Will Israel, US, Iran collide over nuclear deal ambitions?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: The US wants to eventually enter a new nuclear deal, Israel wants to avoid this, and Tehran is rushing to defy the old deal as much as possible.

Looking at recent statements coming from Israel and the US, it seems as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden’s administration are working on different timelines when it comes to the Iran deal.

Officials in Jerusalem are in a rush to get face time with their counterparts in Washington to explain why Biden’s stated policy of trying to return to the 2015 Iran deal, along with Iranian compliance, is a dangerous idea, and provide them with intelligence from the 2018 Mossad operation smuggling out Iran’s nuclear archive.

Considering the life-and-death consequences of a nuclear Iran, some are even willing to put politics aside. One senior cabinet minister from the bloc opposing Netanyahu recently said that if the prime minister goes to Washington to meet Biden before the election in March, he wouldn’t even grab the low-hanging fruit and accuse Netanyahu of doing it for political gain, because it is so urgent for Israel to make its case against the Iran deal.
In the meantime, Biden hasn’t even called Netanyahu yet, though Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called their Israeli counterparts, and CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie visited Israel last week.

So, Israeli officials have resorted to other tactics. Netanyahu has said publicly again and again that returning to the Iran nuclear deal would be catastrophic.

And unlike in 2013-2015, Israel is presenting a united front on this matter, from Netanyahu to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, in an opposing political party, to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, with little chance for the US to try to create a wedge between officials in Jerusalem to weaken the anti-JCPOA camp.

Last week, Kochavi slammed the agreement and said Israel must prepare a military option in case Iran gets closer to developing a nuclear weapon. Though Kochavi’s remarks got more attention, Ashkenazi, at the same conference, also said Israel must “keep a credible military option on the table.”

Ashkenazi added that Israel should avoid “a confrontational policy in the media toward the new [Biden] administration” and try to have “professional, real and transparent conversation in a closed room” to reach the stated goal of both countries’ leadership, to stop Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

But Ashkenazi – and others talking about the military option – surely know that in the run-up to reaching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is known, the Obama administration viewed Israeli talk about a military option as an impetus to reach an agreement faster to stop Israel from bombing Iran. Biden’s Iran team is full of Obama alumni – including Rob Malley, officially appointed as Iran envoy last week and seen in Jerusalem as soft on Iran – which means Ashkenazi’s comments are likely viewed as adversarial in Washington, even while he called to tone down the rhetoric.

Israeli officials may find themselves in a “hurry up and wait” situation, because while the urgency is acutely felt in Jerusalem, Biden officials have indicated that they are taking their time. They have COVID-19 to deal with, and more pressing foreign policy issues, such as tensions with China, to deal with, and Israeli officials know as much.

“We are a long ways” from returning to the Iran deal, Blinken said during his Senate confirmation hearing last month, a statement echoed by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. “We’re not there yet, to say the least.”
When the Biden administration gets to Iran on its long to-do list, it will make sure to call allies in the region, like Israel, Blinken and others have said.

BUT TEHRAN is not twiddling its thumbs while the US deals with its own issues; in fact, it seems to be rushing to take as many defiant, public steps as possible, in recent weeks, that would push the US to put Iran higher on its agenda.

Because, for Iran, time is of the essence. Every day that Trump-era “maximum pressure” sanctions remain in place is another day that its economic disaster continues. Never mind that it could divert funds away from terrorist groups in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen to help its own people at this time. Iran wants sanctions removed immediately.

So, Tehran launched its own “maximum pressure” campaign, with its parliament passing a law to ramp up its violations of the JCPOA in response to the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh earlier this year, which was blamed on Israel.

Iran started by enriching uranium up to 20%, then by starting work on developing uranium metal, which does not have credible civilian uses. The next steps, according to that law, are to scale back cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors this month, and to install 1,000 advanced centrifuges within three months.

As Udi Evental, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, put it in a position paper this week, Iran’s “threats to avenge the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and… Fakhrizadeh could deteriorate into unplanned military events in the field or be interpreted by Iranian proxies in the region, especially Iraqi Shi’ite militants, as a green light to harm American interests.”

In fact, we saw this week that the message extended to extremists in other parts of the world, with an Iran-linked group citing Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh in its message taking credit for the bombing near the Israeli Embassy in Delhi last week. Plus, this week, Ethiopian authorities reportedly foiled a plot to bomb the Israeli and UAE embassies in Addis Ababa.

WHAT THE Biden administration wants to do to quickly address these problems is put Iran “back into the box” of the JCPOA, as Sullivan put it in December. That would give the US time to deal with other issues before cracking down on Iran by extending nuclear restrictions and contending with Tehran’s missile program and malign actions in the region, because the deal has another six or seven years before its “sunset clauses” lift sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran wavers from the agreement in the interim, the US could always snap back sanctions, as Biden told The New York Times in December.

That is easier said than done, since Iran and the US have different ideas of what returning the JCPOA means. Iran wants all sanctions that are beyond the JCPOA’s purview – meaning anything pertaining to their sponsorship of terrorism worldwide and human rights violations – to be dropped immediately, and the US wants Iran to take the first step and return to compliance on uranium enrichment and other areas before sanctions are lifted. This is what’s been called the “sequencing” issue, about which much has been made in recent days.

However, Eurasia Group senior analyst Henry Rome (disclosure: he is a former Jerusalem Post intern) said sequencing is “small potatoes,” because it is already addressed by the JCPOA, which “fudges” the issue by saying the US should lift sanctions and Iran should scale back its nuclear program simultaneously.

“It’s a ‘fudge’ because, in reality, Iran needs to take its nuclear steps first, because they’re more time-consuming and need to be verified by the IAEA before the US lifts sanctions, but it happens within an agreed timeline so both sides can claim [it’s] simultaneous,” he said.

Sequencing is “the easy part,” Rome said, because there is guidance in the JCPOA, but the more complicated issues are which sanctions the US would remove, and whether Iran would commit to further negotiations to add to the existing deal.

Of course, for Israel, this is the nightmare scenario. Once the US is back in the JCPOA and has lifted sanctions, there is no reason for Iran to come back to the table and agree to more limitations. And, as far as Israeli officials are concerned, returning to the Iran deal is just kicking the can down the road. The core problem for Israeli officials is that the JCPOA will allow Iran to have a nuclear program at all, ever, and that it gives that program an international imprimatur.

And that’s why Israel is in such a rush to make its case, though State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week that the US will “consult closely with our allies and partners” before it speaks with Iran. For the US, the interim step of rejoining the JCPOA buys it more time. For Israel, the interim step is the problem.

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