The original script has been flipped.
By the time Prime Minister Naftali Bennett or former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House – whenever that would happen – the US expected it would already have signed a deal with Iran to return to the JCPOA nuclear deal.
Instead, Bennett’s visit next week will take place in the heat of the debate on what should be the US’s strategy going forward:
1) To still try to return to the JCPOA, and if so, under what conditions.
2) To reverse course and reignite the maximum pressure campaign or some other coercive strategy.
3) To coordinate when potential covert, cyber or even overt military action might take place if the Islamic Republic refuses to slow its nuclear progress.
Originally, Netanyahu or Bennett could have made all the noise they wanted, but US President Joe Biden already would have framed the terms of the discussion for years to come.
The Israeli prime minister could have at best requested that Biden take his commitment to a longer and stronger add-on to the JCPOA seriously.
Now, even if Washington’s announced policy is to return to the JCPOA, at some point US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s repeated vow – that the window for such a return is not unlimited – will create some kind of deadline and tipping point.
This is Bennett’s chance to solidify some aspect of the ongoing Iran nuclear crisis in the direction of Israel’s national interests, whether it be to harden US determination to fix the JCPOA’s holes such as the sunset clause, to harden its stance on new problems such as Tehran’s advanced centrifuges, or to receive a green light from Biden to be aggressive about operations that delay Iranian nuclear progress.
Israeli influence should not be inflated.
Pressure from Jerusalem, along with pressure from moderate Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, is certainly part of the story of why there is no JCPOA yet, and expectations of a deal in May-June fell by the wayside.
But the timing of Iranian elections in mid-June, Ebrahim Raisi’s win and his post-victory decision to take a much harder line on the nuclear standoff with the US, are bigger reasons.
TEHRAN’S FAILURE to come clean to the IAEA on discrepancies at three nuclear sites is another issue that continually disturbs not only the US, but also the European Union, and even NGOs like the Arms Control Association, whose default position is to strongly support the JCPOA.
Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy for the NGO, even recently wrote that a failure by Iran to clarify these issues in the coming months could lead to a referral to the UN Security Council and new global sanctions on top of the ongoing American sanctions.
And Biden on his own never wanted to be seen by the American public as being pushed around by Iran, or joining the JCPOA without getting something for giving up the sanctions leverage he currently can hold over the ayatollahs.
But Israel’s role should also not be discounted.
In February, the Biden administration delayed the visit of then Mossad chief Yossi Cohen for months. It delayed Netanyahu’s visit long enough that it was able to avoid hosting him entirely. And Bennett was not invited in his first two months.
With the exception of former president Reuven Rivlin on June 29, out of all of the numerous other top-level Israeli officials who have met with American officials – from Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to outgoing and incoming national security advisors Meir Ben Shabbat and Eyal Hulata to IDF Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kochavi – Cohen is the only one to have held a small hour-long meeting with Biden himself (and with CIA Director William Burns present) in April after the Iran negotiations were already frozen.
No one meeting, no matter how convincing the presenter is, determines the fate of nations.
But nuclear talks between the US and Iran and the world powers seemed to be plowing ahead in mid-April.
Then on April 30, Cohen presented Biden with Israel’s most updated intelligence on Iran’s progress with advanced centrifuges and on weaponization issues.
Sometime after that, the US made clearer demands about an explicit guarantee from the Islamic Republic agreeing to later talks on a longer and stronger deal, as well as on destroying advanced centrifuges, as opposed to just putting them in the closet.
Once again, Biden is his own person, has had his own doubts about Iran all along, and much of the freeze in negotiations can be attributed to Iran itself.
But Cohen’s one-on-one with Biden shows that personal diplomacy and powerful intelligence shared with the US president, like with some others in the past, can make all of the difference.
Soon it will be Bennett’s turn for the meeting of his life.