The US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was an immense personal achievement for former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a leaked video, he boasted that he had personally convinced Donald Trump to scrap the 2015 accord between Tehran and world powers.
“I had to stand up against the whole world and come out against this agreement,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud party in the clip from 2018. “And we didn’t give up.”
But four years on, the Israeli leader has been booted out of office – as has Trump. Both Congress and the Knesset contain more leftwing voices, while in Iran, moderate Hassan Rouhani lost last year’s presidential election to hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
International negotiators in Vienna are edging closer to what amounts to a watered-down version of the original deal. In the process, what a short time ago was believed by many Israelis to be Netanyahu’s major geopolitical victory has instead become a growing source of concern for Israel’s political and security establishment.
“The US has tried maximum pressure with sanctions, Israel has assassinated nuclear scientists and carried out attacks designed to limit Iranian military activity around the region. But none of it has worked,” said Danny Citrinowicz, who led Israel’s military intelligence research between 2013 and 2016.
“All it’s done is push Iran forward with its nuclear programme. Now we are out of options, and I worry that Israel and Iran are on a collision course in the near future.”
The 2015 agreement spearheaded by Barack Obama lifted crippling international sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s economy in exchange for 10-15 years of curbs on its nuclear activities.
Since it unravelled in 2018, Iran has raced ahead with uranium enrichment. Although the Iranian government maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful, experts generally agree that should it choose to, Tehran could possess functional nuclear weapons within two years.
The restored deal is set to maintain the original’s timeframes, meaning limits on uranium enrichment will still expire in 2025.
For Israel, the outcome is much worse than the maligned 2015 accord.
Tehran has not just made significant technological progress, which will only be monitored for the next three years, it is also about to receive $7bn in released frozen assets, as well as sanctions relief on exports such as oil.
This money, Israel believes, will be funnelled to Iran’s proxies across the region, and the international legitimacy conferred by the nuclear accord could encourage the Islamic Republic to be bolder in its regional ambitions.
Israel is already engaged in longstanding land and air campaigns on its borders against Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iranian-funded groups in Syria and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, as well as maritime skirmishes targeting Iranian and Israeli cargo ships in the Red and Mediterranean seas.
Iran also holds sway over Shia militias in Iraq, and sees Yemen’s Houthi rebels as partners of growing regional importance. In January the Houthis proved their drones and missiles were capable of reaching Abu Dhabi – which means Tel Aviv could soon be a target within their reach.
“Iran is entrenched in many theatres in the region now, and it’s not only military – we are talking about economic and cultural ties too. Combined with the proliferation of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones] and UASs [unmanned aerial systems], this is hybrid warfare,” said an IDF official who asked not to be named.
“If they want to hurt Israelis, they already have numerous axes to attempt it.”
Compared with the Netanyahu era, this time around Israeli officials have been watching quietly on the sidelines as the nuclear negotiations unfold. Aware there is little it can do to influence the outcome, the Israeli government instead appears to be pushing its US allies for a bilateral day-after agreement to address Israeli worries.
This week, President Naftali Bennett reiterated Israel’s longstanding position that the country “will always maintain its freedom of action to defend itself”.
In November the Knesset passed a budget featuring a 7bn shekel (£1.6bn) increase in spending for the defence establishment to prepare for the threat posed by Iran. Israel is also poised to deepen security ties with its new Abraham Accords partners in the Gulf, who also fear Iranian military capability: this month, a security pact was signed with Bahrain.
And while bringing the nuclear deal with Iran back to life may represent a limited success for the Biden administration, the stakes in the Middle East are still rising.
“These issues don’t exist in isolation any more. For example, during Operation Guardian of the Walls [the May 2021 war between Hamas and Israel], we saw that you can’t just attack Hamas. Hezbollah got involved too, and we had rocket fire from Lebanon,” said Citrinowicz.
“We are active in the shadow war, but we must preserve the rules of the game. If we do something dramatic in Iran, like striking nuclear facilities, it will trigger a severe escalation on many fronts.”