The Israel-Hamas Conflict: Implications for Nuclear Security in the Region

The Israel-Hamas conflict strains Israel-Iran ties, impacting regional nuclear dynamics. It may strengthen Israel’s resolve to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, prompt Iran's nuclear acceleration, and hinder U.S.-Iran diplomacy.

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The conflict between Israel and Hamas is further complicating nuclear dynamics in the region. In a coordinated surprise offensive, Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, killing about 1,200 civilians and capturing others as hostages. The crisis is now in its seventh week with hostilities continuing on both sides. It is becoming more apparent now how the crisis is affecting the region more broadly.

It is widely believed that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. Iran is advancing its nuclear program, and Saudi Arabia is expressing interest in developing an independent nuclear deterrent if Iran obtains one. This conflict adds another layer to the already sensitive nuclear situation—not least because a member of a ultra-nationalist Israeli political party claimed that since there were “‘no non-combatants in Gaza,’ using an atomic weapon on the Palestinian enclave was ‘one of the possibilities.’”

Iran’s support for Hamas has fueled tensions and further contributed to the strained relationship with Israel. Historically, Tehran has supported the armed Palestinian group by facilitating the development and manufacturing of a domestic missile and rocket system. The conflict Gaza is now further stress testing the Iran-Israel shadow war. In addition, the conflict is disrupting the quiet nuclear diplomacy between the United States and Iran, making further negotiations challenging, and may also influence Saudi Arabia’s stance on pursuing an independent nuclear deterrent.

Q1: How has the Israel-Iran relationship evolved amid Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program?

A1: The emergence of Iranian nuclear ambitions, including the revelation of a clandestine uranium enrichment program in the early 2000s, raised concerns that Iran’s nuclear program might have hostile intentions. Iran now has enough fissile material to make several nuclear bombs and has made limited progress on safeguards and monitoring issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In June 2022, U.S. officials estimated that Iran’s “fissile breakout time has been dramatically reduced from about a year to what is now—what can now be measured in weeks or even less.” This, coupled with Iranian support for militant groups and Israel’s efforts to counter Iran’s regional influence through operations in Syria since 2013 and assassinations of Iranian officials over the past years, gradually intensified the rivalry. For decades both countries engaged in covert cyber warfare against each other, which is now turning increasingly explicit. The focus of these cyberattacks has transitioned from predominantly targeting defensive entities to deliberately disrupting critical infrastructure and the daily lives of civilians, including an alleged Israeli attack on Iranian gas stations in 2021, and Iran’s reported hack of an LGBTQ+ dating website to steal private information.

Diplomatic attempts to slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions have faced challenges in recent years. Israel remained skeptical of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), believing that Tehran’s ultimate intention to build a nuclear weapon will not waver. Tensions between Israel and Iran escalated significantly after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. The withdrawal led to an increase in counter-proliferation attacks by Israel, including the assassination of numerous Iranian nuclear scientists, such as Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27, 2021, and sabotage of Iranian nuclear facilities, including Natanz in 2020. In response, Iran intensified its attacks on critical infrastructure in Israel, including on water facilities in May 2020.

Q2: How could the Israel-Hamas conflict affect the nuclear dynamics between Israel and Iran?

A2: Frictions between Israel and Iran have been increasing at the sidelines of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. The support provided by Tehran to Hamas, including training and arming the proxy militia group, has been an enduring contributor to regional tensions. The United States and its allies have not found evidence linking Iran to the attacks by Hamas, and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson, Brigadier General Daniel Hagari, explained after the attack that “Iran is a major player, but we can’t yet say if it was involved in the planning or training.” Nevertheless, Israel perceives significant Iranian involvement in funding Hamas. Adding to the turmoil, Iran has warned Israel of risking a regional escalation if the IDF enters Gaza for a ground invasion.

The renewed Israel-Hamas conflict could exacerbate existing nuclear tensions in a variety of ways, such as strengthening Israel’s resolve to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, or by incentivizing Iran to accelerate its nuclear program while Israel is preoccupied with Hamas. Israeli officials have repeatedly emphasized their refusal to accept a nuclear-armed adversary and has shown minimal interest in nuclear diplomacy. For example, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his opposition to the interim agreement that was under negotiation between the United States and Iran in June.

