The conclusion of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal—formally the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”—last year has created a new and profoundly different set of strategic realities across the Middle East. While this shift is hardly irreversible, it is moving rapidly, and, by the time the next American president figures out where the restroom is in the White House, the process will, like quick-drying cement, be well set.
Among the new realities will be the fact that Israel’s opportunity to act unilaterally—or, say, in concert with Saudi Arabia—to preempt further development of Iran’s nuclear program will have passed. This Israel-alone option was never very likely in the first place, despite the muscular rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the hope among some Americans that Israeli pressure would induce the United States to admit the necessity of such a campaign. But the Obama Administration’s commitment to the Iran deal all but eliminates the key element of international support, the geopolitical top cover that might make Israeli action feasible. The constraints that all future U.S. presidents will face are written in Hillary Clinton’s support for the deal; despite issuing statements larded with caveats, it’s clear that the Democratic candidate has no intention of bucking her increasingly left-leaning party—or Obama, whose blessing she desperately needs—on a “legacy” achievement.
Moreover, the underlying rationale for the Iran deal—that there is a grand opportunity to habituate the revolutionary regime in Tehran to the international order, to transform the Islamic Republic into a “normal” nation—is likewise entrenched, if only because the West wants it to be true (and, through the JPCOA, the West has made a giant wager on the proposition). Already, the Obama Administration has looked the other way despite Tehran’s direct violations of the deal, notably on ballistic missile testing, and its stepped-up drive, in Iraq and Syria, for regional hegemony. And there have been no consequences for taking Americans hostage, including U.S. Navy sailors, or buzzing U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. In sum, Obama has reversed the course of American strategy in the region, distancing himself from Israel, the Saudis, and other mainstream Arab states in an effort to reach an accommodation with Tehran. Speaking through his amanuensis Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic magazine, the president told the Gulf Arabs they must learn to “share the neighborhood” with Iran.
This is not to say that there could not be circumstances under which Israel might perceive an imminent Iranian nuclear threat that trumped its long-term strategic partnership with the United States, or that Netanyahu’s dire warnings—expressed forcefully in his March 3, 2015 speech to Congress—don’t reflect deeply felt Israeli worries. And it is further true that Obama’s “pivot toward Tehran” has forced former close U.S. allies—and past adversaries—like Israel and the Gulf states to explore greater partnerships. But these can never, for either Israel or the Gulf monarchies, provide what—at least until now—the relationship with the United States does. In sum, the geopolitical risks for Israel in a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program have always been daunting, and the JPCOA makes them more so.
It’s also likely that whatever military window of opportunity was open, which made such a campaign worth the political risk, is closing, if not closed altogether. The JPCOA gives the Iranians a kind of “time out” to reshape their nuclear project into something more militarily and strategically useful by improving the variety, accuracy, and range of their missile arsenal and reducing the size of their potential warheads. There’s good reason to think that Tehran will adhere closely enough to the terms of the agreement, because the likely reward will be a much more effective deterrent, one that can be fielded in a rapid way to present a strategic fait accompli at the end of the road.
The one unilateral road that might remain open to Israel is a computer-based attack, as with the so-called “Stuxnet” virus. Indeed, in that case, the Israelis angered their American partners by spreading the virus more broadly and aggressively, likely leading the Iranians to discover the attack more rapidly. And much of the investment in the project, formally known in the Bush Administration as “Olympic Games,” was made by the United States. Whether the Israelis could have conducted the program unilaterally is impossible to assess.
But the most lasting effect of the JPCOA is the change it has wrought on strategic competition in the Middle East. It has opened a path for Iran to achieve its strategic goal of regional domination, possibly without resort to a fielded nuclear capability at all; its nemesis, the Great Satan United States, has retreated a very long way from where it stood in 2009. Iran also is reaping the rewards of strategic cooperation with Russia and has good reason to think it might entice the Chinese into some sort of similar, if less explicit, arrangement. What Israel—and the Gulf Arab states as well—now face is less the threat of instant annihilation than a grinding war of incredible complexity. And in this struggle they increasingly feel abandoned by the United States.
One reason that Israel has been able to survive in a hostile world is a kind of dry-eyed Clausewitzian ability to recognize the nature of the conflicts they face. Yes, Israeli leaders have made tactical errors, like everyone else. But they have demonstrated a remarkable strategic adaptability in the presence of a dizzying array of adversaries, from conventional Arab armies to Hezbollah irregulars to tiny-but-vicious terrorist groups. The post-JPCOA world again presents a new mix of challenges and a changed threat from Iran. Though it conceivably could come again, the moment for a strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has passed.