Israel will act against Iran on its own should the international community fail to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomatic means, President Isaac Herzog warned the United States on Sunday.
“If the international community does not take a vigorous stance on this issue, Israel will do so,” Herzog told US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides. “Israel will protect itself.”
The two men, who met during a small ceremony in which Herzog accepted the American diplomat’s credentials, came two days after the seventh round of indirect talks between the US and Tehran to revive the 2015 Iran deal appeared to end in failure.
Iran and the European Union have spoken of renewed talks next week, but the US has been uncertain these negotiations will take place in the near future.
“We are closely following the international community’s recent negotiations with Iran,” Herzog said.
Israel has opposed the deal and warned the US to halt the talks. Herzog clarified that Israel would “welcome a comprehensive, diplomatic solution that permanently solves the Iranian nuclear threat.”
He stressed, however, “in the case of a failure to achieve such a solution, Israel is keeping all options on the table.”
Nides told Herzog the US was committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“We will continue to collaborate closely to advance peace and stability, and to counter the threat Iran poses to Israel and the region,” Nides said. “As President [Joe] Biden has made it very, very, clear, the United States is committed to ensuring that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon.”
Israel and the US are at odds over the Iran talks, with Israel opposing a return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal and the Biden administration supporting it.
Mossad chief David Barnea is scheduled to leave late Sunday for Washington, followed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday, where they will discuss Iran with US officials.
Last week Barnea echoed a statement similar to Herzog’s, when he pledged that the Mossad would not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons.
Israel wants to utilize the pause in the talks to influence US policy.
Prime Minister Natalie Bennett called on world powers to pressure Tehran to halt its enrichment of uranium prior to the resumption of another round of talks.
“I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” Bennett said at the weekly cabinet meeting. “Our goal is to utilize the window of opportunity that has opened between the rounds in order to tell our friends in the US: this is precisely the time to use a different tool kit against Iran’s galloping forward in the enrichment sphere. There is a time for everything. A time to keep silent and a time to speak up. Now is the time to speak up.”
The Trump administration exited the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deal in 2018, and reimposed sanctions that had been lifted as a result of the deal.
Biden has sought to revive the deal, which had also been signed by Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia and China.
The European Union brokered six rounds of indirect talks between the US and Iran prior to the election of a new Iranian government in June led by President Ebrahim Raisi.
European and US officials have said that during the seventh round of talks last week, the first with the new Iranian government, representatives of the Islamic Republic put new demands on the table and walked back the progress that had been made earlier in the year.
Iran halted its compliance with the deal in 2019, and has inched toward the production of weapons-grade uranium.
In his remarks to the cabinet, Bennett accused Iran of taking an “aggressive and bullying approach” to “blackmail” the US into removing existing sanctions so it can fund its global terrorist activity through its pursuit of uranium enrichment.
“We are holding an intensive dialogue on this matter with the Americans, the British, the French, Russia and others,” Bennett said.
He pointed to a report released last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency that said Iran “had begun to enrich up to 20% purity in advanced centrifuges at Fordow.” He added, “This is a very serious step,” and that “Iran must start paying for its violations.”
Bennett warned the US and the world power that a “bad deal with the Iranians will have implications for our national security.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak struck the opposite tone on Sunday in an opinion piece he published in the Hebrew Ynet website, in which he said Israel should have supported the 2015 deal from the start, and used the time to build a military “Plan B” that would have allowed it to attack Iran.
A military plan would take years to prepare and would require massive US assistance, he said, as he cast doubt on whether Israel at present has such a plan.
Barak urged Israeli leaders to resist empty threats, particularly with Iran just months away from becoming a nuclear-threshold state.
“This new reality calls for a sober evaluation and practical decisions, not empty rhetoric that may impress some in Israel but will carry no weight in Iran or among the world powers eager on reaching a deal with the Islamic Republic,” Barak wrote in his opinion piece.
In the aftermath of the talks in Vienna that ended on Friday, both the US and Iran traded barbs over the collapse of the talks.
The Biden administration wants Iran to commit to abide by the terms of the 2015 deal, which allowed it to enrich uranium only to 3.7%, instead of its current enrichment level that has reached 60%.
Iran wants the US to lift its sanction prior to such an agreement, a move the US has refused.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry charged on Sunday that the failure to lift sanctions had doomed last week’s indirect talks in Vienna.
“It is crystal clear that the US reluctance to fully drop the sanctions is the main challenge for the progress of negotiations,” a senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Sunday. “We believe that anytime the US administration abandons the maximum-pressure campaign, and Europeans demonstrate necessary political determination, the way will be opened for the swift attainment of an agreement.
“They are not willing in the first place to give such concessions which are clearly asserted by the JCPOA,” the official said, adding that they are also “not willing to “re-negotiate” matters that were propounded in prior drafts.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry official took note of Republican congressional threats that the US would once again renege on the deal, should their party gain the White House in 2024.
Actions of the “Zionist regime” have also harmed the talks, the official said, refusing to refer to Israel by name.
“We cautioned,” the official said, “that some external actors that are not pleased with the progress of the negotiations should not be allowed to include the progress of the talks by propagating lies and distorted reports.
“It is quite normal that the Zionist regime is not pleased with the status quo,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry official said. Its media has “fabricated unfounded rumors and tried to negatively influence the atmosphere of the talks.”
The official explained that in Vienna, the Iranian delegation had presented two draft proposals: one that dealt with the issue of sanctions, and the second with its nuclear program. These drafts were based on the JCPOA and past rounds of negotiations, the official said.
“We’ve made clear that we’re prepared to lift all of the sanctions that are in consistence with the deal, but if Iran wants us to go beyond that, then of course, we’re talking about a different deal, and Iran would have to go beyond what it did at the time of the JCPOA,” a senior US official told reporters on Saturday. “So that’s after that question.”
The official said the US was “preparing for a world in which there is no return to the JCPOA,” but added, “It is not our preference.”
Iran’s uranium enrichment, the US official said, has “troubling implications for whether the JCPOA can be revived. Our view is it still can be today; that’s President Biden’s view. That’s why we were in Vienna trying to work to get – to make sure that we could return to mutual compliance, but that can’t last forever.”
Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, suggested that in order to pressure Iran, the Biden administration should “work with the UK, France and Germany to reimpose UN sanctions and restrictions on Iran at the Security Council.”
The administration, he said, should also “press censure resolutions at the International Atomic Energy Agency, fully enforce economic sanctions, and threaten military force if Iran moves closer to the threshold of nuclear weapons.”
Goldberg added, however, that he feared that instead, the US would allow Iran to hold onto the nuclear gains it made in 2021, while providing it with sanctions relief.
Former US ambassador Dennis Ross, who served as a special adviser to the Obama administration and is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also weighed in.
Ross questioned how effective “additional pressure” might be unless the US has support from other signatories to the deal.
“The key would be whether China goes along and no longer buys Iranian oil,” Ross said. “That would truly build pressure.”
In addition, “The question will remain whether the administration will develop military options and rehearse them in a way that the Iranians see and therefore have reason to fear.”