How to avoid nuclear escalation as a confident Iran and insecure Israel square off

By Assaf Zoran | February 23, 2024

Iran fires a Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile during an undated test. The Shahab-3 has a range of 2,000 km, enough to reach Israel. Missile forces are a key part of Iran's security concept. (Credit: Fars News Agency, via Wikimedia Commons)

Last November, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided insights into the sustained and unprecedented progress of Iran’s nuclear program, including the alarming update about a speed-up in its uranium enrichment. While the ongoing conflict in the Middle East continues to capture both regional and global attention, the IAEA report serves as a striking reminder that the Iranian nuclear challenge persists, and with it a substantial risk of regional escalation.

Two opposing dynamics are at play in the region: a growing Iranian confidence in its long-term strategy, and the erosion of Israeli confidence in maintaining its national security. These create fertile and perilous ground for a potential direct confrontation, in which the nuclear issue would be central.

It is time to change course, find alternatives to the ineffective current policies, and avoid a strategic mistake that will enable Iran to get closer to a nuclear weapon.

The United States and its allies should present Iran with a final proposal to return to an agreement framework for Tehran’s nuclear program; if declined, talks must be halted. This approach must be accompanied by alternative measures to diminish Iran’s confidence in the efficacy of its current aggressive strategy. Such measures should include clearly communicating a red line to Iran regarding progression toward weaponization of its nuclear program—and also communicating, through private back channels, that the United States has developed contingency plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and other targets important to the Iranian regime should the red line be crossed. It is equally crucial, however, to avoid cornering Iran in a manner that further incentivizes nuclear advancement, recognizing its need to maintain counter-leverage.

At the same time, any plan regarding the Iranian nuclear program must address Israeli concerns to help mitigate the risk of unilateral actions originating from Jerusalem. A provisional solution that sustains rivalry but establishes well-defined rules could prove advantageous for all parties involved and may pave the way for future substantial de-escalation.

Iran’s growing confidence. Since the Hamas attack on October 7, Iran has affirmed the effectiveness of its national security strategy, including patient and consistent encirclement of its adversaries including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and US forces. The current Middle East war reveals that Iran’s armed allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Gaza (known as the “axis of resistance”) showcase an offensive regional capability with growing willingness to challenge opposing countries.

Iran’s regime has also strengthened its public perception, positioning itself as a regional patron equivalent to the United States. In some Iranian military circles, the conflict is perceived as proof that weakening Israel is an attainable objective within its strategic reach.

In addition, Iran has gleaned that the United States is willing to increase power projection in the Middle East during a crisis and is maintaining strong support for Israel. Nevertheless, some argue that Tehran also perceives the United States as notably cautious, reluctant to engage in unilateral action, and willing to act against Iran’s proxies within coalitions, to avoid a direct confrontation.

From an operational point of view, Iran has obtained evidence from the Hamas attack that concealing and deceiving Israel on security matters is indeed feasible, even within Jerusalem’s immediate sphere of influence.

Israel on the other hand has undergone a national trauma due to the unprecedented scale, level of violence, and surprise of the Hamas attack. For many Israelis, the attack intensified the fundamental fear that external risks may evolve into an existential challenge that the country’s current national security strategy is insufficient to deter. Israelis increasingly recognize that the Iranian strategy to encircle Israel with threats is gaining momentum. Some argue that Iran’s actions serve as evidence of its profound hostile intentions and threat to Israel’s future.

The United States has now come to realize that the challenges in the Middle East will persist, contrary to what officials hoped until the Hamas attack. The region is highly volatile and will remain so for the foreseeable future, therefore necessitating continuous diplomatic and security attention.

Although neither Israel nor Iran seems to seek a direct confrontation, the recent fighting, the consistent trends toward escalation in recent years, and the evolving geopolitical landscape are all pushing toward a more precarious outcome.

Wargame simulated a conflict between Israel and Iran: It quickly went nuclear

Iran gears up. Iran’s security concept is shaped by the synergy of its regional proxy strategy, latent nuclear deterrent, and military focus on missiles and drones—elements that interconnect.

The recent success of the “axis of resistance” strategy may amplify Iranian confidence in its efficacy. It could reinforce the belief that Tehran can navigate and mitigate the risks associated with an increasingly aggressive approach in the region. The absence of direct consequences for supporting belligerent allies may further solidify the perception of the righteousness of its strategic trajectory. This, in turn, might indirectly embolden assertiveness within other facets of the Iranian security concept, including the nuclear program, albeit not in the short term.

While Iran currently faces no immediate need to enhance its deterrence capacity, there is a looming concern that over time, the regime may succumb to a growing temptation to advance further in the nuclear field. Considering the limited response to its nuclear progress in recent years, Iran might seize the opportunity to gain experience and gradually normalize advanced capabilities, such as uranium metal production and uranium enrichment that produces bomb-grade fissile material.

The international community’s focus on other issues, coupled with Israel’s intelligence failure to foresee the October 7 attack, may inadvertently increase voices in Tehran advocating further advancement in Iran’s nuclear creep. This incentive might increase if both the United States and Israel keep their focus on severe challenges of domestic politics, and after regional tension relief that allows international attention to return to other arenas. The future expiration of limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, as agreed upon in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, may further enhance this trend.

In addition, a perceived failure in another component of its security apparatus could also motivate Iran to pursue advancements in its nuclear capabilities. This could be triggered, for instance, by an Israeli offensive action that significantly undermines the success of the “axis of resistance.” In such a scenario, hawkish elements within the Iranian regime might determine that nuclear capabilities—as opposed to the proxy strategy—offer a more sustainable and effective deterrent against adversaries.

A dramatic change in domestic or geopolitical conditions such as the risk-averse supreme leaders’ death or a normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia that allows Riyadh to possess a civilian nuclear program, might push Iran closer to such a shift.

