The most complete account of the decades long effort to bomb Iran.
The Secret History of the Push to Strike Iran Hawks In Israel And America Have Spent More Than A Decade Agitating For War Against The Islamic Republic’s Nuclear Program. Will Trump Finally Deliver?
In July of 2017, the White House was at a crossroads on the question of Iran. President Trump had made a campaign pledge to leave the “terrible” nuclear deal that President Barack Obama negotiated with Tehran, but prominent members of Trump’s cabinet spent the early months of the administration pushing the mercurial president to negotiate a stronger agreement rather than scotch the deal entirely. Thus far, the forces for negotiation had prevailed.
But counterforces were also at work. Stephen K. Bannon, then still an influential adviser to the president, turned to John Bolton to draw up a new Iran strategy that would, as its first act, abrogate the Iran deal. Bolton, a Fox News commentator and former ambassador to the United Nations, had no official role in the administration as of yet, but Bannon saw him as an outside voice that could stiffen Trump’s spine — a kind of back channel to the president who could convince Trump that his Iran policy was adrift.
As a top national security official in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton was one of the architects of regime change in Iraq. He had long called not just for withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A., as the 2015 nuclear deal was known, but also for overthrowing the Iranian regime that negotiated it. Earlier that July, he distilled his views on the matter in Paris, at an annual gathering in support of the fringe exile movement Mujahedeen Khalq, or the M.E.K., which itself had long called for regime change in Iran. Referring to the continuing policy review in Washington, he repeated his belief that the only sufficient American policy in Iran would be to change the Iranian government and whipped the crowd into a standing ovation by pledging that in two years, Iran’s leaders would be gone and that “we here will celebrate in Tehran.”
The document that Bolton produced at Bannon’s request was not a strategy so much as a marketing plan for the administration to justify leaving the Iran deal. It did little to address what would happen on Day 2, after the United States pulled out of the deal. But Bolton’s views were hardly a secret to those who had spoken to him over the years or read the Op-Ed he wrote in The New York Times in 2015: Once American diplomacy had been set aside, Israel should bomb Iran.
Trump pulled out of the Iran deal in May 2018, just weeks after Bolton took over as his national security adviser, and now the president is navigating a slow-motion crisis. This June, attacks were launched against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and the United States pointed the finger at Tehran; in July, Britain impounded an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, and Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the gulf. American spy agencies warn of impending attacks by Iranian proxies on American troops in the region, and over the summer, Israel launched flurries of attacks on Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The least surprising outcome of America’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, though, is that Iran now says that it, too, will no longer abide by the terms of the deal — a decision that could lead Tehran to once again stockpile highly enriched uranium, the fuel to build a nuclear bomb.
The president and his advisers have cited all these acts as evidence of Iran’s perfidy, but it was also a crisis foretold. A year before Trump pulled out of the deal, according to an American official, the Central Intelligence Agency circulated a classified assessment trying to predict how Iran would respond in the event that the Trump administration hardened its line. Its conclusion was simple: Radical elements of the government could be empowered and moderates sidelined, and Iran might try to exploit a diplomatic rupture to unleash an attack in the Persian Gulf, Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.
Ilan Goldenberg, a senior Pentagon official during the Obama administration, recalls the standoff in the years before the Iran nuclear deal as a kind of three-way bluff. Israel wanted the world to believe that it would strike Iran’s nuclear program (but hadn’t yet made up its mind). Iran wanted the world to believe it could get a nuclear weapon (but hadn’t yet made a decision to dash toward a bomb). The United States wanted the world to know it was ready to use military force to prevent Iran from getting a bomb (but in the end never had to show its hand). All three were taking steps to make the threats more credible, unsure when, or if, the other parties might blink.
Trump’s abrogation of the Iran deal has revived the poker game, but this time with an American president whose tendency to bluster about American power but avoid actually using it has made the situation in recent months even more volatile.
“President Trump cannot expect to be unpredictable and expect others to be predictable,” Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said during a speech in Stockholm in August. “Unpredictability will lead to mutual unpredictability, and unpredictability is chaotic.”
Trump’s immediate goal appears to be to batter Iran’s economy with sanctions to the point that the country’s leaders will renegotiate the nuclear deal — and its military support for Hezbollah and other proxy groups — on terms that the administration deems more favorable to the United States. But it is also based on a gamble that Iran will break before November 2020, when the next American election could bring a new president who ends Trump’s hardball tactics.
This is all in aid of what the president’s advisers see as the larger goal, one embraced not only by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel but also by the Arab states in the Persian Gulf: a realignment of the Middle East, with Israel and select Sunni nations gaining supremacy over Iran and containing the world’s largest Shiite-majority state.
It is a wholly different vision than the one advanced by Obama, who committed to keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon but accepted the notion that Iran would become a counterweight to Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region. The two countries would have to “share the neighborhood,” as he put it, an idea that some Trump-administration officials sneer at. As one coolly explains, “We’ve decided to deal with Iran as it is, rather than as we’d like it to be.”
Those who were closest to Obama in the early days of his administration say he had a cleareyed transactional plan for bringing peace to the caldron of the Middle East. “We avoided an unnecessary and uncertain war, brought the Iranians to the table, gained time and space for negotiations and achieved an unprecedented and successful arms-control agreement,” says Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. The deal, he said, “prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and gave the international community unprecedented visibility into Iran’s activities,” all of which is in the “overwhelming interest of the United States.”
Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, compounded by the events of recent months, has revived fears not just that the United States could take military action against Iran or quietly bless an Israeli strike but also that all the parties could stumble into a conflict out of hubris, miscalculation or ignorance. A strike on Iran, however limited in its design, could unspool widespread chaos in the form of retaliation by Iranian proxy groups on American forces in the gulf region, escalating attacks on commercial ships that could send oil prices skyrocketing, waves of Hezbollah terrorist strikes against Israel, cyberattacks against the West and ultimately more American troops being sent to stamp out fires wherever Iran has influence — from Lebanon to Syria to Yemen to Iraq.
