The Israeli Factor in the US-Iran Nuclear Talks

As US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel on April 11, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency orchestrated a mysterious explosion in Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, destroying a significant amount of the country’s uranium enrichment capability and complicating the already difficult process of restoring the Iran nuclear deal. This development raised questions about the extent to which the interests of the Biden Administration and the Israeli government are aligned on Iran and how Israel will react if the US and Iran agreed to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The transition from the presidency of Donald Trump to that of Joe Biden was expected to be tricky when it came to dealing with Iran. Trump’s carte blanche to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unlikely to recur in the Biden Administration. For Democrats back in power, the somber memory of Netanyahu challenging former President Barack Obama, and attempting to call off what ultimately became the 2015 nuclear deal, remains salient. The Natanz attack came five days after encouraging signs in the indirect US-Iranian talks in Vienna on April 6 and during the visit of the Biden Administration’s first cabinet member to Israel. These events clearly contrasted with the dinner between former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen on January 12 in Washington, which coincided with Israeli strikes on warehouses in Syria that were reportedly being used to store Iranian weapons, based on intelligence provided by the Trump Administration.

The Covert Israel-Iran War

While Israeli officials did not publicly claim responsibility for the Natanz attack, it was indirectly confirmed through intelligence sources quoted by Israeli public radio. The Natanz attack is not an isolated event in the tug of war between Israel and Iran. The Netanyahu government has been relentless in going after Iranian targets. The Israeli objective in the past four years was to benefit from the close relationship with the Trump Administration to incapacitate any Iranian threat; however, the Israeli aim since Biden took office in January has evolved to one of disrupting any potential US-Iranian rapprochement. On April 6, the same day a breakthrough was reported in the efforts to revive the JCPOA, an Israeli mine explosion damaged the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Saviz vessel stationed in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Israeli officials immediately notified the Biden Administration of the attack as a retaliation to earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels, which gave the impression of indirectly implicating the US in this offensive. Indeed, the Iranian military said on April 8 that “the United States undoubtedly has a hand in all attempts to undermine and harm Iran.” The day after this maritime attack, Netanyahu affirmed that a nuclear agreement with Iran “that would pave the way to nuclear weapons – weapons that threaten our extinction – would not compel us in any way.” Israel also continued its air strikes in Syria, targeting a weapons depot reportedly used by Iranian proxies at least four times since Biden took office (March 1, March 16, April 8, and April 22).

The Israeli aim since Biden took office in January has evolved to one of disrupting any potential US-Iranian rapprochement

The Natanz attack came one day after President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated 164 IR-6 advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at the facility in a ceremony broadcast by Iranian state television. Since Biden took office, the stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity has grown to 55kg, bringing Iran closer to weapons-grade levels. The sophisticated Natanz attack damaged thousands of underground machines meant to refine nuclear material. It is the second recent Israeli blow to the Iranian nuclear program after the killing, in November 2020, of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the top Iranian scientist who founded the nuclear program two decades ago, using a satellite-controlled machine-gun. Both operations showed how much the Mossad has managed to infiltrate Iran and its security establishment.

On the other hand, there has been no coherent Iranian strategy to deter Israeli attacks as the focus in Tehran remains on easing the burden of US sanctions. The Iranian regime seems to be aiming for soft Israeli maritime targets to retaliate against recurrent and lethal Israeli attacks. Israel and Iran continue to engage in mutual attacks on their respective maritime vessels in locations ranging from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, most notably since Israel’s decision to expand its role to the Gulf as part of the normalization process with some Arab states. This move made Israeli commercial activities in the Gulf vulnerable to clandestine activities. On February 28, Israeli officials accused Iran of covertly attaching mines that exploded on the Bahamas-registered Israeli vessel MV Helios in the Gulf of Oman. This was denied by Tehran. One month later, on March 25, Israeli officials also accused the Iranian regime of employing a missile to target the Israeli-owned container ship MT LORI in the Arabian Sea. Israel has a competitive advantage in Syria and seems more comfortable hitting Iranian assets with air strikes there, while Iran has the geographical and maritime advantage in the Arabian Sea, where it can reach the soft targets of Israeli commercial vessels.

Israel and US-Iran talks

While the Natanz attack overshadowed the resumption of indirect talks between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, both the Biden Administration and the Iranian regime signaled readiness to continue these negotiations. In Tehran, this came from the highest level with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei saying, on April 14, that “officials have determined that we negotiate to achieve our policies. We have no issue with this on the condition that they are careful for negotiations not to wear out and the parties don’t drag out the negotiations, because it won’t benefit the country.” This reflects that, first, Khamenei understands that Israel is trying to derail the attempt to restore the Iran nuclear deal and, second, that his top priority remains to ease the pressure of US sanctions on the Iranian economy.

The Natanz attack compelled Washington to increase coordination with Israel on the nuclear deal. It has also set the bar that Israel will not be restricted by any third-party nuclear deal with Iran

The immediate results of the Natanz attack were that first, it delayed the “breakout time,” or the time Iran would need to build a nuclear weapon as “it could take at least nine months to restore” the full capacity of this facility. This might help the Biden Administration manage the pace of the nuclear talks in Vienna. Second, it has increased the secrecy around Iran’s nuclear program. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian atomic agency, noted that new and deeper underground halls will be ready next year at Natanz to host sensitive facilities that might be targeted in the future. Third, the Biden Administration has avoided dealing with Israeli officials in its first few months in office, but the Natanz attack compelled Washington to increase coordination with Israel on the nuclear deal. It has also set the bar that Israel will not be restricted by any third-party nuclear deal with Iran.

