It's clear that Israel does not want the Iran nuclear deal to be salvaged, but provocations may speed up re-negotiation.
Located around 250 kilometres south of Tehran is Iran’s key nuclear enrichment site in Natanz. On April 11, there was an explosion which caused a power failure at this underground atomic facility. This incident resulted in the damage of some older centrifuges, according to Iranian authorities. Tehran’s chief diplomat immediately pointed his finger at Israel, accusing Tel Aviv of “nuclear terrorism”.
With the explosion at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the attacks on Iranian shipping, it is hard not to suspect a link to Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to remain in power | Analysis https://t.co/yKibyELdfz— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) April 15, 2021
Although Israel’s government has not officially claimed responsibility for this attack, an Israeli public broadcaster reported that the Mossad was behind it, and the New York Times reports that American and Israeli intelligence officials confirmed to them that Israel played a role in the attack. Tehran has vowed revenge and declared that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program will not suffer from this act of sabotage.
Tehran is now trying to stand strong and send out an air of confidence while downplaying any harm that this recent act of “nuclear terrorism” may have inflicted on Iran’s nuclear program. Nonetheless, against the backdrop of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination in November 2020, this incident in Natanz further exposed the Iranian intelligence services’ inability to prevent Israel from carrying out such attacks deep in Iran.
The attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site could have resulted in an environmental catastrophe, the effects of which could have been devastating upon surrounding civilian populations. Writes @falasteen47.https://t.co/PC7qBkdUMX— Press TV (@PressTV) April 14, 2021
Timing is everything
The timing of this latest attack on Iran’s Natanz facility is important for at least four major reasons.
First, this explosion occurred only hours after Iranians celebrated National Nuclear Technology Day. As Iranians across the political spectrum are extremely proud of their country’s nuclear program, such attacks are humiliating. The Iranian government’s failure to protect the country’s nuclear infrastructure from hostile foreign actors angers the public in Iran. This sabotage at Natanz bodes negatively for President Hassan Rouhani’s standing among Iranians.
Second, the day after the electrical blackout, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. During his visit, the Pentagon chief announced that he and Netanyahu discussed “regional security challenges, including Iran's destabilizing activities” and that Washington’s “commitment to the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership is ironclad.”
It is not clear whether Secretary Austin had any idea that this attack was about to occur before it did, or if he learned about it after the explosion. Either way, this attack against Natanz was probably just as much a message for the US as it was for Iran.
Third, nuclear talks involving diplomats from the US and the countries which remain in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) recently began in Vienna. These talks have been part of European-led efforts to bring about the Iranian nuclear deal’s revival.
Fourth, Iran’s upcoming presidential election is coming up in June. Israel is making decisions with Iran’s domestic politics in mind. Tel Aviv is trying to make it more difficult for any pro-JCPOA presidential candidate to win.
From the Israeli government’s perspective, it is best if Rouhani’s successor is a “hardliner” opposed to the nuclear accord because the Islamic Republic having such a president would decrease the JCPOA’s chances of being reconstituted.
Sabotaging nuclear diplomacy
The JCPOA being salvaged would constitute a nightmarish scenario for Netanyahu’s government. In the words of Ali Ahmed, a Tehran-based geopolitical expert, “Israel’s fear is that a stabilization of the US-Iran rivalry makes it less important to US interests and may even shuffle regional alliance networks in the long term.” Therefore, Tel Aviv seeks to derail efforts aimed at choreographing the US and Iran’s simultaneous return to full compliance with the JCPOA.
Iran has unveiled the country's newest advanced nuclear centrifuge in a ceremony to mark the National Nuclear Technology Day. https://t.co/9KgIYsnu2u— ZAQS World News (@ZAQSNews) April 12, 2021
This latest incident in Natanz is entirely consistent with past Israeli actions aimed at undermining the potential for constructive engagement between Washington and Tehran on the Iranian nuclear file. “The recent attack on Iran's nuclear facility in Natanz fits a pattern of Israeli attacks, assassinations of Iranian scientists and sabotage,” Dr Assal Rad, a senior research fellow at the National Iranian American Council, told TRT World. “While Israel claims these acts are aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, in fact they are aimed at provoking conflict and undermining international diplomatic efforts that actually curb Iran's ability to get a weapon, namely with the JCPOA.”
Israel is determined to take actions that provoke Iran into lashing out. The Iranians, who understand what Israel’s government is trying to do, will likely avoid this trap. Tehran has patience and will be content to respond further down the road, feeling no pressure to exact revenge in the immediate future.
Given Tel Aviv’s record of lobbying the US to take military action against Iran, it is hardly surprising that the Israelis would be keen to remind all in the region and beyond that there are options outside of diplomacy for addressing Iran’s nuclear activity. The Israeli Prime Minister wants the world to know that his country will not sit by idly as talks in Vienna progress with almost all actors in the international community hoping for a successful revival of the JCPOA.
Netanyahu shines after Mossad sabotaged Iranian nuclear facility on ‘National Nuclear Technology Day’https://t.co/EDACBKP8zo— Freedom First Network (@freedomfirstnet) April 11, 2021
In attacking the nuclear facility in Natanz, however, Israel might be undermining its anti-diplomacy agenda. This attack could increase the resolve of diplomats in Europe who are attempting to save the nuclear accord before Iran’s upcoming presidential election. “The attack will undoubtedly push all parties involved to redouble their efforts in finding a resolution during the ongoing negotiations in Vienna,” according to foreign policy analyst Mehran Haghirian. “Iran will use this issue as leverage in the negotiations and, at the same time, further advance its nuclear program in contradiction to the JCPOA until an agreement is reached in Vienna.”
Challenges for the White House
Regardless of the US role (or perhaps lack of one) in this incident, the Biden administration finds itself in a difficult situation. The new leadership in the White House has some tough decisions to make.
Criticising Israel for this act comes with political risks because any US administration condemning the Israeli government’s conduct leads to domestic backlash from American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
By the same token, if the Biden’s administration stays quiet, such silence almost guarantees that Iran’s “hardliners” will have something new to point to when alleging that Washington was directly involved in the incident, or at least supportive of it.
Unless the White House quickly condemns the Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear site, even fewer Iranians would be willing to consider that the US is willing to negotiate in good faith. Many Iranians would reasonably ask how the US can pursue diplomacy with Tehran while simultaneously being tied to acts of “nuclear terrorism” targeting Iran’s atomic facilities.
In-depth analysis: "Iran has sent the White House its own message that if Washington doesn't return to the JCPOA and lift sanctions, Tehran can further integrate with China to minimise the impact of US pressure", says @GiorgioCafiero https://t.co/eNj5FjkJCP— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 9, 2021
“Israel's actions directly undermine US efforts and a key promise of the Biden Administration, not to mention the fact that such attacks are illegal under international law,” explained Dr. Rad. “If anything, this should be a reminder to the Biden Administration that it is best served by listening to the American people and international community which support diplomacy, rather than those who are actively sabotaged the gains of the Obama-Biden administration and continue to do so.”
Due to this recent explosion, there will most likely be stronger calls within the Islamic Republic for further expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. We can expect Iranian negotiators to come under increased pressure to secure even more sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear activity.
Ultimately, thanks to the latest attack in Natanz, the Biden administration now faces more challenging circumstances compared to just one week ago in terms of achieving a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran as it claims to be seeking.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
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