The story of how this simmering crisis began is in many ways a story about the complexities of America’s relationship with Israel, a story that has never been fully told. It is the story of a war narrowly averted, an arms agreement negotiated behind Israel’s back, two bedrock allies spying on each other and a battle over who will ultimately shape American foreign policy. Interviews with dozens of current and former American, Israeli and European officials over several months reveal the startling details of how close the Israeli military came to attacking Iran in 2012; the extent to which the Obama administration felt required to develop its own military contingency plans in the event of such an attack, including destroying a full-size mock-up of an Iranian nuclear facility in the western desert of the United States with a 30,000-pound bomb; how Americans monitored Israel even as Israel monitored Iran, with American satellites capturing images of Israel launching surveillance drones into Iran from a base in Azerbaijan; and previously unknown details about the scope of Netanyahu’s pressure campaign to get Trump to leave the Iran deal.
Netanyahu recently eclipsed David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but once again he is fighting for political survival, with another vote to determine his future as prime minister set for Sept. 17. In a wrinkle of history, some of his opponents are the same people who vigorously opposed his push to strike Iran several years ago.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, the landscape of the current Iran crisis could change quickly, and Trump even said during the recent Group of 7 summit that he might meet in the coming weeks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. That prospect has set off alarms in Israel, where some officials raise fears in private that the American president in whom they had invested so much hope has gone wobbly. But Netanyahu, at least publicly, says he isn’t worried. In an interview in August in his office in Jerusalem, he acknowledged the possibility that Trump, like Obama before him, might try to avoid a war and instead attempt to reach a settlement over Iran’s nuclear program.
“But this time,” Netanyahu said, “we will have far greater ability to exert influence.”
2. ‘Total Mutual Striptease’
The first public revelation about a clandestine uranium-enrichment program in Iran came in the summer of 2002, as America was preparing for war with Iraq. Western intelligence services had found that scientists at a nuclear facility near Natanz, in north-central Iran, had begun an effort to enrich uranium ore. A dossier of these findings leaked to a group affiliated with the M.E.K., which went public with the information at a news conference in Washington. The Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq, chose to pursue a path of negotiation with Iran, coupled with sanctions. For many Israeli officials, the revelation reinforced a conclusion that they had already drawn: The United States was making war on the wrong country.
The Israeli leadership grew even more concerned in 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran. Ahmadinejad immediately made known his views about Israel, unleashing fiery rhetoric calling for the end to the nation and calling the Nazi extermination of Jews a myth. He increased support for militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah — and, American and Israeli analysts agreed, he also began to accelerate the nation’s nuclear program. In a nation built by survivors of the Holocaust, the moves confirmed for many that Iran presented an existential threat.
Israel’s leadership at that time was going through an uncertain moment. In January 2006, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, suffered a stroke that left him in a vegetative state. A deputy, Ehud Olmert, stepping up to replace him, gave a free hand and endless resources to the clandestine campaign that the Mossad, Israel’s civilian intelligence agency, was running to stop, or at least delay, the Iranian nuclear project. In 2007, Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, became Olmert’s defense minister and issued a written order to the Israeli military’s general staff to develop plans for a large-scale attack on Iran. But Olmert thought that many were exaggerating the immediacy of the Iran threat. His own position, he recalls now, “was that it was not Israel that should lead a military operation, even with the knowledge that Iran might indeed succeed in getting a bomb. Just as Pakistan had the bomb and nothing happened, Israel could also accept and survive Iran having the bomb.”
Netanyahu, then in the leadership of the conservative Likud party, took a starkly different position. He had gone to high school and college in the United States, earning a business degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and working at the Boston Consulting Group, where he became friends with the future Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. During his first term as prime minister — from 1996 to 1999 — he warned a joint session of Congress that only the United States could prevent the “catastrophic consequences” of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Now the Likud leader was once again enlisting Israel’s closest ally into what Uzi Arad, one of his former top advisers, describes as “a personal crusade against the Iranian threat.” Speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, in Washington in 2007, Netanyahu demanded more sanctions on Iran. He also met with Dick Cheney, then the vice president, and, according to Arad, warned that if the West failed to present a credible threat of military action, Iran would surely get the bomb.
In Cheney, Netanyahu had found the right audience. The Pentagon’s military and civilian leadership had little appetite for another war of pre-emption, and by then neither did the president. But Cheney, like Bolton, had long taken a more expansive view, and he continued to argue for military action against Iran well into George W. Bush’s second term.
During a meeting with Bush in May 2008, the vice president sparred with Robert Gates, the defense secretary, over the wisdom of a strike against Iran. Gates argued that a military move against Iran by the United States or Israel would strengthen radical factions in the Iranian government and rally the country behind the Iranian regime. Gates said that Olmert should be told in the most direct terms that Israel should not launch a unilateral attack. Cheney disagreed on every point, saying that a strike on Iran was necessary and that at minimum the White House should enable Israel to act. Gates recalled Cheney’s thinking in his memoir: Twenty years on, “if there was a nuclear-armed Iran, people would say the Bush administration could have stopped it.”
That same month, Bush arrived in Jerusalem for his last visit to Israel as president. Olmert hoped to get American and Israeli spies to share more intelligence about Iran, and he used a private meeting at his residence to make his case. When the aides had cleared the room, according to an official who was familiar with the conversation, Olmert moved in to seal the deal. “Come, let’s open the books and be transparent with each other,” he said. Bush agreed, a decision that led to far greater intelligence cooperation between American and Israeli spy services — a “total mutual striptease” in the words of one of Olmert’s former aides. This cooperation would culminate in the Olympic Games operation, which deployed sophisticated computer malware, including the Stuxnet virus, to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities. This was one path forward to containing Iran.
