Israel, US Might be in For a Bitter Fight on The Iran Nukes Deal

Published April 8th, 2021 - 09:33 GMT
Rouhani calls the nuclear talks in Vienna a "new chapter".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Warsaw Ghetto Square in Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial on April 8, 2021. EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP
Rouhani and Biden will move toward a nuclear deal.

The current indirect negotiations between the US and Iran – with England, France, Germany, China and Russia shuttling between the two sides – is a tale of three leaders on different paths.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday called the nuclear talks in Vienna a "new chapter," signaling the most positive response from his government since US President Joe Biden was elected.

He needs at least some kind of interim deal with America to try to save his legacy within Iran. This is given that he led the push there for the 2015 JCPOA/nuclear deal only to have sanctions reimposed in 2018.

Rouhani's eight years in power are over in June when elections will take place.

The Biden administration has sent multiple positive signals about the talks, including US State Department Ned Price explicitly saying Wednesday that Washington was ready to repeal any sanctions which were inconsistent with the 2015 deal.

Biden wants to rejoin the nuclear deal to remove a source of instability and instead focus his energies on fighting the coronavirus and bigger foreign policy challenges like China and Russia.

At the same time, he does not want to rush in and risk being attacked for being too weak.

Also, he hopes to get the ayatollahs to sign to an add-on to the 2015 deal extending and strengthening some of its provisions.

Unlike Rouhani and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden also knows he will be around for at least another three-plus years – and maybe much longer if he seeks a second term.

Netanyahu on Wednesday said that Israel would not be bound by any nuclear deal.
Strikingly, he said this even before any deal has been signed and before the US and the Islamic Republic are even sitting in the same negotiating room.

In some ways, the table seems to be set for a rerun of Washington and Tehran cutting a deal that Israel loudly opposes, instead of working quietly behind the scenes to influence the agreement.

IF MANY former Mossad and IDF intelligence officials favor Israel keeping its head down in public and focusing more on private talks with the US to make any potential future deal better reflect Israeli interests, their objections have not registered with Netanyahu.

Israeli officials objecting to his strong public attacks on Biden administration policy, even before a deal is done, view his 2015 opposition as a failure and as harming Israel’s remaining a bipartisan issue in the US.

Netanyahu and his supporters, who also include top officials like Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and possibly IDF Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kohavi, either view the 2015 Israeli opposition to the deal as a success in that it helped set a tough Trump administration policy on Iran, or think that this round is different.

The prime minister and his supporters say that this time, Iran has gotten too far ahead with advanced centrifuge development as compared to 2015.

They worry that with advanced centrifuges, it could be easier for Tehran to later "sneak out" or "walk out" to a nuclear bomb in weeks without anyone noticing or having time to prepare.


This would be worse than the 2015 worst-case scenario where Iran would have needed at least a few months to "break out" to a nuclear weapon – months which would be enough time to mobilize the global community and carefully plan a preemptive strike if necessary.

The prime minister also seems to be betting that regarding any additional concessions the Biden administration might get from the Islamic Republic, it will try to get them anyway – and that reduced public criticism would not get anything beyond that.

Kohavi himself is a key issue for Netanyahu. A MAJOR speech Kohavi gave in January signaled that he was 100% behind Netanyahu's tougher tone with Iran, even at the price of clashing in public with the US.

In contrast, the last three IDF chiefs had criticized Netanyahu about his aggressiveness regarding Tehran, especially about banging heads with Washington in public.

But other recent interviews by outgoing IDF intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom with Yediot Ahronot, as well as a March 28 interview by Maj. Gen. Tal Kelman, who runs a relatively new Iran-focused command, indicated an approach much more in line with the previous IDF chiefs. 

If there is still dissent within the military about Netanyahu's approach to Iran, would he be able to order a preemptive strike as early as he might prefer? Or might he be blocked by security establishment opposition, as reportedly occurred in the past?

What if the US cuts an interim deal and then a full deal later in 2021 or in 2022, and the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies then say that the Islamic Republic has returned to compliance?

If there is internal Israeli opposition to attacking any time before Tehran is extremely close to the nuclear threshold, what options will Netanyahu have left?

And Netanyahu may not even be prime minister in the coming months.

Would a rotating-prime-minister unity government of Yamina's Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid be ready to shake things up with the US or risk a major preemptive strike where Netanyahu himself might have run out of pressure points?

Lapid is surely on record slamming fighting with the US in public – and New Hope Party leader Gideon Sa’ar, who would have a major role in such a unity coalition, has made similar statements.

At such a point, Israel's main pressure points would likely be cyber and covert action.

But until at least June, the tone will be determined by Rouhani, Biden and Netanyahu. Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the final decider for his country, is always in the background, but he has given Rouhani a chance to negotiate despite the US ignoring his many preconditions and deadlines.

Rouhani and Biden will do what they can to move toward a deal – even an interim one: Rouhani to save his legacy and Biden to clear off his table to deal with other issues. In the meantime, Netanyahu will do all he can to undermine such a deal.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

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