Believing that an agreement to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers is a done deal awaiting the final green light from Tehran, Israel is already preparing for the day after.
Israeli leaders insist that Jerusalem will not be bound by any agreement, and could take unilateral military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
At the end of March, Israel hosted the Negev Summit in Sde Boker, attended by the US secretary of state and the foreign ministers of Israel and four Arab countries: Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE. The summit was held in response to the progress made in the nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers, and Jerusalem aimed to send a message to Tehran that Israel is part of a unified front with important Arab states.
“We are both committed, both determined, that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Jerusalem on March 27 at a news conference with Lapid ahead of the summit, arguing that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the best way “to put Iran’s nuclear program back in the box it was in.”
Lapid said: “Israel will do anything we believe is needed to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Anything. From our point of view, the Iranian threat is not theoretical. The Iranians want to destroy Israel. They will not succeed. We will not let them.”
The gathering in Sde Boker came after another strike by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on a Saudi oil depot in Jiddah. Bennett said that this attack was further proof that Iran’s regional aggression knows no bounds, and strengthens concern that the Revolutionary Guards will be removed from the list of terror organizations if the nuclear agreement is renewed between Iran and the world powers.
Bennett met the previous week with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh.
Iran’s decision on March 16 to release two British-Iranian citizens who had been detained for many years was interpreted as a sign that a nuclear deal was close. Another indication: after almost a year of arduous negotiations in Vienna, Washington hinted at a major concession on one of the last sticking points that had been holding up the deal. On that same March 16 day, it was revealed that the US was considering removing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps from its foreign terrorist organization blacklist, in return for Iranian assurances about reining in the elite force. The IRGC is a powerful faction in Iran that controls a business empire as well as an armed intelligence force that carries out a global terrorist campaign.
The current Israeli leadership has been reluctant to publicly criticize the administration of Joe Biden, although Jerusalem has long been of the opinion that Washington is determined to clinch a deal in Vienna despite Israeli concerns. However, the likely concession over the IRGC prompted rare public criticism of the US from Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
“The IRGC are responsible for attacks on American civilians and American forces throughout the Middle East, including in the past year,” the two leaders said in a joint statement. “The IRGC were behind plans to assassinate senior American government officials. The attempt to delist the group as a terrorist organization is an insult to the victims and would ignore documented reality supported by unequivocal evidence. We find it hard to believe that the IRGC’s designation as a terrorist organization will be removed in exchange for a promise not to harm Americans.”
The Israeli leadership says that regardless of Washington’s decision, Israel will continue to treat the IRGC as a terror group and continue to act against it.
The latest developments coincided with reports that an aerial attack in Iran in February caused heavy damage to the country’s drone network, with hundreds of drones destroyed. According to foreign media reports, six Israeli drones carrying a large number of explosives took part in the attack on an Iranian drone warehouse, causing significant damage to the facility and its surroundings.
Tehran blamed Jerusalem for the attack, although Israel did not admit responsibility. What is referred to as “the campaign between wars” continued with an Iranian missile attack on Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran publicly claimed responsibility for the strike, which it said targeted an Israeli Mossad base. There have also been a number of cyberattacks on Israeli government websites and Israeli companies in the past few months attributed to Iran, including the hacking of the phone of the wife of Mossad chief David Barnea.
Reentering the 2015 JCPOA deal has been a priority for the Biden administration since it took office – in part because of the Democrats’ desire to reverse Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
Once a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration in which Joe Biden served as vice president, the accord was abandoned in 2018 by president Trump, who called it the worst deal ever negotiated and set about restoring and expanding US sanctions that had been lifted.
The Biden administration argues that any threat currently posed by Iran would be significantly more dangerous if it obtains a nuclear weapon. Opponents – including Israel, the Gulf Sunni states, and US Republicans – say the original deal gave Iran a path to developing a nuclear bomb by removing various constraints under so-called “sunset” clauses, which stated that certain restrictions were to be gradually lifted.
For the Biden administration, the Iranian attack on Erbil highlighted the pressing need for reviving the JCPOA. “What it underscores for us is the fact that Iran poses a threat to our allies, to our partners, in some cases to the United States, across a range of realms,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price. “The most urgent challenge we would face is a nuclear-armed Iran, or an Iran that was on the very precipice of obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Since the US withdrawal from the deal, Tehran has made significant progress in its nuclear activity, increasing uranium enrichment and stockpiling far beyond the parameters of the 2015 agreement.
This means it has reduced its “breakout time” – the amount of time it would take to be able to build a nuclear bomb. Iran’s leaders said its advances would continue as long as US sanctions aren’t lifted.
The last remaining obstacle to an agreement appeared to be Iranian concerns that a future US Republican administration, or even a Republican-dominated Congress, could, once again, scuttle any deal signed in Vienna. These fears were reinforced when all but one of the 50 Republicans in the Senate signed a joint statement vowing to dismantle any agreement with Iran that has time limits on restrictions to advance nuclear work, or that does not address other issues, including Iran’s ballistic missile program and military support for proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
While Republicans won’t be able to stop a deal now, the situation may change after November’s midterm election, when the Republicans could potentially have majorities in both houses of Congress. Under such a scenario, it could be difficult for the administration to remain in any deal that is reached. The nuclear negotiations reportedly had almost reached a successful conclusion earlier in March, but new Russian demands linked to the war in Ukraine threatened to derail the entire process. All the major powers at the talks – the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia as well as Iran – need to sign the deal.
Following the massive sanctions imposed by the international community, Moscow demanded that its trade with Iran be exempt from Western sanctions over Ukraine. However, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that he had “received written guarantees” from the US that its demands would be met, the talks were back on track.
Yaakov Nagel, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said the agreement will be much worse than the 2015 JCPOA because many of the limitations imposed then on Iran’s nuclear program are about to expire.
“Israel will do what it must do if it will conclude that tomorrow it will be too late,” he said. “Israel will try to take care of the Iranian nuclear program – and it must succeed, because Israel said it will not allow Iran to become a threshold state, and definitely not a nuclear state, and we are not committed to this agreement.”
Sima Shine, head of the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the Research and Evaluation division of the Mossad, argues that although the emerging agreement is bad, it is better from Israel’s perspective than no deal at all. Despite this, she said, Tehran will gain many financial benefits and their reserves will increase: “This money will help the Iranian economy. No doubt it will allow Tehran to assist all its proxies in the region – in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Iraq and in Gaza. It will, as well, increase Iran’s feeling of immunity against any military action, and encourage more intervention in the region that will cause more instability in the Middle East.”
Shine argues that Israel should continue an intimate, quiet, unpublicized dialogue with the US about the day after the agreement, “in which we decide what to do if we receive new information, to discuss strengthening Israel’s military capabilities during the agreement, Israel’s unlimited ability to stop weapons smuggling in Syria to Hezbollah, and so on. There’s a list of topics in which Israel’s interest is to talk with the US, and to ensure we have a mutual understanding.” ■