)

Iran retaliated by attacking an Israeli tanker in the Arabian Sea with a “kamikaze” drone.

Israel then launched a deadly airstrike at a residential neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, where Iranian military experts were said to be conducting meetings.

“Neither side is suicidal,” says Iran expert Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. But absent hard diplomatic constraints, he added, both sides are free to test each other. “They don’t know what the new red lines are. They’re doing trial and error. And at some point, there will be an error,” Parsi told Yahoo News.

After the attack on Isfahan, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps unveiled a new ballistic missile with Hebrew lettering on its side. “Death to Israel,” the message said.

The question in 2023 is whether reality is about to catch up to rhetoric, whether a situation that both countries say is intolerable will suddenly become unbearable and erupt into bloodshed.

Israel says the West needs to take a harder line with Iran to keep that from happening.

“Diplomacy without the backbone of credible pressures, including a credible military threat, will not give the result that all of us want,” an Israeli official told Yahoo News, speaking on the condition of strict anonymity.

Officials in both Europe and the United States are coming around to that view, even if they haven’t done so as quickly or thoroughly as Israeli leadership might have liked. While they have certainly not encouraged an Israeli strike on Iran, some European leaders and American legislators appear to accept that a full-blown clash could be coming.

Thousands of U.S. and Israeli service members recently participated in Juniper Oak 23.2, billed as the largest joint military exercise between the two countries. It included a total of 142 aircraft, a show of force clearly intended to send a message.

“It would not surprise me if Iran sees the scale and the nature of these activities and understands what the two of us are capable of doing,” an American defense official told NBC News ahead of the war game.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at the microphone.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran on Feb. 8, as part of the 44th anniversary commemoration of the Iranian Revolution. (Iranian Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

At the same time, Iran is engaging in what National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described last week as “unprecedented defense cooperation” with Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine has left it few other allies. Kirby told reporters that “Iran is seeking billions of dollars worth of military equipment from Russia,” including fighter jets, in exchange for providing the Kremlin with Shahed-136 drones and Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles.

“Certainly, it’s not good for the Middle East,” Kirby said. Iran has foes other than Israel in the area, Saudi Arabia foremost among them. But the desire to rid the region of the world’s only Jewish state is less a policy goal for Tehran than an overarching commitment. In 2020, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s top cleric, deemed Israel a “cancerous tumor,” echoing rhetoric that has changed little in its intensity since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency believe that Iran has enriched uranium to 84% purity, just short of the 90% mark needed to create a functioning nuclear weapon. Iran has denounced that finding as a “conspiracy,” but its progress in enriching uranium throughout the last several years has been well documented.

That progress was supposed to come to an end in 2015, when Iran agreed to what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or, colloquially, “the Iran deal”). Tehran would drop its ambitions to create a nuclear weapon; in exchange, the West would lessen crippling sanctions.

But less than two years later, newly elected President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord, thus weakening the deal to the point of uselessness. Netanyahu cheered the move, but other top Israeli officials did not, arguing that it made little sense to release Iran from the very oversight that was supposed to act as a brake.

“Looking at the policy on Iran in the last decade, the main mistake was the withdrawal from the agreement,” former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told the newspaper Haaretz in 2021.

Proponents of the JCPOA invested their hopes in President Biden, who had vowed to restore the deal. At first, he looked to be making good on his word. By August 2022, American and Iranian negotiators appeared to be reaching a new agreement.

Helicopters fly during a military exercise in Isfahan, Iran, in this handout image obtained on September 8, 2022. Iranian Army/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Helicopters fly during a military exercise in Isfahan, Iran, in this handout image obtained on September 8, 2022. Iranian Army/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Then, on Sept. 13, a Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini was detained in Tehran by Iran’s morality police for refusing to wear a headscarf. The nation erupted in protests that recalled 2009’s “green revolution.” Security forces killed hundreds of protests demanding greater freedoms. But the protests only continued, inspiring support from all over the world.

If a revived JCPOA had seemed like a real possibility only months before, the negotiations were all but over by early 2023.

“We’re not focused on the Iran deal right now,” NSC spokesman Kirby acknowledged in January. “Iran decided that they weren’t going to take the negotiation seriously and, instead, decided to brutalize their own people and to support Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

Kirby reiterated that Biden “has been clear that we are not going to allow Iran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability. He’s serious about that.”

But the Israelis want to know just what that means. On the one hand, sources told Yahoo News, they have concluded that Iran’s ruling regime will not survive. At the same time, a confrontation with Israel could help Iran’s government shore up support at home at a precarious time.

"There are elements in the Iranian government who believe that some form of an attack by Israel at this point can be the kind of thing that would save them from their domestic legitimate crisis,” Parsi of the Quincy Institute says.

“An attack by the Israelis — that might not be a bad thing in the view of some Iranian hardliners.”

It is hardly a consensus that the two nations are headed toward war. For all their anti-Israel bluster, Iranian political and religious leaders recognize that the Israeli Defense Force is among the most powerful militaries in the world. And attacking Israel would almost certainly provoke a response from the United States, as the Juniper Oak exercises were plainly intended to demonstrate.

A protester punches his fist through an Israeli flag as Iranians burn flags during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“The Iranians are not stupid. They are not suicidal,” said Daniel R. DePetris, an analyst with Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank that tends to be skeptical of Washington’s foreign policy consensus.

A full-blown conflict could prove just as disastrous to Israel, a small and already isolated nation with far more regional enemies than friends. “I don’t see a guy who’s itching to launch a military operation against the Iranians,” DePetris said of Netanyahu.

Still, the Israelis are clearly getting impatient with the status quo. They see both promise and peril in Iran’s instability. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is facing a growing protest movement of his own, prompted by his controversial anti-democratic judicial reforms and escalating violence in the West Bank. Just like his counterparts in Tehran, he may conclude that a foreign confrontation could help alleviate his domestic problems.

Only a shared recognition of the near-certain ravages of war may ultimately help to keep the peace, however tenuous and uneasy.

“There’s a degree of pragmatism that underscores everybody’s approach to this problem,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who worked as a State Department analyst and historian for more than two decades. Even though there are presently “no prospects for diplomacy,” Miller said, he was just as skeptical about an imminent outbreak of full-blown war.

Unless "somebody makes a serious mistake," Miller cautioned. "And that is certainly possible.”