Mossad’s Cohen’s spring trip to US worse than axed winter trip - analysis

The Mossad chief’s visit was delayed and delayed and he also lost control of aspects of the dialogue to National Security Council Chief Meir Ben-Shabbat and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi.

Mossad Director Yossi Cohen (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mossad Director Yossi Cohen
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mossad director Yossi Cohen was supposed to visit with the new Biden administration in February as leader of an Israeli delegation relating to the Iran issue.
The hope was to attempt to influence US policy on Iran before Washington started offering concessions to Tehran relating to returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
At the time, Israeli election polls indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might remain in office for the foreseeable future. If so, the trip might have been the beginning of transitioning Cohen from Mossad director to Israel’s Iran project manager.
Cohen is expected to retire around June 6 after five-and-a-half years at the helm of the spy agency.
The visit never happened and Cohen’s visit this week will have less prominence and may be too late in the game to seriously influence US policy, which is already after multiple rounds of negotiations into returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the JCPOA.
The Mossad chief’s visit was delayed and delayed and he also lost control of aspects of the dialogue to National Security Council Chief Meir Ben-Shabbat and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi.
At the end of last week, the plan was for Cohen to meet only with CIA director William Burns today, along with Ben-Shabbat and Kohavi each separately meeting with their US counterparts.
Instead of presenting cutting-edge intelligence to try to convince the Biden team to restructure its approach to the Islamic Republic, the meeting will take place when a full lifting of sanctions on Iran and even aspects of sequencing for that are already on the table.
The US has not only talked to Iran about removing all sanctions inconsistent with the JCPOA but has even given examples to Iranian negotiators of sanctions that it believes the Trump administration unfairly labeled as nuclear and is willing to lift.
In February, Cohen wanted to press the US to negotiate for the end of Iranian nuclear enrichment. If that was not achievable, he hoped to at least get the US to demand filling loopholes in the 2015 nuclear deal, such as the expiration of nuclear limits in 2030 and the absence of real limits of ballistic missile testing – before it lifted sanctions.
But the Biden team has been engaged in negotiations now for some time committed to a two-phase approach in which first it returns to the 2015 deal, and only later it tries to convince Tehran to make new concessions.
Few in Israel understand the logic of giving up the sanctions leverage before asking the Islamic Republic to make new concessions.
In some ways, this trip may turn out mainly to be a farewell trip for Cohen before he exits stage left. This means that Cohen may be relegated to pushing the US – at least before lifting sanctions – to seriously address Iran’s progress in the area of advanced uranium centrifuges and some other areas where it is more advanced than it had been in 2015.
If Cohen can achieve something on these issues, it would still be very important, but a far cry from the original intent back in February.
One issue that may still be seen as a positive by Cohen is that in the end, only he and Ben-Shabbat will share the spotlight.
At the last moment, Kohavi dropped out to deal with the uptick in tension between Israel and Gaza.
Suspicions have arisen concerning Kohavi dropping out – as bad as the latest round of rocket fire from Gaza is – since it still seems like too minor an issue to cancel his involvement in this all-important trip to the US.
Is this a small victory for the Cohen approach to Iran, which many say is still somewhat more aggressive than that taken on the part of Kohavi and many in the IDF?
Will this give the Mossad chief a larger platform to push his American counterparts?
Alternatively, did Kohavi decide that the mission to Washington is doomed to fail, and perhaps he was happy to have an excuse to stay local?
These questions may remain unclear for some time.
But what is clear is that this was not what the Mossad chief had in mind back in February.