But Bush was also made keenly aware of the other path. One night during his visit, Olmert invited him for a dinner at his residence with the members of his national security cabinet, including Barak, the defense minister, who like Cheney had taken an increasingly hawkish position on Iran during internal discussions. As Olmert tells the story, he and Bush walked alone into a side lounge after the dinner. As the two men relaxed in leather armchairs, Olmert smoking a cigar, the prime minister told Bush that Barak was waiting and wanted an audience.
Bush was reluctant, according to Olmert. “I understand that it is politically important for you to let him in,” Olmert recalls Bush explaining, “but you know my position on the Iran issue. I am unequivocally against an attack.”
The Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq, chose to pursue a path of negotiation with Iran, coupled with sanctions.
Olmert persisted. Bush eventually relented, and soon Barak was in the room, smoking a cigar and sipping a whiskey. He delivered a comprehensive lecture about the Iran threat. Finally, Bush cut him off. “He banged on the table like this,” Olmert recalls, “and he said: ‘General Barak, do you know what no means? No is no.”’
Barak, for his part, remembers much about the affair differently, including Bush’s reaction. In Barak’s version, when he finished making his case to the American president, Bush turned to Olmert but pointed a finger directly at Barak. “This guy scares the living shit out of me,” Barak recalls him saying. (A spokesman for Bush says the former president does not recall either of these conversations.)
Looking back at that meeting, Barak now sees Bush’s position as somewhat irrelevant. “The truth is that Bush’s warning did not really make any difference for us,” he says, “because as of the end of 2008, we did not have a real, feasible plan for attacking Iran.”
Barak was already looking toward the future. “We knew that anything that happened after that would, in any case, be under a different president.”
3. ‘Obama Is Part of the Problem’
Netanyahu began his second term as Israel’s prime minister just months after Obama took office in 2009. Despite their ideological differences, Netanyahu had some cause to believe that the new American president might be a more willing partner in his effort against Iran. Though Obama first gained attention for his opposition to the Iraq war, he frequently raised the Iran threat during the campaign and told an Aipac audience in June 2008 that he would “always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel.”
During their first meeting in the White House in May 2009, anxious aides waited outside the Oval Office as the two leaders met alone. It was an interminable meeting, and some may have figured that the savvy, experienced Israeli prime minister was lecturing the young American president about the Palestinians and the hard truths of Israeli security.
But when the door opened, it was Netanyahu who appeared shellshocked, Arad recalls: “Bibi did not say anything, but he looked ashen.” It was hours later when he told aides that Obama had attacked him and implored him — actually demanded him, in Netanyahu’s view — to freeze Israel’s settlements in the West Bank right away, with “not a single brick” added in the future, according to an Israeli official with direct knowledge of the meeting. “Bibi left that place traumatized,” Arad says. Speaking now, Netanyahu says that “Obama came from another direction, one that adopted most of the Palestinian narrative,” and ruefully cites the “not a single brick” line to argue that the American president was against him from the very beginning. (A former Obama-administration official with knowledge of the White House meeting says that Obama did not in fact use that phrase.)
The relationship between the two governments was warmer at the cabinet level. Netanyahu had brought in Arad to be his national security adviser, and Arad established a direct link with Obama’s own national security advisers — Gen. James L. Jones and then Donilon — to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. American and Israeli officials met regularly in person and even more frequently over encrypted video conferences. The Obama administration insisted on total secrecy about the meetings, and an urgent issue was already on the agenda: the continuing construction of a secret nuclear facility, buried deep inside a mountain, not far from Iran’s holy city of Qum.
The Fordow fuel enrichment plant was discovered in April 2008 by a source working for British intelligence, which in turn passed rudimentary details about the plant to American and Israeli spy agencies. Unlike the Natanz plant, Fordow was too small to produce usable amounts of civilian nuclear fuel, making it likely that it was created solely for the drive toward a nuclear weapon.
American and Israeli officials were now faced with the fact that ongoing covert operations to sabotage Iran’s nuclear effort had failed to halt the program. The Israeli perspective, as advanced by Barak, was relatively simple: The world was running out of time before Iran entered what Barak called the “zone of immunity,” the point at which the nuclear program was so advanced and so well defended that any strike would have too little impact to be worth the risk. The United States, with its bunker-buster bombs that could penetrate deep into underground facilities, could wait to strike. But, Barak argued, Israel had no such luxury. If it was going to act alone, it would need to do it sooner. Some American military planners derided Barak’s tactic as “mowing the grass” — a small-bore effort that would need to be repeated again and again — but it might have been more like a way to get the United States to move first. “Barak would tell us, ‘We can’t do what you do, so we need to do it sooner,’?” says Dennis Ross, who handled Iran policy at the National Security Council during Obama’s first term. “We interpreted that as designed to put pressure on us.”
A parade of top American officials began flying to Israel during Obama’s first term to take the measure of the Israeli planning and to convince Netanyahu and Barak that the United States was taking the problem seriously and that Iran was hardly on the brink of getting the bomb. “Our message was that we understand your concerns, and please don’t go off on a hair trigger and start a war, because you’re going to want us to come in behind you,” says Wendy Sherman, a top State Department official in Obama’s administration.
One of the first to make the trip was Robert Gates, whom Obama had asked to stay on at the Pentagon. He arrived in Israel in July 2009, just weeks after the Green Revolution brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Tehran. The Iranian government seemed fragile, and Netanyahu told Gates he was convinced that a military strike on Iran would do more than set back its nuclear program; it could instigate the overthrow of a regime loathed by the Iranian people. Besides, Netanyahu said, as Gates recalls in his memoir, the Iranian response to the attack would be limited. Gates pushed back, just as he had a year earlier against Cheney. He said Netanyahu was misled by history. Perhaps Iraq did not retaliate after Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, just as Syria did nothing when Israel bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. But Iran was very different from Iraq and Syria, he said. His meaning was clear: Iran was a powerful country with a capable military and proxy groups like Hezbollah that could unleash serious violence from just over Israel’s borders.
