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 called the nuclear talks in Vienna a “new chapter,” signaling the most positive response from his government since US President Joe Biden was elected.
Rouhani needs at least some kind of interim deal with America to try to save his legacy within Iran, as it was he who led the push for the 2015 nuclear deal only to have sanctions reimposed in 2018.
Rouhani’s eight years in power are over in June when an election is held.
The Biden administration has sent multiple positive signals about the talks, including US State Department spokesman Ned Price explicitly saying on Wednesday that Washington was ready to repeal any sanctions that 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.
He also hopes to have the ayatollahs sign 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, or longer should he seek a second term.
Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel would not be bound by any nuclear deal, before any such agreement has been signed or before the two sides are even sitting in the same negotiating room.
The table seems set for a rerun of Washington and Tehran cutting a deal that Israel loudly opposes.
MANY FORMER Mossad and IDF intelligence officials favor Jerusalem keeping its head down in public, instead focusing on private talks with the US to make any future deal better reflect Israeli interests. But their objections have not registered with Netanyahu.
Those officials view his 2015 opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a failure, and harmful to Israel remaining a bipartisan issue in the US. They also object to his public attacks on Biden administration policy before a deal is even done.
Netanyahu’s supporters, who include top officials like Mossad director Yossi Cohen, either view Israels 2015 opposition 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, as compared with 2015, Iran has gotten too far ahead with advanced centrifuge development. That could make it easier for Tehran to break out to a nuclear bomb within weeks, without anyone noticing or having time to prepare – much worse than the worst-case scenario in 2015, when Iran would have needed a few months to a break out, giving enough time to the global community to mobilize and plan a preemptive strike.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi is a key issue for Netanyahu.
A major speech he gave in January signaled that he was 100% behind Netanyahu’s tougher tone with Iran, even at the price of clashing publicly with the US.
In contrast, the last three IDF chiefs have criticized Netanyahu about his aggressiveness toward Tehran, and especially on his banging heads with Washington in public. A recent interview with outgoing IDF intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom, and another by Maj. Gen. Tal Kelman, who runs a relatively new Iran-focused command, indicate a current approach also in line with the previous IDF chiefs.
Which begs the question: if there is still dissent and opposition within the security establishment against Netanyahu’s approach to Iran, will the prime minster be able to order a preemptive strike as early as he might prefer, or will he be blocked, as reportedly occurred in the past?
What if the US cuts an interim deal and then a full deal this year and next, and the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies then say 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?
Moreover, Netanyahu may not be prime minister in the coming months.
Would a rotating prime minister/unity government headed by Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid be ready to shake things up with the US?
Lapid is on record against 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 that point, Israel’s main pressure points would likely be cyber, and covert action.
Until at least June, the tone will be determined by Rouhani, Biden and Netanyahu. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Iran’s ultimate authority – 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 the table to deal with other issues.
In the meantime, Netanyahu will do all he can to undermine such a deal.