The United States this week resumed long-delayed indirect nuclear talks with Iran in a very weak position.
Recent meetings with senior defense officials from our closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel, were the most pessimistic I can recall. They perceive America as checked out, adrift, pusillanimous, unfeared and desperate to avoid military confrontation and Iran as emboldened and nearing the nuclear-weapons threshold. These conditions herald a major Israel-Iran war, and US and Israeli policies need to adjust to prepare for it.
In describing America’s woeful Middle Eastern position, Israeli officials kept repeating three words: Afghanistan, Tanf and Vienna.
Afghanistan. Senior Israeli defense officials sympathized with their American counterparts, knowing from Gaza and Lebanon that withdrawals are messy. But the Afghan exit and its execution signaled American indifference to allies’ concerns and regional retreat.
Tanf. On Oct. 20, in retaliation for an Israeli strike, Iranian proxies attacked the US outpost at Tanf in southern Syria. Fortunately, early Israeli warning prevented US casualties. Every Israeli official I spoke with was dismayed by America’s lack of response to this brazen assault, which confirms Iran’s assumption that it is less risky now to attack American than Israeli forces.
Vienna. That’s where nuclear talks are happening. Israeli officials believe America refrained from retaliating because Team Biden is desperate to return to the 2015 agreement or some lesser version of it. Indeed, whereas Israel seeks to prevent a nuclear Iran, President Joe Biden seems willing to acquiesce to it.
Israeli opinion is split on Vienna’s likely results. Some think Tehran still wants a deal because it leads to an internationally blessed nuclear capability. Others consider Tehran indifferent, believing America will do nothing to stop its progress toward nuclear threshold. No one thinks Washington will dictate Vienna’s outcome.
If no agreement emerges, Israel will soon face a stark dilemma: permit Iran to reach the nuclear threshold or prevent it militarily. This has always been the choice, with the nuclear deal, sanctions and sabotage only postponing it.
Buying time can be useful. Yet Israel might not have fully capitalized on it.
Israeli defense officials admitted to me they mistakenly believed, following the 2015 deal, that they had more than a decade to prepare for military action. They didn’t anticipate President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal, despite it being then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top priority and a subject of high-level US-Israeli discussions. Israel then had to accelerate planning and preparation, which the lack of a permanent government from 2019 to 2021 undercut. Despite their opposition to the deal, some senior Israeli defense officials acknowledged a new agreement that temporarily slowed or paused Iran’s nuclear program would offer more time to advance operational preparedness.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s left-right coalition government has increased funding for these preparations and reiterated Israel’s willingness to act alone, if necessary, to prevent a nuclear Iran. Yet, perplexingly, Bennett hasn’t sought greater US security assistance in exchange, for example, for backing off his criticism of Biden’s aims. Instead, he’s simply sought public displays of support from Washington, such as a friendly White House sitdown.
Some in the Israeli government might still hope that America will step in to prevent a nuclear Iran. But senior Israeli defense officials clearly harbor no such illusions and accept that it will be Israel’s burden alone.
The United States should lighten that burden by accelerating delivery of needed materiel. The Pentagon should move Israel to the head of the line to receive KC-46 aerial refueling tankers, for example, and expedite delivery of precision-guided missiles.
Team Biden might accept such a request, especially as compensation for accepting a new nuclear agreement. But it could well resist enabling any Israeli action against Iran. It’s not encouraging that the administration recently warned Israel against sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities and leaked that Israel was the source of a cyberattack in Iran.
Congress should press the administration to give Israel the tools it needs to prevent a nuclear Iran and prepare for the aftermath. Republicans, who are likely to take the House next year, and some moderate Democrats should support it.
American weakness in Afghanistan and Tanf has made a bad outcome in Vienna — and war — far more likely. Still, Washington is fortunate it can turn to Israel, which does not lack the will, but could use more means, to prevent a nuclear Iran, thereby advancing US interests as Jerusalem advances its own.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
Originally published in NY Post.