The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu continued to fracture. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington at the time, recalls that Netanyahu began to say that “Obama is part of the problem, not the solution.” The uncomfortable relationship was apparent to all sides. Arad recalls that when he accompanied Netanyahu to Washington in 2010 for another meeting with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden threw his arm around Arad and said with a smile, “Just remember that I am your best fucking friend here.”
4. ‘A Highly Complicated Affair’
Obama took the possibility of a sudden Israeli strike seriously. American spy satellites watched Israeli drones take off from bases in Azerbaijan and fly south over the Iranian border — taking extensive pictures of Iran’s nuclear sites and probing whether Iranian air defenses spotted the intrusion. American military leaders made guesses about whether the Israelis might choose a time of the month when the light was higher or lower, or a time of the year when sandstorms occur more or less regularly. Military planners ran war games to forecast how Tehran might respond to an Israeli strike and how America should respond in return: Would Iran assume that any attack had been blessed by the United States and hit American military forces in the Middle East? The results were dismal: The Israeli strikes dealt only minor setbacks to Iran’s nuclear program, and the United States was enmeshed in yet another war in the Middle East.
The White House eventually made the decision that the United States would not join a pre-emptive strike. If Israel launched such a strike, the Pentagon wouldn’t assist in the operation, but it wouldn’t stand in Israel’s way. At the same time, Obama was quietly ordering a buildup of America’s arsenal around the Persian Gulf. If Israel was going to trigger a war, the thinking went, it was better to have forces in the region beforehand rather than rush them there after the fact, when Iran would surely interpret the deployments as a surge to support Israel. Aircraft-carrier strike groups and destroyers with Aegis ballistic-missile defense systems moved through the Strait of Hormuz; F-22 jets arrived in the United Arab Emirates, and Patriot missile batteries were sent to the United Arab Emirates and other gulf allies. Some of the deployments were announced as routine moves to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We didn’t want the Israelis to mistake it for a green light,” one Obama-administration official says.
What they didn’t know was, at least at that time, whether Netanyahu had the ability — or even the real will — to pull off a strike.
It was a complicated question, and one that was the subject of considerable debate even at the highest levels of the Israeli government. In November 2010, Netanyahu and Barak convened a private meeting at Mossad headquarters to discuss a recently devised Iran attack plan with the chiefs of Israel’s defense establishment. According to Barak, the conversation quickly became contentious when Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the military chief of staff, told the room that despite major advancements, the Israel Defense Forces had not yet crossed the threshold of “operational capability.”
Ashkenazi’s statement punctured the optimism that had been building around a strike. “The moment he says there’s no operational capability, then you have no choice,” Barak recalls now. “Hypothetically, you can fire him if you want to, but you can’t say, ‘Let’s go.’?”
Another influential official spoke up: Meir Dagan, the longtime head of the Mossad, who had been directing Israel’s secret war on Iran. His credentials as an Iran hawk were hardly in dispute, and he was coming to the end of a national security career that began in the mid-1960s, so he had plenty of political capital to burn. He told Netanyahu and Barak that a military campaign would be foolish and could undo all the progress the covert campaign had made. Dagan saw the proposed campaign as a scheme by two cynical politicians seeking the widespread public support that an attack would give them in the next election.
Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, was also against an attack. Barak and Netanyahu may not have been interested in the guidance of their advisers, but they did “not have the authority,” Diskin told them, to go to war without government approval. Netanyahu had to back down.
The Israeli prime minister became increasingly suspicious of his senior advisers. He now accuses Dagan of leaking the attack plan to the C.I.A., “intending to disrupt it,” a betrayal that to Netanyahu’s mind was “absolutely inconceivable.” Within a year, Dagan, Ashkenazi and Diskin, along with Uzi Arad, were no longer in their posts.
If Netanyahu hoped his handpicked replacements would be more compliant, however, he would soon be disappointed. Many others in the government, including Benny Gantz, the chief of staff who succeeded Ashkenazi, were also against the attack, according to three officials who were part of the decision-making process at that time. For Gantz, who is now running against Netanyahu for the job of prime minister, it was a practical matter. “Even those who have not seen the intelligence understand that it would be a highly complicated affair and — if the impact it would have on other countries is taken into account — a strategic affair of the highest level,” he says.
5. ‘We Were Running Out of Time’
Netanyahu’s relentless pressure on Obama may have had an unintended consequence. The American president, with limited information about what the Israelis might do, increased his urgent pursuit of a major new initiative: a clandestine negotiation with Iran.
For Obama, the J.C.P.O.A. would be the centerpiece of his foreign-policy legacy; it was not just a deal but a framework for regional stability — a way to shut the Pandora’s box his predecessor blew open in 2003. For Netanyahu, though, it would be the ultimate betrayal — Israel’s closest ally negotiating behind its back with its most bitter enemy.
The effort began in late 2010, with Dennis Ross and Puneet Talwar, two of Obama’s top national security advisers, aboard a commercial aircraft bound for Muscat, Oman. The country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, was helping mediate the sensitive negotiations around the release of several American backpackers who had been detained in Iran under suspicion of being spies. Now Oman would help the United States open a back channel for far more ambitious discussions.
Inside one of the sultan’s palaces, Ross and Talwar delivered a message that Obama wanted the Omani ruler to give to only Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: The United States thought there was a chance for a peaceful denouement to the nuclear standoff with Iran but was prepared to take military action if Iran rejected diplomacy. The United States could accept Iran’s harnessing nuclear power for civilian use, but any military purpose for its nuclear program was intolerable.
Obama had long believed that there might be a sliver of hope for a nuclear deal, and the White House had already begun a campaign of punishing economic sanctions designed to pressure Tehran into negotiations. But some former administration officials said the prospect of an Israeli military operation gave energy to the diplomatic push. “Did the Israeli pressure affect our decision to begin talks?” Ross says. “Without a doubt. Unless we could do something that changed the equation, the Israelis were going to act militarily.” Ilan Goldenberg, the former Pentagon official handling Iran issues, says, “We felt we were running out of time.”
