Israeli general who helped destroy Iraq, Syria nuclear plants says stopping Iran is much harder

Key Points
  • Iran is now enriching uranium at 60%, close to military grade.
  • The decision to increase enrichment comes after an explosion at a nuclear site in Natanz. Iran has blamed Israel for the attack.
  • Talks aimed at reviving the nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and other powers were held in Vienna this week.
  • Israel is not a party to the talks, but is watching them closely and has vowed to destroy Iran's nuclear program if all else fails.
  • Gen. Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, tells CNBC that stopping Iran will be tougher than past efforts against Iraq and Syria.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei speaks during a televised address in Tehran, Iran on March 21, 2021.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

As Iran boosts uranium enrichment to 60%, a short jump to military grade at 90%, world powers are trying to coax the Islamic Republic to take a pause.

Meetings designed to return both Iran and the United States to a form of the nuclear deal signed in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, restarted in Austria this week.

While Israel is not a part of the talks, it is a main player in the drama that could quickly escalate.

Israel, along with its Arab allies including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia want the U.S. to increase the pressure on Iran by strengthening the JCPOA to include terrorism, missile development and what they call "Iran's expansionism" throughout the Middle East.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a shadow war that has intensified in the last month.  An explosion disrupted one of Iran's nuclear power centers in Natanz; one of Iran's spy ships was hit with an explosive device in the Red Sea; and at least two Israeli owned cargo ships have been targeted.

Iran's decision to increase uranium enrichment came after the explosion at Natanz, which the Islamic Republic has blamed on Israel.

Israel has vowed to destroy Iran's nuclear program if all else fails, and they have experience in that arena.

Forty years ago in June 1981, eight Israeli F-16s took off, flew over the Red Sea, straddled the Jordanian – Saudi border, and dropped their bombs on Iraq's nuclear power plant in Osirak days before it was set to go hot.  It was called Operation Opera and one of the pilots was Gen. Amos Yadlin. 

"Saddam and Assad were surprised. Iran has been waiting for this attack for 20 years." 
General Amos Yadlin
Former Chief of Israel's Military Intelligence

In 2007, Yadlin, while serving as the head of military intelligence for the Israeli army, helped design a second operation.  This one targeted Syria's secret nuclear power plant.  Operation Orchard was also a success — the target was completely destroyed.

 Yadlin said if it comes down to it, this time will be very different: "Saddam and Assad were surprised.  Iran has been waiting for this attack for 20 years." 

Yadlin said Iran's program is "much more fortified and dispersed," while Iraq and Syria's nuclear programs were concentrated in one place.  Iran's nuclear program is in dozens of sites, many buried deep beneath mountains.  On top of that, it isn't clear intelligence agencies know all the details about the locations of Iran's program. 

"Iran has learned from what we have done but we have also learned from what we have done and now we have more capabilities," said Yadlin.

Military planners in Israel say, regardless of the Vienna talks, they have five strategies to stop Iran: 

  • Option 1: Push for a stronger agreement between Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. 
  • Option 2: Demonstrate to Iran the cost is too big, in terms of sanctions and diplomacy, to continue on the current path. 
  • Option 3: What's known in Israel as "Strategy C" — using covert attacks, clandestine actions and cyberattacks. In essence, try everything short of war. 
  • Option 4: Bomb Iran's nuclear program. 
  • Option 5: Push for regime change in Iran. This is the most difficult strategy.

Because of the strength of the ayatollahs – their control of the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and a powerful force known for its brutality, the Basij – fomenting internal rebellion is a long shot. 

Retired Israeli general and Executive Director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Amos Yadlin attends a session at the Manama Dialogue security conference in the Bahraini capital on December 5, 2020.
MAZEN MAHDI | AFP | Getty Images

However, the regime is increasingly unpopular at home and the country has seen several protests erupt in the last few years, according to Ali Nader, an Iran analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The main reason for those protests is a faltering economy, hard hit by U.S. sanctions which serve as the main American leverage against Iran in the nuclear talks in Vienna.

"The U.S. has a complete chokehold on Iran's economy," said Nader.  In 2018, Iran held cash reserves worth more than $120 billion. Due to sanctions, that stockpile fell to about $4 billion in 2020, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.

The first thing Iran wants during these talks is for the U.S. to ease sanctions, allowing it to sell oil to Asia and Europe freely.  According to the International Energy Agency, which monitors oil production and shipments, Iran is getting around sanctions and increasing supply to China. 

In January, Iranian oil shipments to China hit record levels. Nader believes the U.S., by not doing more to enforce those sanctions, is signaling it is ready to make a deal.

The big question for the talks, however, is who has leverage in what is becoming a game of chicken. 

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Henry Rome is watching the negotiations as an analyst for Eurasia Group.  He isn't expecting a breakdown or a breakthrough as both sides try and get the other to make the first move. 

With Iran set to elect a new president in two months, Rome said "Iran does not want to be seen as desperate, the Supreme Leader would prefer to wait until after the June 18 election before having to make any concessions at all." 

"Iran is playing a weak hand, but they're very good at doing that," Rome said.

Yadlin is nervous the U.S. will be too eager for a deal and give away too much, repeating what he calls are the mistakes of the 2015 deal. Yadlin points to Iran's enrichment achievements, hitting the symbolic 60% mark. 

"The first deal is proving to be a problem, look how fast they are moving," Yadlin said. "They could have enough enriched uranium to get to two or three bombs quickly." 

While there still may be some work to do in terms of delivery methods and weaponization, Yadlin has no doubt they have the knowledge to make nuclear bombs.