• Ideas
  • Israel-Hamas War

As the Israel-Hamas War Governs the World’s Attention, Iran Is Quietly Marching Towards Nuclear Breakout 

6 minute read
Ideas
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is Lester Crown Professor of Leadership Practice and a Senior Associate Dean of the Yale School of Management. He helped catalyze the retreat of 1,200 global corporations from Russia and has served as a personal, informal advisor to four U.S. presidents, two Democrats and two Republicans.
Boehler is the founder and CEO of Rubicon Founders, a healthcare investment firm. He served in the Trump Administration as the founding Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, the U.S. government’s international investment arm. He served on the negotiating team for the Abraham Accords and led the normalization discussions between Israel and Morocco. He was also a founding member of Operation Warp Speed and is currently a board member at the Atlantic Council and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  

When Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad invaded Israel on Oct.7, they didn’t just perpetrate the most deadly attack on Jews since the Holocaust. The Iran-trained and supported terrorists also helped divert the world’s attention away from how Iran is quietly, but quickly, marching towards nuclear breakout. In February, top Biden Administration official Colin Kahl, the then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, admitted that Iran could soon assemble a crude nuclear device in days.

Understandably, the U.S. and its allies are now focused on urgent, immediate regional crises—namely the IDF’s military operation to eliminate Hamas from Gaza and dealing with the ever-growing threat of militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. But a nuclear Iran remains the gravest long-term regional security threat facing Israel, the Middle East, and the United States, and it is not too late to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

The diplomatic backdrop has already changed considerably for Iran’s nuclear aspirations. In the weeks and months before the Oct. 7 attack, Israel and Saudi Arabia were close to completing a normalization agreement, building off the Abraham Accords, which were originally conceived by its architect Jared Kushner and which both of us were involved in advising and negotiating.

The imminent addition of Saudi Arabia—home of Mecca, the spiritual center of Islam—to the Abraham Accords likely motivated Hamas’ attacks on Israel. Saudi-Israel normalization would have been disastrous for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s terrorist proxies, and the Iranian regime’s stated goal of destroying Israel. The more that the people of the region accept Israel’s existence, the harder it becomes for Tehran to obliterate the Jewish state and assert dominance over the Middle East.

More From TIME

We remain confident Saudi Arabia will eventually recognize Israel’s existence, but not right now. The scenes of Israeli fighters marching through Gaza broadcast throughout the Middle East threaten to inflame a pre-existing hatred of Israel that makes normalization politically untenable at this time, even for Gulf monarchies not beholden to voting publics.

We firmly judge this derailment of the next phase of the Abraham Accords as the great geopolitical casualty of the Oct. 7 attack. Even more importantly, the Ayatollah seems to believe the West is now further distracted and perhaps more deterred from confronting Iran over its nuclear program, as full-fledged nuclear weapons creep ever closer to fruition.

The strides Iran has made in its nuclear program over the last few years have flown under the radar. Today, Tehran has enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon in only 12 days according to data collected from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran is essentially a nuclear threshold state given their stockpile of uranium, with estimated enrichment levels as high as 84%. For context, 90% is the benchmark for full breakout capability. International sanctions on the regime’s ballistic missile program have also been allowed to expire, giving the regime carte blanche to further develop and proliferate the delivery vehicles necessary for a potential strike with the ability to reach Tel Aviv, Haifa, or even a European capital.

Provided by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Adam Boehler

The potential destructive power of an Iranian nuclear weapon is obvious, but even the mere threat of a nuclear Iran is a potent weapon for the Ayatollah right now. He has surely seen how Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats seemingly deterred the U.S. from fully supporting Ukraine, according to experts including former American diplomat John E. Herbst. The Ayatollah may feel emboldened to run the same playbook now, especially if Israel reoccupies Gaza for the long-term or Hezbollah aggression compels the Israeli military to enter Lebanon in the months ahead.

The U.S. has repeatedly backed down from even minor confrontation with Iran in the interests of avoiding a wider regional war, including responding rather timidly to attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq by Iran-backed militias in recent weeks. As 60 Minutes detailed in November, the regime’s assassination campaigns on U.S. soil against U.S. officials and dissidents also continue apace.

It seems conceivable that the Ayatollah may continue to scale the escalation ladder with increasingly potent nuclear threats. U.S. and Israeli officials have messaged resolve not to let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, but whether Israel and the U.S. actually have the political will to destroy the Iranian bomb-making program remains to be seen.

Provided by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Adam Boehler

Even with Iran entrenched as a nuclear threshold state, it is not too late to stop the West Asia country  from obtaining nuclear weapons. The U.S. should be galvanized by the current conflict to restore deterrence against Iran—beginning with stronger enforcement of sanctions designed to cut off the regime’s number one source of income: oil revenues. The money generated from its petroleum exports funds Iran’s nuclear program and terrorist proxies alike, with windfall profits from increased oil exports, as we’ve discussed previously

As Secretary of State in 2016, John Kerry proudly proclaimed that the world was safer thanks to the nuclear deal he engineered, which released $150 billion in sanctions relief to Iran. In hindsight, Kerry’s sheepish admission that some of that money might go towards terrorism has proven sadly prescient, and we should hit pause on this spigot immediately.

Additionally, the U.S. must continue to pressure the IAEA to conduct rigorous inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities and hold the regime accountable when it does not abide by its commitments. An IAEA report released on Sept. 4 stated: “Iran’s decision to remove all of the agency’s equipment previously installed in Iran for JCPOA-related surveillance and monitoring activities has also had detrimental implications for the agency’s ability to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.”

To deter nuclear escalation, the world must impose new, tougher costs on Iran when it skirts IAEA regulations, stopping the country in its tracks before it progresses any further towards an actual nuclear weapon. Failure to do so makes it increasingly likely that Iran asserts control on the escalation ladder through nuclear threats, whether in the crisis in Israel or with increasing support for its terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

American policy makers are rightly seized with the urgent and important work of supporting Israel’s counter-offensive efforts against terrorists in Gaza. We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that the current crisis is inextricably tied to the strategic imperative of stopping Iran’s march to the bomb.

Should we fail to urgently address and counter Iran’s nuclear program, today’s conflicts in the Middle East will likely become far worse.

With research assistance by Steven Tian.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.