Others within the administration disagreed that Israeli pressure played a significant role in the effort. “President Obama’s push for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear challenge long predated Prime Minister Netanyahu’s saber-rattling,” says Ned Price, who served as a spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council. “In fact, it even predated his current stint as prime minister. Candidate Obama pledged in 2007 to seek the very type of diplomatic achievement he, together with many of our closest allies and partners, struck as president in 2015.”
Obama decided to keep the Israelis — and, for that matter, every other American ally — in the dark about the secret discussions. Some in his administration feared that if Obama told Netanyahu about the nascent talks, the Israelis would leak word of them to tank any future deal. “It was too big a risk,” one former senior Obama-administration official said. “The trust between the two leaders was badly frayed by this point. That introduced an element of uncertainty about what Bibi or people around him would do if they had the information.”
The secrecy around the talks remains a freighted subject among many former Obama officials, one that few are willing to discuss on the record. Some believed that the Obama-Netanyahu relationship had grown so toxic that the Israeli prime minister couldn’t be trusted. And, they argue, the strategy worked: Talks stayed quiet long enough for them to mature into serious negotiations and, ultimately, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Others say it was needlessly provocative, sowing further distrust in an already dismal relationship and creating the appearance that the Obama White House wasn’t confident enough in its strategy to defend it to the Israelis. “That was an ongoing debate,” says Wendy Sherman, who was closely involved in the negotiations. “I was on the side of telling them sooner rather than later. It was a very hard call.”
The Israelis found out anyway. In mid-2012, around the time the talks between American and Iranian officials began in earnest, Israeli intelligence picked up information about the secret discussions and reported it to Netanyahu. Some time after hearing the news, Yaakov Amidror, who succeeded Arad as Netanyahu’s national security adviser in 2011, confronted Dan Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, to ask him if the information about the negotiations was true. Shapiro, who hadn’t been told about the secret talks, told Amidror it was false. But Shapiro said it wasn’t long before a colleague in Washington took him aside and said, “You should stop saying what you’ve been saying.”
Shapiro says now that the secrecy was a mistake. “We should have assumed that they would discover the talks, and it’s always better to hear such news directly from us,” he says. “I understand the apprehension of those who decided to keep it a secret that Israel would leak it, but the communications between the United States and Israel on the Iranian issue were conducted with the utmost discretion. I felt we should have shared that with them in real time. Had I known, I would have pushed hard to tell them.”
Amidror remains angry to this day. “We had an open and honest relationship with the Americans,” he says. “Everything went excellently until it became clear to us that they were concealing things.” In the end, he says, the American negotiators “sold us up the river.”
Netanyahu takes a more sanguine view of the revelation. “When I was informed that such talks were underway, I have to say that I was not at all surprised,” he says. “During his campaign for the presidency, Obama said that he wanted to reach agreements with Iran and with Cuba. This was his declared predisposition.”
Netanyahu says that “the knowledge that we were capable and prepared to strike had a great effect on the Americans and on their involvement in the matter of Iran” and that “the more the Americans realized that an attack was drawing near, the more they stepped up the sanctions.” But in the view of one senior Israeli intelligence official, Netanyahu’s open preparations for a strike may have worked against him, though, precisely because it pushed Obama to open negotiations before the sanctions made Iran desperate for a deal on harsher terms. “Netanyahu achieved exactly the opposite of what he wanted,” the intelligence official now says. “By doing what he did, he promoted the deal that he fought against afterward.”
6. ‘A Very Unfriendly Act’
In the summer of 2012, American spy satellites detected clusters of Israeli aircraft making what seemed to be early preparations for an attack. Israeli leaders had spent more than a year delivering ominous warnings to Washington that they might launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities — and that if they did, they would give the United States little warning and no chance to stop them. One former senior Israeli security official, looking back at that time, said that it wasn’t until then that he believed the prime minister was serious about striking Iran.
Tensions had been building between Israel and the United States for months. In December 2011, Obama and Barak met in Maryland at a conference for the Union for Reform Judaism. In Barak’s telling, Obama asked for his patience and gave him assurances that the United States would act decisively if the situation demanded it. The Israeli defense minister’s response was chilly. “It isn’t that I don’t believe you,” Barak recalls explaining to the president. “But I know that you will have to decide in accordance with American interests at that time, and there is no way of knowing where they will lie.”
Unfazed, Obama raised the matter of dissent within the Israeli ranks. It was well known, he said, that senior Israeli military and intelligence officials opposed a strike on Iran. This is true, Barak responded, and the dissenting voices were being treated with respect. “They have the right to think otherwise,” he said, but in the end, it was not up to the generals to make the final call.
“If they look up, they see us,” Barak said, meaning himself and the prime minister. “When we look up, we see just the sky.”
Several weeks later, Barak called Leon Panetta, who had recently succeeded Gates as Obama’s secretary of defense, to deliver an ominous piece of news: Israel was delaying a joint military exercise on Israeli soil that had been scheduled for the spring. The annual exercise, called Austere Challenge, would have involved hundreds of American troops deploying to Israel, and Barak told Panetta that it would be risky to have so many Americans on Israeli soil during that period. Are you going to strike? Panetta asked. Barak was coy, but he didn’t deny that a strike was at least a possibility. “He basically said, ‘Look, we haven’t made a final decision, but we want to keep our options open and, frankly, conducting exercises would limit our options,’?” Panetta recalls.
As a way to calm Israeli concern about the Obama administration’s commitment to keeping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, Panetta had even taken the extraordinary step of bringing Barak into his Pentagon office and showing him a highly classified video. In a desert in the American Southwest, the Pentagon had constructed an exact replica of the Fordow facility, and the video showed a test of the 30,000-pound massive ordnance penetrator, a bunker-busting weapon the Air Force had designed to penetrate the most hardened of underground defenses. The bomb destroyed the mock-up in the desert. Barak was impressed.