Israel’s anxiousness. Israel’s heightened sense of threat compels it to reconsider the status quo, especially in Gaza and possibly in Lebanon. The demonstration of Israel’s weakness on October 7 may amplify calls in Jerusalem for more independent actions against what Israel sees as the “octopus head” in Tehran.

Current Israeli officials have been wary not to engage in unilateral moves that could endanger US interests. Although this cautious strategy may prevail, especially given the US support during the current Middle East fighting and considering the upcoming presidential elections in the United States, the trajectory may eventually change.

A shift in US policy vis a vis Iran, which includes a de facto abandonment of the fuel cycle limitations toward a focus on preventing weaponization, might raise concerns in Israel about a threat perception gap between the two nations.

A widening distrust between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government could potentially further prompt Israel to rely more on its own capabilities and consider unilateral action against Iran.

If Iran’s nuclear progress continues and approaches a threatening red line, the Israeli government, influenced by a heightened public threat perception, may feel compelled to implement its well-known preventive strategy, akin to past actions against nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. If Netanyahu’s right-wing government stays in power, and former President Donald Trump reenters office next year, the chances for such a move might increase.

Changing course. Adverting escalation dynamics between Israel and Iran in the nuclear realm will be one of the most central and complex challenges to the Middle East in the years to come.

Why Iran may accelerate its nuclear program, and Israel may be tempted to attack it

The primary objective should remain the pursuit of an agreement that diminishes Iran’s current fuel cycle capabilities and addresses the military dimensions of its nuclear program. Nevertheless, at present, the prospect of Iran and the United States reestablishing a sustainable agreement on the nuclear realm appears dim.

In the diplomatic realm, the United States and its allies should present Iran with a definitive and time-bound sincere offer to re-engage within an agreement framework, even if on a partial basis. Should Iran not accept this proposal, negotiations must be postponed until circumstances change, for example, after the presidential elections. Prolonged, inconclusive talks without tangible outcomes create ambiguity, undermine the credibility of alternative options, and allow Iran to exploit the absence of clear rules and consequences—as it showed in recent years.

In the event of failure to reach a long-lasting agreement, the US and its allies must implement alternative measures to impede Iran’s progress, with the prevention of nuclearization as the main priority. Simultaneously, addressing Israeli concerns regarding the nuclear program can help mitigate the risk of unilateral moves originating from Jerusalem.

A viable preventive strategy could base itself on eroding Iran’s confidence in the effectiveness of its aggressive approach while bolstering deterrent measures without triggering escalation. Accordingly, there should be an updated US contingency plan to target nuclear infrastructure and official regime targets, and its extent should be clearly but privately conveyed to the Iranian leadership, to establish a potential clear and substantial cost for regime stability.

By seeking a more risk-prone approach, the United States can reduce Iran’s confidence in advancing its nuclear program. Until 2015, such a muscular approach, combined with diplomacy, was used to prompt Iran to compromise, recalibrate its course on nuclear progress, and re-engage within an agreement framework.

The current crisis and US power projection in the Middle East can be leveraged as an opportunity to bolster the credibility of a new approach toward Iran. Maintaining a threatening presence in the region, even if intermittent, challenges Iran’s assumption of its ability to manage and mitigate the risks of its long-term strategy, especially if portrayed as a consequence of the violence originated by the “axis of resistance.”

It is crucial to reduce the risk of unilateral actions by Jerusalem against Iran, especially if an interim arrangement leaves Iran in an advanced technological state and places Israel in a passive position. The upcoming year should therefore be used to bolster Israel’s confidence in the existence of a future substantial Plan B against Iran’s nuclear program.

Given the profound mistrust between Iran and the West, and the challenges in reaching a lasting agreement, a provisional solution that maintains the status of conflict while establishing well-defined rules to prevent weaponization could prove advantageous for all parties involved. This approach would allow Iran to uphold an image of assertiveness and external rivalry, which can be attributed to domestic challenges. Simultaneously, Israel can gain security assurances from the United States on a matter of existential importance while keeping some maneuvering room, whereas the United States can project power, focus attention on other rivals, and avoid intense criticism at home.

This delicate equilibrium has the potential to establish a new status quo and, in the long term, may serve as a foundation for future de-escalation initiatives.

In conjunction with the proactive measures needed to counter the Iranian nuclear threat, it may be prudent for those addressing this challenge to incorporate, to some extent, the strategic patience observed by the Iranian regime itself.

The ongoing internal processes indicating public disaffection with the Iranian regime are anticipated to persist and potentially intensify in the coming years. Whether this takes three, five, or 15 years, the most significant potential for a sustainable alteration in the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear advancement lies in a natural change within the current hawkish regime.

After several years of attempts failed to yield the desired results and the risks of escalation intensify, current policies can no longer be relied upon uncritically. To avoid a strategic mistake in the Israel-Iran relations, it is time to consider alternatives.

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Musa Ahmed
Musa Ahmed
4 months ago

These views postulated about the presume escalation between Israel and Iran, was insensitive to the plight of the Palestinian people. The perpetual bombardment on Gaza killing innocent children and women, while the US continue supporting the Israel government with weapons, is insensitive. Let the Israel face their equal or better still allow the Palestinians have their state with it’s own army. The war in Gaza is never a war but genocide

4 months ago

Why Israel can have nuclear weapons and Iran can not ?
Is not this a flagrant double standard ?
Is not the actual Israel regime a hawkish regime ?
How to achieve a denuclearized Middle East if one actor
can have nuclear weapons and another cannot ?
Is this the way to peace ?
What about Palestine and the occupying power ?
Until when to look at the world from the Western perspective ?
the bells are tolling. It’s time to listen to them.