Israel on edge as US reports progress on reviving Iran nuclear deal
4 Feb 2022|

Much speculation surrounds the negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal (formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) as they near their final phase. The latest statements emanating out of Washington signal a cautiously optimistic note. According to a senior US State Department official, the negotiations over the past month ‘were among the most intensive that we’ve had to date … [W]e made progress narrowing down the list of differences to just key priorities on all sides. And that’s why now is the time for political decisions.’

The same official expressed a great sense of urgency that the negotiations be concluded soon since Iran is now very close to ‘breakout time’, meaning it has enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. ‘[W]e’re talking about weeks, not months,’ the official said.

It appears that the technical issues have been sorted out and it’s now up to the highest authorities in Tehran and Washington to determine how to narrow the gap in expectations on both sides and find a compromise formula. Washington’s apprehensions about Iran reaching breakout point and the Iranian regime’s need to reverse the perilous state of the country’s economy indicate that a compromise agreement is likely to be hammered out soon, possibly in a few weeks’ time.

The prospect of such an outcome has Israeli leaders worried. Although Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government has adopted a far less provocative posture towards President Joe Biden’s administration than did Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, its stance on the issue of a return to the JCPOA is pretty much the same. After initially soft-pedalling the issue, Bennett has clearly declared that a revived JCPOA will not be acceptable to Israel:

We must be honest in saying we have disagreements with the United States, our great friend. The way we see it, Iran is playing with a very weak hand and is bluffing. This lie must be exposed, and they must be given a choice—survival of the regime or a continued race to nuclear capabilities, and they must not be given a gift of tens of billions … Either way, even if an agreement is signed, it will not bind us.

One of the Israeli government’s main concerns seems to be that once a deal is reached between Washington and Tehran, the US will seek to block the covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities that have become a staple of Israel’s strategy of delaying if not preventing Iran’s march towards acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability. According to a report in the New York Times, ‘Israeli leaders say they want a guarantee from the Biden administration that Washington will not seek to restrain their sabotage campaign, even if a renewed nuclear deal is reached.’

This is unlikely to be acceptable to Washington because Tehran can use these attacks as a justification for backing out of the nuclear deal and resuming uranium enrichment and stockpiling activities that would be prevented by a revived JCPOA, thus negating the very purpose of such a deal.

Moreover, the US and Israel differ in their assessment of the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Washington believes that so long as Iran hasn’t moved to develop a bomb it doesn’t have a nuclear military program, since it suspended such efforts in 2003. The reimposition of JCPOA restrictions will act as a further deterrent for Tehran and prevent it from moving towards weaponisation. On the other hand, Israeli officials assert that Iran has continued a clandestine effort to acquire a nuclear capability and a return to JCPOA won’t stop Tehran from reaching its goal.

The divergence between American and Israeli assessments of Iran’s nuclear capability and the utility of a nuclear deal in this context may be the major overt manifestation of their different approaches towards Iran. But the differences go much beyond that issue, according to leading Iran analyst Trita Parsi:

The answer lies in understanding that the details of the deal are not the real problem [between Israel and the United States]. It’s rather the very idea of Washington and Tehran reaching any agreement that not only prevents Iran from developing a bomb, but also reduces US–Iran tensions and lifts sanctions that have prevented Iran from enhancing its regional power.

The fundamental reason for Israel’s opposition to a revival of the JCPOA appears to be a fear that it may cause a shift in the balance of power in the region in favour of Iran. That that may well happen is borne out by the fact that just the revival of negotiations in Vienna has led to a change in the postures of Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, towards Tehran. Both these countries had vociferously opposed the original nuclear deal but have now come around to endorsing its revival. They have sent other signals, including at high-level meetings, indicating their desire for a rapprochement with Iran.

Such approaches have also been fuelled by Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s realisations from the time of the Trump administration that the US is unlikely to come to their aid in the event of a confrontation with Iran. The disorderly American retreat from Afghanistan has augmented the feeling among Iran’s Arab rivals that Washington has downgraded the strategic importance of the region, making it imperative for them to find a modus vivendi with Iran.

In this context, the likely impact of a revival of the JCPOA on Iran’s major Arab neighbours has the potential to knock the bottom out of Israel’s policy towards these countries, which has been based on the assumption of mutually shared antagonism towards Iran. The changing attitude of Iran’s neighbours towards Tehran may be the first sign that the balance of power in the region and the calculus it was based on are undergoing a major transformation to the detriment of Israeli interests. This realisation seems to be driving Israel’s strident opposition to the renewed nuclear deal more than the stated reason that it could legitimise rather than retard Iran’s nuclear capability.