The White House also made an effort to send a senior official to Israel every few weeks — to “Bibisit,” as a former senior Obama-administration official put it. There was plenty of business to attend to, but the visits also had the effect of limiting Netanyahu’s options on when he could order an attack. “It did not escape our understanding that having a visit of a senior American official on the calendar probably bought you a couple of weeks — before the visit and then after the visit,” Shapiro says. “For an Israeli official, it meant you knew you could not strike without feeling that you’ve deceived somebody while they were sitting in your office.”
But behind the scenes, Israel was indeed preparing for a strike. Its military and intelligence services had cut the time needed for the final preparations — for the attack and for the war that might ensue. “I went to bed every night, if I went to bed at all, with the phone close to my ear,” says Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington at the time. “I was ready to be called in by Israel and sent to the White House or the State Department to tell them we had attacked, or if they already knew from their own sources, straight to CNN.”
Such an attack, which came far closer to happening than has previously been reported, would have been a significant breach of Israel’s relationship with the United States — or at least with the Obama administration. With Obama standing for re-election in a contest that was just months away, some in the White House believed that it was politics, as much as any direct security threat, that was driving Netanyahu’s push for a strike. Netanyahu had courted the candidacy of his old Boston Consulting Group colleague Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2012 election. Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s closest political adviser, was in contact with the Romney campaign, which had also taken on John Bolton as a foreign policy adviser. The concern among American officials was that Netanyahu was threatening a strike not just to box Obama in but also to sway the November election in Romney’s favor. (Dermer is now Israel’s ambassador to Washington.)
“It definitely crossed our minds that Israel might consider it an advantage to strike in the final phase of the U.S. election,” Shapiro says. The concern was that Israel might believe that it “could force the United States’ hand to be supportive or to come in behind Israel and assist. Because otherwise, President Obama could be accused of abandoning Israel in its moment of need.”
According to former American officials, Tom Donilon called senior Pentagon and C.I.A. officials to the White House for a two-day meeting to go over the various situations, and possible American responses, resulting from an Israeli attack. Separately, Gen. James Mattis, the head of United States Central Command, urged the C.I.A. to try to locate Iranian missile launchers — they would be among the first targets of an American campaign if an Israeli strike drew the United States into the conflict. (Donilon and Mattis both declined to comment on the planning process.)
Both Donilon and Panetta made urgent trips to Jerusalem to speak to Netanyahu and Barak. Shapiro says, “It was important to convey the message that — in light of our very close coordination on the Iran strategy to that point — it would be viewed obviously as a very unfriendly act to use our politics” to gain leverage. Netanyahu refused to make any promises.
Some former American and Israeli officials think that Netanyahu was simply deploying his own maximum-pressure strategy, to push Obama toward either his own strike or even tougher economic sanctions, but never intended to actually send Israeli jets or commandos to attack Iran. Netanyahu continued to face profound opposition to military action from inside the military and the Mossad — “I think they didn’t do it because the I.D.F. didn’t want to do it,” Dennis Ross says.
A former senior Israeli security official expressed doubts that Netanyahu and Barak were ever serious about a strike. “I have a feeling that just discussing such dramatic issues gave them great pleasure. I saw the politicians’ excitement over their power,” the official says. “Deep inside them, they do not want to attack, because they realize that you never know how it will end. But dabbling in whether to attack or not, and to do so with a cigar in their hands, that is a big deal for them.”
For his part, Netanyahu insists that the threat of an Israeli strike “was not a bluff — it was real. And only because it was real were the Americans truly worried about it.” He pulled back from the brink only because he still could not get a majority of his cabinet to support him. “If I’d had a majority, I would have done it,” he says. “Unequivocally.”
It is possible that Barak’s vigorous efforts to persuade the Americans to join an effort may have inadvertently helped scuttle it, thanks to an incident that added considerably to the tension within Netanyahu’s cabinet. On a trip to the United States in mid-September 2012, just weeks before the election, Barak took a break from official visits to speak privately with Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, who had since moved to Chicago and been elected mayor. When the discussion turned to Iran, Emanuel was characteristically blunt: Netanyahu and Barak were completely misreading American politics, he said, and they shouldn’t assume that Obama would allow the Israeli leaders to dictate his options. Netanyahu soon received a report from the Israeli Embassy about the meeting, accompanied by whispers that Barak had gone rogue and was telling his American counterparts that he was trying to hold “crazy Bibi” back from attacking Iran. Amidror called Yoni Koren, Barak’s chief of staff, and reproached him for not reporting the meeting with Emanuel. Netanyahu went on Israeli television and mocked Barak for going to the United States to “play the role of the moderate savior.”
Barak fired back, saying he had gone to the United States to “reduce tension” between the two sides — implying that Netanyahu had potentially damaged Israel’s most important strategic relationship. There is no evidence that Barak had turned on Netanyahu, but the incident ruptured their long alliance. Barak no longer supported a strike. It wasn’t because of anything that happened in Chicago, he says. The timing was wrong. “It became clear that calling a strike was becoming more and more complicated,” he says. The window of time between a planned joint military exercise and the American election was too tight.
In October, the strike was called off. “It is one thing to strike alone,” Barak says, “and a totally different thing to draw the United States into a confrontation that it doesn’t want to be a part of.”
7. ‘It’s Complicated’
Obama’s resounding re-election victory did little to improve relations between the United States and Israel. The deteriorating situation brought on a dramatic confrontation at Ben Gurion Airport, shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Israel on Nov. 8, 2013, for what was supposed to be a quick stop en route to Geneva for another round of Iran talks. As aides to both men listened through the wall, Netanyahu began shouting at Kerry inside an airport lounge, angered that, in his view, the United States had gone back on promises to Israel about elements of the deal. (Asked about the incident, Netanyahu says, “I don’t raise my voice.”)