The question is how the Biden Administration will approach both Israel and Iran. Under the Trump Administration, there was clear cooperation with Israel in deterring Iranian nuclear activities, most notably in July 2020 when a fire at the Natanz nuclear facility caused significant damage. This approach was summarized by Brian Hook, the State Department’s former special envoy for Iran, who said in June 2020: “We have seen historically that timidity and weakness invites more Iranian aggression.” The Biden team seems more cautious about triggering a strong retaliation from Iran, one that might lead to military tensions in Iraq and beyond, where US troops are based. In the third week of April 2021, obscure groups linked to Iranian proxies in Iraq launched rockets twice on Iraqi military bases that house US troops, marking the 23rd bomb or rocket attack against American interests in Iraq since Biden took office. The US Navy also announced on April 27 that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy behaved in an “unsafe and unprofessional” way on April 2nd as they approached two US Coast Guard patrol boats in the southern Arabian Gulf at “extremely close range.” This Iranian harassment seems to be an attempt to get the attention of the Biden Administration and push to advance the nuclear talks.

How the Biden Administration deals with Iran will dictate its relationship with the Netanyahu government if the latter stays in power. On April 18, Israeli officials were quoted as saying that “both sides, the Americans and the Iranians, want a deal. The Iranians smell that the Americans want an agreement at any price” and that a potential deal will, in the long term, “restrict Israel’s freedom of movement. It’s very troubling.” Israeli officials flocked to Washington in the last week of April with Netanyahu sending two of his closest aides on Iran, National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, who held separate meetings with the Biden Administration in almost the same time period. These separate meetings reflected the new era of policy-making in Washington where there is a return to institutional engagement rather than the personalized relations and open lines between Trump and Netanyahu. On April 27 at the Israeli embassy in Washington, Ben-Shabbat hosted his American counterpart, Jake Sullivan, and two days later Cohen met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The US president dropped by to meet Cohen during his meeting with Sullivan and CIA Director Bill Burns.

Netanyahu set the stage for his advisors with clear messages to the Biden Administration. He reportedly asked the Israeli delegation before traveling to Washington “to present Israel’s opposition to the agreement in Iran and not to negotiate over it, because we are talking about a return to the previous agreement that is dangerous for Israel and the region.” Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen warned about a potential nuclear agreement with Iran by noting that “a bad deal will send the region spiraling into war” and that “our planes can reach everywhere in the Middle East – and certainly Iran.” On April 29, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, summed up the Netanyahu government’s positions as follows: 1) recognizing Washington’s return to the Iran’s nuclear deal is inevitable; 2) both the United States and Israel “agreed on the principle of transparency and not to surprise each other and I think we are both keeping to it,” which might indicate that the Biden Administration asked not to be surprised by similar attacks, such as the latest Natanz operation; and 3) Israel is demanding from the Biden Administration the “freedom to operate” against Iranian nuclear activities regardless of the progress on the US-Iran talks.

Israel and the Future of the JCPOA

The Biden Administration is certainly attempting to appease Israeli objections. Biden reportedly told Mossad Director Cohen that his administration is not close to rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. The US-Israeli strategic group, whose aim is to coordinate efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, met twice virtually in recent months. In addition, at their meeting, Sullivan and Ben-Shabbat agreed “to establish an inter-agency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Precision Guided Missiles produced by Iran and provided to its proxies in the Middle East Region.” All these signals illustrate the Biden Administration’s anxiety about Israel’s potential sabotage of the Iran nuclear talks by continuing its lethal strikes against Iranian nuclear assets. Asked on April 25 whether the Israeli visits will impact the Biden Administration’s position on rejoining the Iran deal, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “no.” The Biden team is reportedly open to “lifting terror sanctions against Iran’s central bank, its national oil and tanker companies and several key economic sectors including steel, aluminum and others.” However, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted on May 2nd, “I’m not going to characterize the substance of the negotiations at this point because they are in … an unclear place.” Israeli pressure and the Iranian presidential election next month are overshadowing any potential breakthrough in these nuclear talks.

Both sides are learning from the lessons of the 2015 nuclear deal. Netanyahu cannot afford to repeat a public confrontation with a Democratic president on Iran, and Biden cannot ignore Netanyahu on Iran as Obama did

If the Israeli government is not restrained by the Biden Administration, the ability to reach a viable nuclear deal with Iran might be undermined. To be sure, both sides are learning from the lessons of the 2015 nuclear deal. Netanyahu cannot afford to repeat a public confrontation with a Democratic president on Iran, and Biden cannot ignore Netanyahu on Iran as Obama did. Hence, the new equation might mean that Washington will rejoin the nuclear deal while keeping Israel informed every step along the way; and there is nothing Israeli officials can do to halt the process. In return, Israel will continue to target Iran’s nuclear activities, when it evaluates such a need, without surprising Washington – and the Biden administration might not be willing to use leverage to halt this Israeli deterrence.