Iran on the other hand may view nuclear weapons as a meaningful deterrent, given Israel’s demonstrated resolve in response to Hamas’s attack. On October 18, 2023, UN Security Council restrictions expired and Iran’s Foreign Ministry’s responded enthusiastically that there will be unrestricted collaboration in military and defense areas determined by Iran’s needs and discretion within bilateral agreements with other countries, signaling willingness to advance all areas, including nuclear ones. Iran’s eagerness seemed premature, as the United Kingdom, European Union, and United States announced an intention to maintain some sanctions linked to missile and drone initiatives in Iran.

Q3: How might the conflict impact nuclear diplomacy between the United States and Iran?
A3: Before the conflict, informal talks and quiet diplomacy were underway between the United States and Iran concerning Tehran’s nuclear program. In September, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei granted permission to Iranian diplomats to enter talks with the United States, hinting at the existence of tacit understandings with Tehran to de-escalate tensions. However, the Israel-Hamas conflict will likely put the hope for future talks on hold, allowing Iranian nuclear development to proceed without restrictions. Additional points of contention have been Washington’s decision to hold off on releasing $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue in South Korea and renewal of sanctions on Iranian missile and drone programs. Consequently, the already limited progress in addressing the Iranian nuclear program is under additional threat, making any further headway in negotiations challenging.

There have been no reports that the informal dialogue from the summer continued. Rather, there is a risk of deterioration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran in the short term. These are exacerbated by the snapback of sanctions. On the one hand, the United States wants to keep diplomatic channels with Iran open, on the other hand, the conflict in Israel and current sanctions make it difficult to engage with the main supporter of Hamas. According to Kelsey Davenport, director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, the renewed sanctions do not “have any practical effect and Iran would retaliate, setting off another escalatory spiral.” She adds that Tehran has made it clear in the past that it will consider withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if the sanctions are reimposed. On the one hand, the United States wants to keep diplomatic channels with Iran open, on the other hand, the conflict in Israel and current sanctions make it difficult to engage with the main supporter of Hamas. The U.S. Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson, said that “the U.S. will continue to take action to disrupt Iran’s proliferation of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and other weapons to oppressive regimes and destabilizing actors.”

The current tensions raise the question if Iran will be motivated to continue pursuing a nuclear weapons program. It is too early to speculate how the conflict will influence the trajectory of nuclear diplomacy between the United States and Iran in the foreseeable future, though there are a several factors that will determine the trajectory of nuclear talks. For one, it will depend on Iran’s next steps in its nuclear program—whether it will enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon or even make it deliverable. It will also be contingent on Iran’s level of support for Hamas during the ongoing conflict and how direct the link is between the Iranian government and leadership of Hamas. Lastly, the relationship will depend on U.S. domestic politics, where a change in leadership would likely heighten tensions between the two countries. Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, are in disagreement with current dealings with Tehran. There are a few possible scenarios: Iran might increase nuclear developments and Israel could launch conventional counterproliferation strikes, or Israel could be focused by the conflict with Hamas and rely on the United States to find diplomatic solutions for Iran’s nuclear program.

Q4: Will the conflict affect Saudi Arabia’s interest in an independent nuclear deterrent change?

A4: The implications of the Israel-Hamas conflict extend beyond diplomatic relations—such as the recent reproach between Israel and Saudi Arabia—to the nuclear arena. As a historical adversary of Iran and with the breakdown of normalization talks between Israel, the Saudi Arabia may reconsider its stance on pursuing an independent nuclear deterrent for its national security. In the past, Riyadh has sent mixed signals regarding the prospects of a nuclear weapons program. It agreed to broaden oversight of nuclear activities but it also seeks U.S. consent for uranium enrichment. There have been proliferation cases of what political scientist Vipin Narang termed “sheltered nuclear pursuit,” or opportunistically taking advantage of the protection of a major power against external threats to pursue nuclear weapons. The kingdom might have similar intentions given the turmoil in the region. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated in 2018 that Saudi Arabia has no intention of obtaining nuclear weapons, but if Iran develops them, the kingdom will do the same. He confirmed this sentiment in 2023 that if Iran did successfully develop a weapon, Saudi Arabia “will have to get one.”

Ultimately, the kingdom’s nuclear developments will depend on Iran’s next nuclear steps, as it has before the Israel-Hamas conflict. Although Saudi-Iran rapprochement is not dead, the kingdom might reconsider the objectives of a civilian nuclear program if Iran takes additional steps in its nuclear program.

Doreen Horschig is an associate fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for the Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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