As the negotiations progressed, Obama himself spent hours on the phone with the prime minister, engaged in numerous circular efforts to engage Israel in the details of the proposed nuclear deal. But the relationship was beyond repair. The American president would often return to two estimates that the Pentagon had made for him: An Israeli strike would set back Iran’s enrichment program by only a year or two. The proposed nuclear deal would suspend it for a decade or more, and even after that Iran would still be prohibited from building a bomb. Netanyahu wasn’t buying it. During one conversation, according to Philip Gordon, a National Security Council official who listened in on the phone call, he told Obama he planned to lobby Congress to simply kill the deal. Obama told him he wouldn’t win.
In late January 2015, Gordon and other White House officials began hearing rumors that, at first, they couldn’t imagine were true: Netanyahu had been invited to give a speech before Congress to denounce the impending nuclear deal. Gordon immediately dashed off an email to Dermer, the Israeli ambassador. “It’s complicated,” was Dermer’s cryptic reply. Dan Shapiro was furious when Speaker John Boehner’s office notified the State Department of the planned speech, calling it a “punch in the gut” and the hardest moment of his term as ambassador.
He called Yossi Cohen, the national security adviser who would later take over at the Mossad. Cohen, as it turned out, was also in the dark. “I found out about it when you did,” he told Shapiro. The speech failed to turn Congress against the deal, and many in Israel now see it as a foolish stunt. “Israel must never take a side in internal American politics,” says Moshe Yaalon, Netanyahu’s defense minister at the time. “Bibi identified with the Republicans, and that was a mistake. His speech in Congress was poking a finger in the eye of the president of the United States. I said all of this to Bibi, but he told me: ‘Forget it. You don’t get it.’ In his view, no one understands America but him and Ron Dermer.”
Netanyahu still thinks that’s the case, wryly noting that none of his critics understand “the big secret” of American politics. He says that some of his former cabinet members and generals seemed to believe that the United States consisted of little more than the Pentagon and the White House, but they were wrong. American public opinion was the key, and the ability to shape it in some ways cut to the very heart of Netanyahu’s political persona. “In the last 30 years, I appeared innumerable times in the American media and met thousands of American leaders,” he says. “I developed a certain ability to influence public opinion, and that is the most important thing: the ability to sway public opinion in the United States against the regime in Iran.”
Despite his powers of persuasion, Netanyahu was — at least for the moment — unable to prevent a deal. Iran and the United States — along with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — approved the final draft of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on July 14, 2015. “Tough talk from Washington does not solve problems,” Obama said in a statement that day. “Hard-nosed diplomacy, leadership that has united the world’s major powers, offers a more effective way to verify that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.”
For some, it was the capstone to Obama’s foreign-policy legacy and a significant step forward in stabilizing the region.
For Netanyahu, it was a significant setback, but by no means a permanent one.
8. ‘He Has No Political Weight in the System’
Donald Trump inherited a nuclear deal that American spy agencies believed was fundamentally working to keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But he also inherited a loaded gun: military plans for an Iran strike that had been meticulously refined during the Obama years.
Less than two weeks after Inauguration Day, Mike Flynn, the national security adviser, took to the White House lectern and said that the White House was “officially putting Iran on notice” for engaging in a missile test and supporting an attack on a Saudi warship. Flynn had little chance to expand on the vague meaning of “notice”; he was pushed out 12 days later. But Trump, in his first address to Congress, twinned in one sentence a shot at Iran and an embrace of Israel. “I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic-missile program and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the state of Israel.” The House chamber erupted in thunderous applause.
Trump did pass on early chances to withdraw from the Iran deal, a result of a split in his cabinet: Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that the J.C.P.O.A., while imperfect, was fundamentally working and could be strengthened after further negotiations with the Europeans. Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, said that he and his European colleagues came to think that Trump would continue his bluster but ultimately stay in the deal. “There was the feeling that, as usual, all politicians are different when they are campaigning and when they are governing,” he says.
But tensions boiled over in July 2017 during a meeting at the Pentagon, when Tillerson clashed with Trump and Bannon about the wisdom of staying in the Iran deal — “we all know he’s getting out of the deal,” Bannon snapped at Tillerson, according to one person with knowledge of the meeting.
Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018, and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, quit the same month. Mattis left nine months later. The C.I.A. chief, Mike Pompeo, an Iran hawk since his days as a Republican congressman from Kansas, had taken over as secretary of state and became perhaps the administration’s most influential voice on Iran. And to replace McMaster, Trump turned to John Bolton, who had written the strategy paper the previous summer advocating for Trump to leave the J.C.P.O.A. What remained was to persuade the president to do what he had always said he was going to do: abrogate the Iran deal.
The White House, at least officially, was still on the Tillerson track, favoring negotiation over withdrawal. Brian Hook, a lawyer Tillerson brought to the State Department early in the administration, was negotiating with European leaders to carry out what appeared to be Trump’s orders: push to broaden the J.C.P.O.A. to include new restrictions on Iran’s ballistic-missile program and on support for proxy groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. By April, European officials had come to think that their negotiations with Hook were working and a solution was in sight. A five-page draft agreement laid out, in broad terms, new restrictions on Iran’s missile programs and more aggressive inspections of nuclear facilities.
Hook regularly reported back on the status of the negotiations, telling other American officials that he thought a deal with the Europeans was possible. But the Europeans were up against a powerful set of players — from Netanyahu to the leaders of the Arab gulf states — who used their representatives in Washington to lean on the White House to break from the Iran deal. Some French and German officials now think that the entire negotiation process was an elaborate charade. “It was a fiction because Trump was not behind it,” Araud says.
Once again, policy came down to personnel. “I like Brian Hook,” Araud explained, but he said the French government came to the assessment “that he has no political weight in the system.” (Hook declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Trump-administration officials say that the negotiations were undertaken in good faith but that they didn’t make enough progress before Trump decided to pull the plug. A senior administration official says that although the president “felt that he was being generous” in giving several months to allow the talks in Europe to proceed, “it didn’t mean his generosity was limitless.”
