Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem, April 2021
Yonatan Sindel / JINI Xinhua / e​ye/Redux

Israel and Iran aren’t yet on the verge of a major escalation or war, and continued progress on the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna would likely forestall one, if Israel judges that trying to undermine a deal would exact too great a cost in its relations with Washington. But the factors that might well produce a significant blowup are now aligning in frightening fashion.

An April 11 explosion at the Natanz nuclear facilitypresumed to be the work of Israelwas a dramatic salvo in the shadow war over Iran’s nuclear program. In response to the attack, Iran ramped up its enrichment capacity. An errant Syrian missile landed near Dimona in Israel on April 22, and Israel struck back at the launch site in Syria. Such chains of events risk escalating, even unintentionally, to open conflict.

The Biden administration, understandably preoccupied with the politics of domestic recovery, has expressed its intention to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal but appears to be in no particular hurry to do so. Yet without intensified U.S. diplomacy designed to restrain both Israel and Iran, the administration could easily find itself drawn into a conflict it neither wants nor needs and that undermines its real priorities at home.

A Frustrated Iran

Briefing Congress on April 14, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines identified Iran as one of the four top threats facing the United States. She noted, “We expect that Iran will take risks that could escalate tensions and threaten U.S. and allied interests in the coming year.” That assessment rises in part from Iran’s growing frustrations at home and abroad. Sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy; COVID-19 cases are spiking; and Iran’s maximalist positionsdemanding the removal of all U.S. sanctions, including those consistent with the nuclear deal, while refusing to engage directly with Washingtonhave put sanctions relief out of reach for the moment.

Sooner or later, Israel will likely use military force to try to prevent Iran from weaponizing its enriched uranium.

To date, Tehran has been quite risk averse in responding to U.S. and Israeli strikes, including the assassination of a top Iranian scientist and the sabotage of Iranian nuclear sites. But that posture could change. Frustrated by the lack of sanctions relief and confounded by the ease with which Israel has penetrated its internal security, Iran may become more willing to take risks—much as it was in 1996, when it attacked a U.S. military installation in Saudi Arabia, and in the fall of 2019, when it struck Saudi oil facilities.

Iran’s decision to begin enriching uranium at 60 percent is a clear demonstration that the country has the capacity to get to 90 percent, which is weapons grade, relatively quickly. The fact of this capability by no means suggests that Tehran can build a bomb instantaneously or even has made the decision to do so. But if negotiations fail, Iran will continue to move forward with advanced centrifuges to create enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The Israeli government has issued stark warnings that a return to the nuclear deal without changes would be intolerable. If the United States and Iran return to compliance under these circumstances, the potential for escalation might increase. Sooner or later, Israel will likely use military force to try to prevent Iran from weaponizing its enriched uranium—and the United States will be dragged into the conflict.

Preoccupation and Constraint

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised a quick return to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. He probably shouldn’t have. He is confronting the most daunting task of national recovery of any president since Franklin Roosevelt, and domestic priorities and politics make reentry into the Iran nuclear deal particularly difficult.

Complicating the task are the policies of Biden’s predecessor, former U.S. President Donald Trump. The Trump administration imposed sanctions against Iran on human rights and counterterrorism grounds. Because these sanctions are not covered by the nuclear deal, a return to the agreement won’t make them disappear. Iran, however, has demanded that all these sanctions be lifted before it will comply with its nuclear obligations.

Little constituency exists in Washington for returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran on precisely the same terms as before. Republicans and even some crucial Democrats oppose it. All these factors, combined with the need to reserve political capital for the administration’s domestic agenda, have rendered Biden cautious and averse to taking risks with Iran’s nuclear development.  

A Desperate Calculus

Israel’s escalating actions against Iran reflect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security concerns and his increasing distrust of the United States. Netanyahu does not believe that the United States fully accounts for the threats that Iran’s nuclear program, missile capabilities, and support for terrorism pose to Israel. In his view, the draconian sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Iran upon its withdrawal from the deal should be given more time to shape Iran’s economy and political decisions. If, instead, the United States reenters the nuclear agreement without altering it to address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its activities in the region, Israel will find itself in an untenable position.

Escalation with Iran may prove attractive to Netanyahu as he faces domestic problems, including corruption charges and a political stalemate.

