There is little doubt that relations between the Obama administration and Israel are at a low point. As the Syrian red line turned to dust, so did Israeli confidence in American pronouncements regarding regional security in the Middle East. That perception is becoming endemic in Israel as 70% of Jewish Israelis do not trust President Obama to safeguard Israel’s vital security interests. In May of 2014, 61% expressed “confidence” in Obama; the slide has been precipitous.
There have been persistent reports of Obama moving to stop an Israeli strike on Iran. The President has been clear on his opinion that an attack option does not serve American or Israeli interests. Obama does not relate to the Israeli perception of a nuclear Iran as an existential threat.
With the recent announcement that Russia will sell its S-400 (upgraded S-300) defensive missile system to Iran and China, the situation with the Iranian nuclear program grows more complex. The manufacture, shipping, and set up of the S-400 system would likely take until the end of the year, thus defining the window of time available for either a diplomatic solution or the potential for Israeli military action against the Iranian program.
By most accounts outside of the administration, what we know of the construct of the Iranian nuclear deal leaves Iran with nearly all of its capabilities intact and a severely limited inspection regime. But Israel is reluctant to strike while negotiations are ongoing. The combination of ever-extending negotiations and the window for activation of the S-400 leaves Israel with, potentially, a very small window of opportunity, should they decide to go it alone.
The U.S. provided the IAEA with documentation of an Iranian weapons program, underway for some time, based on a laptop stolen in 2004 by the Iranian anti-regime group known as MEK. There have also been questions related to specific points of procurement by the Iranians, including shock wave software; training courses on neutron calculations, effects of shock waves on metal, isotope separation, and ballistic missiles; and a variety of other items that could be used to design, evaluate, and program nuclear devices. The IAEA referred to the procurement activities as “a matter of serious concern” in terms of the potential military dimension of Iranian nuclear activities. A debate evolved over whether the stolen technical drawings were of the “correct” warhead casing for the suspected program – but not over the Iranian effort to design a nuclear weapon for use on a ballistic missile. There was, of course, the mandatory theory that the Mossad had “planted” the evidence. In the interest of context, it was also the MEK that exposed previously unknown secret nuclear sites in Iran.
Iran responded (partially) at the time: the need for shock wave evaluation software was related to the study of aircraft and automobile collisions, airbags, and the design of safety belts. The Iranian response was interesting in light of the vast amount of open source material available for those disciplines, making it unnecessary to acquire them covertly.
Then there is the question of recent Iranian behaviors. The constant rhetorical pokes in the eye to Obama and his key negotiators; the immediate “misunderstanding” of the framework; Iran’s expansion into Yemen; the building and then attacking of a U.S. aircraft carrier model – and now the detention of a freighter registered to the Marshall Islands, which in theory comes under American protection.
Two potential options could explain Iranian intransigence: one, that the Iranians have taken the measure of Secretary Kerry and President Obama, leading to high confidence that they can get nearly anything they want out of this “deal” without much of a price to pay. Or, two, they already have what they have been negotiating over, a functional nuclear weapon.
If Iran has indeed already “broken out,” and is in possession of a nuclear device, Iran’s intransigent, confrontational behavior make sense.