September 22, 2023 | Israel Hayom

Israel must not roll the dice when it comes to nuclear threats

If Israel's rejection of allowing enrichment in Saudi Arabia means the derailment of normalization deals, so be it. Israel should seek a deal that overcomes the problematic Saudi demand for an independent fuel cycle on the one hand, and minimizes the damage from the nuclear understandings with Iran on the other hand.
September 22, 2023 | Israel Hayom

Israel must not roll the dice when it comes to nuclear threats

If Israel's rejection of allowing enrichment in Saudi Arabia means the derailment of normalization deals, so be it. Israel should seek a deal that overcomes the problematic Saudi demand for an independent fuel cycle on the one hand, and minimizes the damage from the nuclear understandings with Iran on the other hand.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held important meetings with President Joe Biden this week, as well as with other world leaders. But the highlight will be his speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Assuming this will be like previous speeches, there is definitely something to look forward to.

The direct Iranian threat to Israel through its nuclear program and the continued development of long-range and accurate missiles and drones that carry heavy weaponry, the indirect threat coming from its proxies in the Middle East (Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and sometimes even the Palestinian Authority), and the continuing threat from Iran to the free world through its support and encouragement of terrorism, will all undoubtedly take center stage during Netanyahu’s speech at the UN.  He will also emphasize the wish for normalization with Saudi Arabia and other countries, the multi-front threats in the north, Gaza, and the West Bank, and the need to tone things down in the (legitimate) internal debate in Israel.

We must not confuse the world regarding what Israel’s real priorities are. The prime minister should put the onus on the US and Europe in light of the continued aggressive and negative behavior of the ayatollahs in Iran. The listeners must clearly understand that the effort to prevent a terrible agreement with Iran, even in the form of the recent “understandings,” has not been relegated by Israel to a low priority. However justifiable and important, the push toward Israel-Saudi-US normalization should in no way come at the expense of the acute need to stop Iran. The meeting with the president and Mohammed bin Salman’s interview made it clear that the reported suspension of talks with the Saudis was false.

Parts of the agreements with Saudi Arabia are linked to dealing with the Iranian nuclear program and must not be separated from it; on the contrary, proper linkage will lead to a win-win.

Despite the reports about (legitimate) continued attempts at persuasion, led by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, it seems that the discourse regarding a narrow defense pact between the US and Israel has lost momentum, mainly due to a lack of American (White House) motivation to promote an alliance at this time, which is a very good thing, as I detailed in previous articles. The drawbacks of such an alliance far outweigh the advantages.

Riyadh’s main demands for an agreement with the US are security guarantees, based on a defense agreement along the lines of the Asian model, mainly against Iranian aggression; advanced weaponry deals; a free trade zone, and more. These are demands that Israel can accept, assuming its qualitative military edge (QME) is maintained.

On the other hand, the demands for “civilian nuclear power” are problematic The demand is for a full nuclear fuel cycle capability, on Saudi soil. The “civilian justification” for such a request is the tapping of natural resources, i.e., mining uranium and transforming it into “yellowcake,” converting it to gas (UF6), and enriching it to the level necessary to produce nuclear fuel rods for power reactors (generating electricity), for local use and export.

Make no mistake, as many do: The Saudis have not asked for nuclear power reactors for the sake of generating electricity, as the Chinese, for example, are offering them. That would not pose a problem, if the reactors and their fuel sources came from the outside the kingdom and were taken out after they were used (like the reactor that Russia supplied Iran at Bushehr). The problem is that the Saudis seek a full fuel cycle on their soil, including enrichment.

The Saudis are ready for any supervision and control measures imposed by the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent a future shift to a military program. Despite all the reports about experts from all sides seeking and finding ways to “square the circle,” I recommend continuing with the old approach of not rolling the dice when it comes to nuclear capabilities. MBS’ interview in which he said that the kingdom will have nuclear weapons if Iran gets them, validates this approach. We should ignore irresponsible reports saying Israel is developing “hidden capabilities” that in the future will prevent Saudi Arabia from shifting to a military nuclear program. Even if someone will prove that such verification methods have a high success rate, there is no way of knowing how things unfold. If Israel’s rejection of allowing enrichment means the derailment of normalization deals, so be it. Israel should not give in; this is essential.

Accepting the Saudi nuclear demands will of course serve as a basis for demands by other countries in the region such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. It will launch a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

The Palestinian issue, mainly pushed by the US, has gained traction in recent weeks and Israel will probably make concessions. This issue, which I am less concerned about because it is not an existential threat like the nuclear issue, must not become the main issue, and calculated risks can be taken to achieve normalization.

Netanyahu should remind the world that the Iranians have violated every treaty and agreement that they have signed and despite this, the recent understandings struck with Tehran (which the Americans deny) grant the regime the permission to continue to enrich to 60% purity, which constitutes about 98% of the required path for full military enrichment level. Iran’s brilliant negotiating tactics resulted in having the US pay it so that it doesn’t do something it really had no plans on doing: namely, enrichment to 90% and beyond.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to develop and produce advanced centrifuges and has been constructing an extensive underground site at Natanz, which will be used for the enrichment and manufacturing of centrifuges. It continues developing and maintaining ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and continues to move forward in the weaponization efforts, the only thing that stands in the way of them having full nuclear capability.

Accordingly, it’s clear where the Saudi demands are coming from. They are based on the Iran nuclear deal, and on the absurd “understandings.” The US is, of course, denying there is any linkage between the shameful surrender and the transfer of billions of dollars to release prisoners (this is not only six billion dollars; the true amount will reach around $50 billion), and the agreements on the nuclear issue that bypassed the need for congressional approval, which would have never been granted.

At the same time, the mass-murdering Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has been welcomed at the UN General Assembly, humiliating Biden with declarations of his complete control over the use of the surrender funds, in complete contradiction of American statements. The Iranians are expelling a third of the IAEA inspectors, failing to answer questions about open cases, attacking American interests in the gulf, violating human rights, killing women and girls in Iran, continuing its massive support of Russia and sending advanced weapons, while the US is giving a de facto approval to increase Iranian oil sales to China in record high volumes.

The prime minister should make it clear in his speech what Israel’s priorities are.

It is very important to promote a Saudi-American-Israeli deal that will include normalization, without a defense alliance between Israel and the US, but at the same time, it is possible to overcome the problematic Saudi demand for an independent fuel cycle and to minimize the damage from the understandings with Iran by triggering the snap-back mechanism in the UN that would reimpose the Security Council sanctions on the regime (including a total prohibition on enriching uranium on Iranian soil). This will pull the rug out from under Saudi Arabia when it comes to its demands, will allow the normalization deals to move forward without a nuclear threat from Saudi Arabia, and will create an opening for joint action against the Iranian nuclear program. Those who have suggested that Israel can assure MBS that the Jewish state will remove the Iranian nuclear threat and therefore he should not seek his own nuclear capabilities are assigning Israel the duties of a superpower, despite there being a possible scenario in which Israel will ultimately have to carry out the task on its own.

Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council (acting). FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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