Amid Russia-Ukraine war, the world and Israel are distracted from Iran

DIPLOMACY: It seems like the attention of the world, including the government of Israel, has moved east of Vienna.

 IRANIAN FOREIGN Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (2nd-L) meets with head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi (2nd-R) in Tehran on March 5. (photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
IRANIAN FOREIGN Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (2nd-L) meets with head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi (2nd-R) in Tehran on March 5.
(photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

Remember the Iran talks? It was only a few weeks ago that the parties involved were reassuring everyone that they would go on as usual, despite the war in Ukraine.

Now, it seems like the attention of the world, including the government of Israel, has moved east of Vienna.

In late February, the government was still warning about the dangers of a deal. Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that Iran was trying to condition an agreement on the International Atomic Energy Agency closing probes against possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. That move was effective; Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi, who refused to subordinate his investigations to the Vienna talks. 

That same week Bennett also revealed that Iran sought the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of foreign terrorist groups, and that Iran would be able to keep advanced centrifuges even when they stop spinning under the terms of the deal.

The last couple of weeks, however, have been quiet in Jerusalem on the Iran deal front. The last time Bennett said anything in public about the Iran talks was March 3, and we know he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about them two days later when he was in Moscow trying to mediate with Kyiv. 

 ELI COHEN (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) ELI COHEN (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hasn’t been heard on the topic for almost a month. Gantz spoke about the Iranian threat this week – but not the deal being negotiated.

These are all people who oppose the agreement, to various degrees, yet they have little to say about it these days.

Unsurprisingly, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has not forgotten about the Iran talks.

“The desperate rush to sign this flawed, renewed nuclear agreement with Iran is not only absurd, it’s downright dangerous,” Netanyahu warned in a message posted online, with the message that “every American family should watch this video.”

“The US continues to charge ahead, along with the other powers, to sign an agreement that will give the ayatollahs a nuclear arsenal. It will also relieve sanctions and give them hundreds of billions of dollars in order to continue the terror that they… continue to wage around the world,” he added.

Netanyahu argued the renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is even worse than the original, because it will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state in three years, with enough enriched uranium for dozens of nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them to the US.

“That is unbelievable,” he said. “It endangers not only my country Israel, but your country, the US, and the entire world. We should not let an aggressive rogue terrorist regime like Iran have nuclear weapons.”

WHEN THE crisis in Ukraine was brewing last month, Lapid said he did not think it would impact the Iran talks much, except that it would distract the world’s attention. He clearly didn’t anticipate that so much of his own attention, and Bennett’s, would be taken up by a war in Ukraine.

For a time, Lapid’s assessment was right. In mid-February, this reporter tweeted that it was “amazing” that the US negotiating team was still sitting with the Russian delegation to discuss “the most contentious issues which need to be settled at the Vienna talks,” as Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the nuclear talks, put it.

“What is so amazing? Normal diplomatic business,” Ulyanov responded, adding that Moscow has “no plans of invasion.”

Two weeks later, after Russia did, in fact, invade Ukraine. At that point, it would have been reasonable to assume that the US would no longer want a rogue state that doesn’t respect the norms of international law to play a leading role in negotiating a nuclear agreement.

But that assumption was wrong. On the same day that Ukraine announced that Russia had captured Chernobyl, sparking concern about safety at the site of history’s worst nuclear disaster, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that though Moscow had become a “pariah on the world stage,” the US would continue to engage with Moscow on issues “fundamental to our national security interest,” such as the Iran nuclear deal.

“The fact that Russia has now invaded Ukraine should not give Iran the green light to develop a nuclear weapon,” Price added.

In the end, it was Russia that brought the Ukraine war into the Iran talks.

Only days after Price’s comments, Russia decided that their invasion of Ukraine would, in fact, be a factor in the talks to try to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Russia demanded that there be an Iran-related carve-out of the Western sanctions over the Ukraine war, leaving the talks to revive the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal in limbo.

The negotiations have officially been on a break for the last week.

Moscow has since reportedly narrowed its demand to only allowing it to engage in the nuclear activity as stipulated in the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, such as uranium swaps and providing nuclear fuel to Iranian reactors. Price has said the US would allow that, but the talks still seem to be stuck.

A resolution of the Russia issue would either mean that Iran would be able to flood the energy market while Russia is sanctioned – a problem for Moscow – or the US backing down on Russia sanctions.

There are other factors that need to be worked out, such as Iran’s demand to lift sanctions on the IRGC, which would be a political challenge for the Biden administration to manage, especially in a year with midterm elections.

The US is reportedly trying to get Iran to commit to de-escalation in exchange for removing the IRGC’s foreign terrorist organization designation, as if that is a guarantee that can be trusted. A diplomatic source in Jerusalem called that proposal “crazy,” but said that, following diplomatic efforts by Israel, most existing sanctions on the IRGC will remain intact even after it is taken off the foreign terrorist organization list.