Even as the European talks continued, Netanyahu was working on a different track. In January 2018, he would later announce, a high-stakes Mossad operation enabled the theft of tens of thousands of documents, videos and photographs being housed in a warehouse on the outskirts of Tehran. The intelligence trove represented a kind of secret history of Iran’s quest for a bomb, and Yossi Cohen, the Mossad director, said in a July 2019 speech that the goal of the operation was to help enforce a strict inspection regime. “The operation enabled us to inform the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency where the Iranians are hiding the nuclear materials and enable the group to destroy them,” he said.
But Netanyahu saw far greater opportunities in the intelligence coup, believing that it could help push Trump to finally get out of the J.C.P.O.A. He claims now that even before the election, Trump had told him that he would annul the agreement. “I believed him,” Netanyahu says, “but of course I looked for ways for him to bolster this decision.” That March, Netanyahu met with the president personally to go over highlights from the archive, which he said showed how Iran had lied for two decades about its nuclear program.
By the time Netanyahu went on television in Israel in late April to reveal the fruits of the covert operation to the world, the announcement was seen by many in the United States as an 11th-hour effort to influence Trump’s decision. But its work had already been done. According to an official familiar with the arrangements, American and Israeli officials originally discussed a joint news conference in Washington with four participants: Netanyahu and Cohen, the Mossad chief, would disclose the Mossad operation and its fruits; Pompeo would expound on the significance of the findings; and Trump would use the archive as Exhibit A for why the United States needed to abandon the J.C.P.O.A.
With the decision made, all that was left to do was tell the Europeans, who were still laboring through negotiations under the impression that there was a chance to salvage the deal. On April 24, 2018 — six days before Netanyahu’s televised presentation and two weeks before Trump’s announcement of withdrawal — President Emmanuel Macron of France arrived at the White House for what would be the first official state visit of Trump’s presidency. Trump seemed to like Macron (their relationship was dubbed “Le Bromance”), and that day Trump and Macron and their wives stood on the South Lawn of the White House and planted a small oak tree. The tree came from Belleau Wood, to the east of Paris, where American troops turned back German forces near the end of World War I. Macron wrote on Twitter that the tree “will be a reminder at the White House of these ties that bind us.” The tree has since died.
Trump brought Macron into the Oval Office, where the two men sat alone. Trump became serious, according to an official with knowledge of the meeting, telling Macron he was the first to hear the news: The United States was leaving the J.C.P.O.A. The news was hardly unexpected for Macron, but the French president pushed back nonetheless. He told Trump that the negotiations led by Brian Hook had been successful and that a breakthrough was close.
As was reported at the time, Trump was clearly puzzled and seemed to be largely unaware of the negotiations. “Who is Brian Hook?” he said.
9. ‘A Big Risk’
Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal brought the nuclear standoff full circle. Severe economic sanctions, announced in April with the aim of driving down Iranian oil exports, triggered months of clandestine tit-for-tat measures that escalated to the point that, in late June, American forces were within hours of striking Iran before Trump ordered them to stand down, much to the disappointment of his more hawkish allies. For its part, the Mossad has no doubt about who is to blame for the present crisis. Yossi Cohen said in his July speech that the recent attacks in the gulf region are “part of a single campaign” and were “approved by the Iranian leadership and executed — most of them at least — by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its proxies.”
The White House has adopted a guns-or-butter approach to economic asphyxiation: Less money in the Iranian government’s treasury will, the argument goes, force the regime to choose between supporting its suffering population and funding groups like Hezbollah that it uses to expand its influence in the Middle East. American intelligence assessments have concluded that Iranian military and financial support to such groups has in fact been drying up, a welcome outcome for leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have seen their own influence in Washington grow during the Trump administration. But the larger goal — a regional realignment — remains very much in flux.
The present crisis has drawn the United States and Israel — and their self-confident leaders — even closer together. Where he once saw opportunity in openly warring with an American president, Netanyahu has used his close relationship with Trump as currency as he fights for his own political survival. Trump is widely popular in Israel, and Netanyahu’s campaign has adorned its party headquarters in Tel Aviv with a portrait of the two men standing together. One senior Israeli official, cracking a smile, said, “Trump is the only one who could beat Netanyahu in the election.” (Another side of the building features a similar portrait, with Netanyahu standing beside President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.)
Having served as C.I.A. director and secretary of defense during a meltdown in relations between an American president and an Israeli prime minister, Leon Panetta says there is now danger in the other extreme. “If it looks like the United States is going to do whatever Israel’s bidding is, on any issue, then I think the United States loses any leverage,” he said. “Our fundamental goal has to be to protect our national security interests. What is in the United States’ interest? And yes, we are a friend and an ally of Israel, but I think we always have to maintain a relationship that looks at the bigger picture of that region and what needs to be done to preserve peace in that region.” In recent days, Trump has used support for Israel as a kind of litmus test for American Jews, saying that Jews who opposed him were being “disloyal” both to Israel and the Jewish people.
And yet Trump’s last-minute decision to abort the attack in June led to a concern among Iran hawks in both Israel and the United States: that the president ultimately might not have the resolve to confront the threat with military force. The hawks also had reason to fear that two other partners in the anti-Iran coalition — Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. — might read any “softening” of Trump’s position on Iran as a sign that they, too, must adjust their positions out of fear of being left alone to deal with their regional nemesis. Both countries once aggressively lobbied the Trump administration to take a hard-line position on Iran and advocated the United States’ leaving the J.C.P.O.A. But the U.A.E. recently announced a drawdown of its military involvement in Yemen — where Emirati and Saudi troops have been battling a rebel group that receives military support from Iran — and sent a delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security.
Once again, more than a decade after they first raised the subject with American officials, Israeli officials have been considering the possibility of a unilateral strike against Iran. Unlike with Bush and Obama, there is greater confidence that Trump wouldn’t stand in the way. Netanyahu has recently been flexing Israeli muscle around the Mi