Netanyahu has reasons to be confident in his country’s ability to take these matters into its own hands. Unlike several years ago, when the Israeli military had a restraining influence, Netanyahu now enjoys the support of a hawkish army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi. Israel’s military capabilities vis-à-vis Iran are much more advanced than even a few years ago. Israel has secured flight routes over Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and ordered enhanced fuel tankers from the United States. Together, these advances dramatically improve the Israeli air force’s ability to fly repeated sorties against targets within Iran. In addition, Israel now has access to bases in the United Arab Emirates from which to conduct surveillance or raids against Iran, just across the Persian Gulf.

Moreover, escalation with Iran may prove attractive to Netanyahu as he faces domestic problems, including corruption charges and a political stalemate. The Israeli prime minister is too responsible to lead his country to war solely in order to escape his legal troubles. But he does stand to benefit, as the Israeli public would not want to encumber a wartime prime minister with a trial, which would likely be postponed, and as political opponents would be forced to rally around him in a national unity coalition.

America Into the Breach

There are no easy options available to the United States to divert a determined Netanyahu from the path of escalation that he is on. Netanyahu believes he knows how to handle Washington. He has considerable support within the Republican Party and among many Democrats; he also has calculated that the Biden administration will not want to jeopardize its domestic legislative agenda by engaging in a public dispute with Israel.

Indeed, the only U.S. policy that might deter Netanyahu from the path leading to war would be firm refusal and strong diplomacy. Washington would have to make Netanyahu understand that further escalation with Iran would damage U.S.-Israeli relations and that the administration will not back down in the face of domestic political pressure. At the same time, the administration would need to press the other signatories to the nuclear deal to tell Iran in no uncertain terms that its actions are provocative, that some of its positions in the Vienna talks are unreasonable, and that the clock is running out for returning to full compliance.

A firm stance with Israel and tough diplomacy on the nuclear deal just might allow the United States to avert the slide toward dangerous escalation between Israel and Iran.

Partnership at a Crossroads

Israel and Iran have temporarily settled into a low level, carefully calibrated conflict. Under these conditions, the Iranian nuclear program takes two steps forward and the Israelis push it at least one step back. With no brakes on its policy, Israel is likely to continue assassinations, cyberattacks, and bombings in order to hobble the Iranian program, frustrate U.S. efforts to reenter the nuclear deal, and dissuade Iranian authorities from returning to compliance. Israel will also continue to ramp up its military capability.

The scenario is an ugly one whose long-term stability may not hold, either because Israel’s real objective is to provoke an Iranian response that would provide cover for an attack on Iran’s facilities or simply because neither country’s strategy is as clever or finely tuned as it imagines. In September 2019, Iran launched a drone attack on the Saudi oil company Aramco, which took half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production offline in a matter of minutes and caught both Riyadh and Washington by surprise. Israel cannot know which of its incremental attacks will incur an Iranian response that could lead to spiraling escalationand no one knows what level of nuclear enrichment or accumulation of fissile material will trigger an all-out Israeli assault on Iran.

One way or another, escalation will suck the United States into a war it did not seek, at a time and place it did not choose. The Biden administration must make a decision. It can bet that a fragile stability will last until its legislative agenda is complete, in which case it does not need to intervene. Or it can step in now, on the assumption that the near-term consequences of a political confrontation with Israel and muscular diplomacy with Iran will be more manageable than the consequences of a war within the next two years.

This week, some of Israel’s most senior security officials—its national security adviser and director of military intelligence, along with the head of the Mossad—will visit Washington for intensive talks on Iran against the backdrop of Israeli concerns that Washington is not showing sufficient regard for Israel’s views. According to Israeli press reports, however, Israeli officials have been instructed not to talk about the details of current negotiations in Vienna over the nuclear deal. 

The Israeli government, pursuing its own strategy, is working at cross-purposes with a U.S. administration that sees its objectives as crucial to domestic cohesion and Middle Eastern stability. Netanyahu’s current campaign perpetuates the Israeli prime minister’s battles with Democratic presidents and undermines the cooperation that supposedly characterizes the two countries’ long-standing alliance. Perhaps U.S. and Israeli interests are simply incompatible. Israel’s prime minister surely has a duty to preserve his country’s security; but so does an American president. In the ebb and flow of international relations, the pivotal moments are not always obviousbut the crisis precipitated by the Israeli government’s open challenge to the United States surely looks like one of them.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • DANIEL C. KURTZER is former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
  • AARON DAVID MILLER is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.
  • STEVEN N. SIMON is Professor in the Practice of International Relations at Colby College and a Senior Analyst at the Quincy Institute and has previously served on the U.S. National Security Council and in the Department of State.
  • More By Daniel C. Kurtzer
  • More By Aaron David Miller
  • More By Steven N. Simon