On-stage remarks made about Iran in Herzliya and Manama this week could give a person a feeling of déjà vu: as in 2015, US allies in the Middle East are once again looking warily at Washington’s intention to strike a deal with Tehran – and Israel talked tough.
The scenario comes a week before the US is set to engage in indirect negotiations with Iran to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.
At the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Manama Dialogue, which took place in Bahrain’s capital last weekend, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared that “the United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue. But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure.”
Yet, when it came time to ask questions, it was clear that many of the experts and officials in attendance from across the Gulf doubted Washington’s commitment to that goal, or even its interest in the Middle East at this time. The lack of an American military response to the recent drone attack on a US base in Syria was one factor contributing to that sense.
White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk said that “if tested, we will protect our people, including through the use of military force when necessary, and if we need to use force, we are prepared to do so, decisively.”
But McGurk emphasized that diplomacy will come first, and that increased pressure on Iran is not going to make it “change [its] orientation or that the regime will collapse under sanctions.”
National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, speaking on the same panel, disagreed: “Iran won’t make concessions only because we ask them nicely... Whoever says pressure doesn’t work needs to look at how pressure by both Republican and Democratic administrations made Iran change its policy.”
Two days later, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gave a major policy speech on Israel’s response to the Iranian threat, emphasizing that “even if there is a return to an agreement [with Iran], Israel is not a party to it – is not obligated by it.”
This is a difficult situation, Bennett added, because there are disagreements between Israel and its greatest allies. But nevertheless, Israel will maintain its right to act independently in its own defense.
It was a marked shift from Bennett’s previous assurance to work with the US and keep disagreements behind closed doors.
It sounded much like 2015, with a different US president and Israeli prime minister. Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia share concerns about an Iran deal that does not limit the Islamic Republic’s malign actions throughout the Middle East, including its missile program, and – in a 2021 update – its armed UAVs. They say nuclear restrictions on Iran are not robust or long-lasting enough. Israel is again being the loudest about it.
However, there are a lot of differences between 2015 and 2021.
Iran, for one, is bolder than it was then. Early this year it started enriching uranium to 60%, far beyond any civilian need, and it developed uranium metal, a component in nuclear weapons.
While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately calls the shots, Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, is more openly anti-American and anti-Western than his predecessor. As a sitting judge, he oversaw the execution of thousands of dissidents, a bad sign for anyone hoping to restrain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Raisi’s negotiators have said that the talks with the US are not about the nuclear issue, but only about lifting sanctions. Former president Donald Trump imposed strict sanctions on Iran to pressure it into accepting a much tougher deal, but the Biden administration has said the sanctions were meant to trigger regime change.
Regardless, neither outcome has come to fruition. Iran has said it is only willing to talk about less than the JCPOA, and the regime is still intact.
Officials in Washington are skeptical that the Vienna talks will succeed because Iran has taken such a hard line. But the US administration has shown willingness to significantly soften its stance with a “less for less” deal that would have Iran stop, but not undo, enrichment in exchange for lifting some sanctions.
Israel views this as even worse than the JCPOA: the US would be easing pressure on Iran and getting something essentially worthless in return, because Iran could just continue its nuclear program where it left off.
Unlike in 2015, where the JCPOA put in an inspections regime – imperfect as it may have been – Iran has put one obstacle after another in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its director-general, Rafael Grossi, essentially admitted on Wednesday after a visit to Iran that “We could not reach an agreement... We are close to the point where I would not be able to guarantee continuity of knowledge.”
On the positive side, Israel has more allies in the region now than before.
Going back to the Manama Dialogue, Hulata called for a united and determined front against Iran, including the US, UAE, Bahrain, Israel, and – notably – Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
This took place on the same stage from which a year earlier, a Saudi official berated Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Director Dore Gold, a confidant of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. No such incidents took place this year, and no public objections to the Saudis being called “friends” by Hulata were reported to have been raised.
Plus, on Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was in Rabat to sign an Israel-Morocco defense memorandum of understanding.
These allies are working with Israel and the US on joint military exercises meant to send a message to Tehran.
However, as former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said at the same conference at Reichman University after Bennett’s speech, Israel’s independent preparation against Iran is not enough, because “only the US knows how” to really stop Iran.
And American allies in the region, from Israel to the Gulf, showed this week that they’re not sure the US is really committed to what it promised.