Will Iran deal change with parade of Israeli officials to DC? - opinion

The unanimous understanding in Israel is that America is recklessly racing toward a deal with Iran.

A RECENT MEETING of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna. Can Israel convince the Biden administration to stop its race back to the deal? (photo credit: REUTERS)
A RECENT MEETING of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna. Can Israel convince the Biden administration to stop its race back to the deal?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Veteran observers of Israel in the United States don’t remember such a parade of intelligence and military officials arriving in Washington all at once.
But that is exactly what happens next week when one after the other, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Tamir Hayman, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, and National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat descend on the US capital for talks with their American counterparts.
To some, it was reminiscent of the frequent visits that top Obama administration officials made to Israel in 2012. The US feared then that Israel was on the verge of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, so every week it dispatched another top official to fly on over. The secretary of defense came, the chairman of the joint chiefs arrived, and so did the head of the CIA. All wanted their nerves to be calmed by Israel.
This time it is Israel that is afraid. Not over the repercussions of a US attack against Iran – that it can only imagine – but of complete American capitulation to Iran and a return to the 2015 JCPOA with zero or at best minor adjustments.
The unanimous understanding in Israel is that America is recklessly racing toward a deal with Iran. Some officials say privately that President Joe Biden is “running amok” into the deal. Whatever the description, America is hell-bent on getting the Iran issue out of the way.
Some Israeli officials say they understand why: Russia is amassing troops along the border with Ukraine, tensions are rising with China, and there is still the daily battle against corona marked by a recent uptick in cases and hospitalizations despite daily vaccination of millions of Americans.
The talks in Washington will be distributed: Kohavi will meet with General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Hayman and Cohen will meet with CIA Director William Burns; and Ben-Shabbat will meet with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Each meeting is important, but no one in Jerusalem believes that the consultations will move America to slow down. So far Israel has failed to get the US to heed its advice, and the best it can hope for now is to get Biden to accept some last-minute improvements before it is too late.
The situation is similar to 2015 during the run-up to the finalization of the JCPOA. Then too, Israeli officials flew to Washington to meet with their American counterparts to discuss the threat from Iran. Jacob Nagel, then deputy national security adviser, led the delegation of Israeli experts from the Foreign Ministry, the NSC, the IDF, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Mossad.
Each of their meetings opened with what later became known as the “Nagel speech,” a dialogue the former official delivered spelling out some of the problems with the planned deal.
“It wasn’t about telling the Americans what they should do or shouldn’t do, but it was explaining some of the issues that they shouldn’t overlook,” explained one official who participated in those talks. “We wanted them to clearly understand what would happen if they went ahead with what they were planning.”
Israel will try to do the same next week, hoping that it falls on a more sympathetic ear this time. In the JCPOA deal, Israel learned of the talks with Iran after they had already begun. Here, Israel has known for a while that Biden was set on reengaging Iran after taking office, but it did initially believe that it would meet more sympathy. Indeed, senior members of the US administration announced early on that they would consult with Israel and work collaboratively with its government.
While the Americans have heard Israel – Ben-Shabbat and Sullivan already held two rounds of talks – there is a feeling in Jerusalem that the concerns being raised have not been internalized.
The Americans are currently facing two options on how to proceed.
The worse possibility is to immediately return to the JCPOA and get Iran back in compliance with its restrictions. The step after that, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear, would be to work to improve the deal and make it “longer and stronger.”
Doing this, Israel believes, would be a mistake, since it would cede – too early in the process – all the leverage America now has. It would also allow Iran to retain the improvements and upgrades it has made since it began violating the JCPOA, including holding on to the advanced centrifuges it manufactured that would shorten the breakout time if and when the ayatollahs decide to build a bomb.
With the latest technology in Tehran’s possession, the regime is believed capable of enriching uranium three times faster than with the older models. This is a major difference.
In addition, the nuclear archive seized by Israel in its daring raid in Tehran in 2018 revealed to the world how close Iran really was in its weapons program. The JCPOA was finalized in 2015 without this information. It cannot simply be ignored.
The better possibility preferred by Israel is to see America use the leverage it has now to secure better conditions and make the deal longer and stronger, and only then enter into the legal framework.
That leverage includes economic relief the US could offer Iran to help save it from its current economic crisis, as well as the continued blows it has suffered over the last year, including the assassinations of Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani and top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and the recent sabotage inside the Natanz enrichment facility.
Now, Jerusalem believes, is the time when the world needs to keep its foot on the gas, not to let it up.
Will it succeed in convincing the Americans? The chances are not believed high. Israel is coming into these talks at a disadvantage: the personal relationship between the president of the United States and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is different now, and while Biden is not Obama, picking up the phone and asking the president to simply change course is not going to work.
The Americans are trying to sell Israel on a different proposal, one looking at Iran through the larger prism that includes not just the nuclear program itself, but also Tehran’s negative regional role and support of terrorist proxies, as well as the need for the IDF to retain operational freedom in Syria.
The importance of this operational freedom was illustrated early Thursday morning, when Damascus launched a missile that struck near Dimona, and the Israeli Air Force retaliated by hitting targets near the capital.
The idea behind this larger prism came up in the previous round of talks between Ben-Shabbat and Sullivan via video conference. Israel until now has been pushing back, insisting that the nuclear issue needs to be looked at on its own; and that as much as Israel would like to see a comprehensive settlement to all of the other threats Iran poses in the region, it won’t trade action on one for the other.
Sending Israel’s top intelligence and military officials to Washington all at once definitely sends a message of urgency – but it also sends a message of dysfunctionality.
It is of course perfectly normal for military chiefs to speak regularly with one another, and for intelligence heads to do the same.
But what about talks on a political level? Those seem to be missing, and it is no secret why. As seen over this past week, Israel does not have a functioning government.
The Americans know this, as do the Iranians. To assume that neither side is taking advantage of this situation would be naïve.