“I don’t think they’re doing it because they think the IRGC isn’t a terrorist organization; they’re doing it because that’s Iran’s condition and they decided to accept it,” the source said, characterizing the Biden administration’s devotion to closing an Iran deal as “religious.”

And with that religious fervor, the parties to the talks can and will likely soon get back on track toward a deal – one that Israel sees as very dangerous for the reasons Netanyahu mentioned and more.

LIKUD MK and former intelligence minister Eli Cohen sees the war in Ukraine as not a reason to ignore the Iran talks, but a reason for greater alarm about them.

“The war in Ukraine has very significant ramifications, but with all due respect, it’s very small compared to what can happen between Iran and Israel,” Cohen said this week. “Russia… wants to make Ukraine part of its empire or a new Soviet Union, but Iran wants to attain nuclear weapons to destroy the State of Israel.”

The Likud MK also lamented the difference between how Russia is being sanctioned, while the world is looking to lift restrictions on Iran.

“We see Western states chasing after each oligarch’s yacht, but in the Iran deal, I don’t see the simple condition to not let money flow to organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, which [the West] recognizes as terrorists,” he said.

In addition, Cohen said, “the war between Russia and Ukraine will accelerate the arms race around the world and the desire to attain nuclear weapons. It is a real danger.”

Cohen argued that a renewed JCPOA “will clearly lead to war. I say this as a former intelligence minister and security cabinet member: There will be a war that will dwarf the one between Russia and Ukraine.

“Iran never abandoned its goal to attain nuclear weapons,” he explained. “With a return to the nuclear deal, they will have more money, they will continue their missile project, they will continue funding terrorist groups and using the money to build its nuclear infrastructure until they are a nuclear threshold state.

“Once they reach that point, Israel will have to act,” Cohen said.

A war between Israel and Iran “will undermine the order, not only in the Middle East, but in the entire world. That is the danger; a regional war with international impact.”

Western leaders “only want to buy quiet as long as they’re in charge,” the former minister said. “If Iran has a nuclear weapon in three or four years, it doesn’t interest them… This will be very costly for us.”

Israel does not have the same luxury as the Western parties to the deal. Iran should be the top priority for the government, Cohen said.

“Bennett, Lapid and Gantz should be in Washington, London, Berlin and Paris to talk about the dangers of the nuclear deal,” he stated.

A senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem said this week that officials have been constantly speaking with Washington, whether it is national security adviser Eyal Hulata and his counterpart Jake Sullivan, Foreign Ministry deputy director-general for strategic affairs Joshua Zarka and US special envoy for Iran Rob Malley, Bennett’s diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir and White House senior director for the Middle East and North Africa Barbara Leaf; US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has been meeting and speaking with Israeli officials, as well.

Cohen accused Bennett of “trying to run away from his failure” to prevent an Iran deal by diving into Russia-Ukraine mediation.

“While the canons are rumbling in Kyiv, an agreement is being reached in Vienna that couldn’t have been dreamed of,” he said. “It’s inferior even to the previous one, which was full of holes.”

Referring to three members who left the US envoy for Iran’s team over policy disagreements, Cohen said, “it’s no coincidence that people are quitting on Robert Malley.”

Cohen accused Bennett of “wanting to make [US President Joe] Biden like him,” and therefore promising not to take diplomatic action against the Iran deal, which was a “huge, serious mistake.”

THE DIPLOMATIC source said the direction of Iran talks remains unclear. Russia’s demands remain unresolved and the Biden administration has yet to figure out “how to satisfy Iran’s demands without exposing the US to terrorist threats.”

“That is made much harder when Iran bombs [a structure] by a US consulate,” the source said, referring to Iran’s attack in Erbil, Iraq this week, “especially in an election year.”

Since the Vienna talks resumed in late October, the foreign ministers of the US and the E3 – Britain, France and Germany – and the EU have warned that there are only weeks left until the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA will no longer be relevant. 

Yet weeks and then months passed and they continued talking, and on Wednesday, the IAEA reported that Iran has converted some of its 60% enriched uranium – 90% is weapons-grade – to a form that cannot be diluted and shipped out of the country easily, making it harder to implement the JCPOA’s limitations.

The question remains how long the West will wait and see if all the sides are willing to complete the Iran talks for a demonstrably weaker JCPOA than in 2015, rather than seek alternatives.

If they decide to change tack when it comes to Iran, Jerusalem is “ready for those conversations when they come,” the source said.

In the meantime, Israel is preparing for the day after the JCPOA.

“Netanyahu made a lot of noise before the agreement was signed, and that noise hurt Israel,” another senior diplomatic source argued. “After it was signed, he accepted its rules and the whole [Israeli defense] system was comatose, because they thought Iran wouldn’t enrich uranium for 10 years.”

Bennett, however, is doing the opposite.

The source had a spin on a famous David Ben-Gurion quote: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim sign; what matters is what the Jews do.”

“We kept our disputes behind closed doors, but now we’re saying we will continue in our momentum against Iran, which is very serious… We are using this time wisely,” the source stated.•