Tel Aviv workshop on Israel and Iran after a summer of Regional Escalation

On 8 November 2019 Pugwash held a roundtable discussion on the situation in the Middle East in Tel Aviv, in cooperation with the Israeli Pugwash Group and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies.  The meeting was attended by 25 experts including former officials, academics, several embassy officials, local students, and a small number of international participants. The discussions included a central focus on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, the status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as well as analysis of the worsening regional situation more generally. The following is a summary of points raised during the discussions, as observed by the rapporteur.

The JCPOA and nuclear risks in the region

  • There remains considerable unease about Iran’s nuclear activities amongst the expert community in Israel and a clear sense that the escalation ladder leading to a conflict between Israel and Iran can be relatively short. People stressed that the consequences for Israel of a conflict with Iran must not be underestimated.
  • There was deep concern that any such conflict would be devastating for Israel, Iran, and the region at large. The aggressive attitude of Prime Minister Netanyahu was widely criticized as increasing the risk of a possible conflict.
  • The current rise and power of Iran in the region was seen as the result of the actions of others. US military interventions across the region in the past two decades in particular were perceived to have weakened Iran’s neighbours, allowing Iran to “jump in” to different situations.
  • Coupled with a recent strategy of disengagement from the region by the US, the developments have been interpreted as a negative signal to the Arab countries and allowed Iran to protect its own allies while expanding its influence throughout the Middle East.
  • Current US policy was viewed as “unsophisticated” and “catastrophic” – the scrapping of the JCPOA was viewed as “unwise” and the majority felt it was against Israeli interests, while subsequent policy vis-à-vis Iran is seen as ineffective to build a coalition to contain their perceived regional hegemonic ambitions.
  • The US abrogation of the JCPOA was acknowledged to be in part due to pressure of the Israel Prime Minister and one Israeli felt that other Israelis must recognize this rather than complain about moves by Iran to in turn step back on its obligations under the nuclear deal. Furthermore, it was pointed out that Israel has not condemned China or Russia for their maintaining the JCPOA.
  • In particular, the “maximum pressure” campaign of the Trump Administration has not been maximum and was deemed to have only strengthened national unity in the face of economic warfare and perceived humiliation. It was widely interpreted that Iran was waiting out the US election cycle with a clear intent not to embark on any negotiations with the current Administration.
  • The most recent action by Iran to recommence enrichment activities at the Fordow facility was widely viewed to be the most significant rollback of its JCPOA commitments. It provoked serious concerns amongst participants that the facility was designed not as part of a civilian nuclear program but explicitly toward producing heavily-enriched uranium for a possible weapons program.
  • A number of Israeli experts remain concerned about the so-called “Possible Military Dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program and believe it has serious significance for the health of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The regional situation

  • It was generally agreed that both Iran and Israel have developed a mutual acceptance that it is in both of their interests to maintain hostility toward one another. The “forward defence” strategy of Iran using local militants to attack Israeli interests was perceived to be a deterrence to Israel from taking action against the Iranian nuclear program; at the same time, most participants were seriously concerned with the presence of Iran in Israel’s immediate neighbourhood.
  • Given Iran’s rise, it was viewed as important that Israel cooperate with the Arab States while not appearing at the forefront of any of the regional conflicts. Many believed that Israel has been successful in building a coalition with many of the Arab States against Iran, but that Israeli officials have been too “crowing” about strikes against Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon which has only served to provoke further retaliation.
  • The attack on the Saudi Arabian Abqaiq oil refinery was understood as a clear signal that Iran has a sophisticated military-industrial complex and an emboldened approach. It was also understood that the lack of Saudi response to this event means Israel cannot rely upon Saudi strategic support.
  • Current Israeli policy toward the region was viewed with mixed outlooks: many believed that, in the same way that Israel “missed a chance” to direct regional change during and after the Iran-Iraq war, and similarly during the Arab Spring, by doing nothing to advance its interests, Israel is now influenced by events rather than leading change in accordance with a broader strategy. On the other hand, some believed that refraining from action in these turbulent times is in itself the more prudent strategy for Israel.
  • A number of participants raised whether now was the time to return to peace initiatives with its neighbours and in particular the Palestinians, and what effect this may have on Iran’s policies toward Israel.
  • The whole region, and the Gulf in particular, were viewed as “penetrated” by external actors. The US engagement was seen as increasingly “selective” and uncertain, while Russia’s more multilateral approach was viewed by some as encouraging of stability, in Syria in particular.
  • Nonetheless, the overall assessment was that many regional states are increasingly assuming a self-reliance that could provoke an arms race. It was hoped that external actors would rather seek to promote a regional security arrangement of some kind.