A False Alarm in Israel Is a Warning for Biden and the JCPOA

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It was a scare fit for a Tom Clancy novel: On Wednesday night air-raid sirens went off near the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. Happily, the services of Jack Ryan were not required. Israeli military officials say it was a false alarm. 

But U.S. President Joe Biden would do well to take it as a real warning. Even as his administration contemplates sanctions relief for Iran, the klaxons around Dimona are a sobering reminder that the nearby threat from Iran is not limited to its uranium-enrichment program. Its more conventional military activities in Israel’s neighborhood are a pressing threat that should be front and center in any American diplomatic outreach to the Islamic Republic. 

Reports from Vienna, where the world powers are negotiating with Iran to return to the terms agreed to in their 2015 nuclear deal, suggest the Biden administration is softening its position. Whereas American officials initially made the easing of U.S. sanctions conditional on Tehran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, they are now signaling a willingness to discuss the relaxation of some restrictions in order to facilitate more talks.

Apparently lost in the shuffle of diplomacy is another Biden precondition: that Iran agree to follow-on negotiations over its other malign activities, including its support of terrorist groups and sectarian militias across the Middle East, its support for the Syrian regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad and its missile program. Tehran has repeatedly rejected this request.

Iranian missiles, militias and Assad all factor into the scare in Dimona.

The sequence of events reportedly began with Israeli air strikes in Syria against stockpiles of weapons, including missiles, stored by Tehran’s local proxies. Iran has been using groups such as Hezbollah, as well as elements in Assad’s military, to build up a substantial arsenal in Syria, from where it can hit cities in Israel. In response, the Israeli military routinely conducts clandestine missions and airstrikes against the Iranian arsenal and outposts in Syria: Over 500 such targets were hit in 2020 alone.

Last night’s strike was met by a barrage of Syrian surface-to-air missiles, a not-infrequent occurrence. Although none of them seems to have hit an Israeli aircraft, one missile flew as far as the northern Negev desert, in the general direction of Dimona, where it set off alarms. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces deployed anti-missile rockets to intercept the Syrian projectile — and, for good measure, launched another air strike against the battery from which it came.

That, at any rate, is the IDF’s version of how it went down.

Even though the Syrian missile was a stray, its timing invited other interpretations. After all, it has been less than two weeks since an Israeli operation reportedly disabled an Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz, south of Tehran. It has long been assumed that the Iranians would not dare target Israeli nuclear infrastructure, for fear of international opprobrium and the likelihood of massive retaliation by the IDF. But Iranian officials have sworn to exact vengeance for the disruption of Natanz and last November’s assassination of the top Iranian nuclear weapons scientist. Prominent hard liners in the regime have called for an “eye-for-an-eye” attack on Dimona.    

The widening Iranian footprint in Syria greatly increases the chances of such an attack. But even if Dimona remains out-of-bounds, the missile stockpiles — and reportedly, research and manufacturing facilities — that the Islamic Republic and its proxies are building in Syria are a growing menace that Israel can’t ignore.

The greatest threat comes not from stray rockets fired off by Assad’s forces but from precision-guided Iranian missiles assembled in Syria and supplied to Tehran’s catspaws in the country or in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. And they don’t need to target Dimona in order to do great harm, whether in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East.

Preventing such an outcome ought to be a high priority for the Biden administration and the other world powers represented at the talks in Vienna. Last night’s events should serve as a reminder that a deal limited to its nuclear program will not greatly limit the danger Iran represents.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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