Are US, Israel at loggerheads about Iran ‘landing’ or also ‘takeoff’?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must drop his loud public criticism of any American deal, accept that a deal is in the works, and try to make that deal better, former intel chiefs say.

US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: ANDREW HARNIK/YOAV DUDUKEVITCH/REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has made it clear multiple times, including in a speech on Wednesday to Congress, that he wants to tightly coordinate Iran negotiations policy with Israel for the “takeoff,” but not for the “landing.”
To date, it seems that Israel will not comply with this formula and is ready to fight the Biden administration even before the takeoff.
This policy of upfront confrontation is not supported by everyone in Israel.
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and former Mossad Iran desk chief Sima Shine, along with others, have all strongly recommended that Jerusalem work to quietly improve any likely nuclear deal by Washington with Tehran.
They have said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must drop his loud public criticism of any American deal, accept that a deal is in the works, and try to make that deal better.
Some have suggested working to extend the nuclear limits on Iran from 2030 to 2040.
Others have suggested eliminating Tehran’s right under the 2015 deal to make progress with advanced centrifuges, to add “anytime anywhere” IAEA inspections, to limit its ballistic missile program or to rein in its destabilizing of the region.
But these former officials are not calling the shots.
Netanyahu, National Security Council Chief Meir Ben Shabbat, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, and seemingly even IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, have all come out against virtually any realistic US negotiation process.
The prime minister and his lieutenants have been particularly loud in their warning of an improved deal modeled off the 2015 deal as being dangerous.
It would not be surprising if Kochavi’s views were more moderate in some respects – in October, outgoing IDF intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom said that the US leaving the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the maximum pressure campaign have not proven to be the best policy or slowed Tehran’s drive toward a bomb. One would think Kochavi will be influenced by his IDF intelligence officials.
But in Kochavi’s big public speech in January he came on sounding as strongly opposed to any improved deal as Netanyahu is.
Maybe Kochavi’s message was directed more at deterring Iran from getting any thoughts about breaking out to a nuclear weapon. But his speech appeared to give Netanyahu support from the IDF, something which the prime minister lacked during debates about how to handle Iran-US issues during the 2010-2015 period.
As far as Netanyahu and the key officials currently making policy are concerned, the only satisfactory result would be the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, including ending the right to enrich uranium.
Not only is this their position for the end of the negotiations, but they oppose starting negotiations, or at least oppose removal of any sanctions, until some of these key points are won.
They reason that if the US rejoins the 2015 nuclear deal and removes sanctions in exchange for the Islamic Republic returning to the deal’s nuclear limitations and for a future promise to extend the deal, that the improvements will never happen or will fall far short.
Why would Tehran make more concessions once the sanctions are removed, they ask?
Shine responded to this question from former Netanyahu NSC chief Jacob Nagel at a conference on Wednesday saying that her contacts in Washington had explained that Iran would be given only 12-18 months to agree to an improved deal before the US would snap back sanctions.
Nagel reacted in disbelief, saying no one in the Biden administration would rock the boat that way as long as Iran complies with the technicalities it agreed to in 2015 – technicalities which he said allow it to move to the nuclear weapon threshold in 2030.
It is because of these doubts that Netanyahu and others are attacking the US attempts to open up negotiations with Tehran from the takeoff, without waiting for the landing.
Shine responded to those doubting the US’s follow through, demanding to know why they think a Netanyahu confrontation with the US over Iran, which failed to stop a deal in 2015, will do any better in 2021.
Meanwhile, Blinken seems determined to try to discuss the issues with Israel and make it feel included, even if the Biden administration goes against Israeli advice on a future deal’s final terms.
It is an interesting question whether Blinken is trying to do this to genuinely incorporate Israeli input, to try to lessen Israeli opposition or to buy time, hoping for a new prime minister.
Netanyahu is expected to win the most votes on March 23.
However, Blinken and other US officials are likely well aware that polls also show that the new government might be formed by Yair Lapid, Gideon Sa’ar or Naftali Bennett.
Both Lapid and Sa’ar would likely be much more behind-the-scenes about criticism of US-Iran negotiations and ideas for how to improve the deal.
In the meantime, the question is whether current loud Israeli opposition to US policy taking off with Iran negotiations is temporary, will succeed in getting Washington to take a tougher stance or will cause US-Israel relations to crash.