Just two days after what appeared to be an Israeli-backed sabotage of Iran’s Natanz enrichment facilities, The Washington Post’s editorial board declared that “Mr. Biden should persist with his diplomatic strategy—and hope that the Iranian regime chooses to make a distinction between Israel and the United States.” This blunt statement highlights the widening breach between President Joe Biden, who wants to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is resolved to undermine the United States’ indirect talks with Iran that began in Vienna on March 8. With Iranian and American officials reporting that this first round of talks had made real (if slow) progress, the timing of the Sunday, April 11, Natanz attack hardly seemed accidental.
Still, if Netanyahu wanted to scuttle the Vienna talks, his strategy could be backfiring. Indeed, the very prospect of a widening military clash between Israel and Iran seems to have played no small role in getting Iranian and American negotiators to resume indirect talks on April 14. A perceptible though shaky shift from maximum pressure to maximum diplomacy now seems possible. The challenge now for the American and Iranian negotiators is to push forward despite the efforts of powerful forces that oppose a deal to block a return to the JCPOA.
April 11: An Awkward Sunday in US-Israel Relations
Having partly staked his credibility as an international leader on the US-led drive to save the JCPOA, Joe Biden has much to lose if that effort fails. To prevent such an outcome, it is essential that the United States and Israel find some measure of common ground in their approach to Iran.
While Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin’s April 11 trip to Israel was meant to highlight such cooperation, it also provided American and Israeli leaders a crucial opportunity to grapple with growing Israel-Iran tensions. Those tensions had increased over the previous months with reports of at least two attacks on Israeli owned ships in the Gulf of Oman and the April 7 mine attack on the Iranian flagged ship Saviz. Israeli officials reportedly told their US counterparts that Israel had undertaken the attack against the ship, which they claimed was controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That this attack occurred just as indirect US-Iran talks were starting in Vienna probably worried US officials, thus underscoring the importance of Austin’s April 11 trip to Israel.
That visit seemingly began on a positive note. As Austin put it during his press statement with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, “our dialogue today gives me great confidence in our already strong and enduring security partnership. This is a relationship built on trust, which has developed over decades of cooperation.…” Nevertheless, while Gantz asserted that Israel “regards the United States as a full partner across all operational threats, not the least, Iran,” Austin did not once mention Iran, even as he reiterated that the US “commitment to Israel is enduring and it is iron clad.” These carefully worded statements appeared to telegraph the White House’s resolve to press ahead with the Vienna talks despite—or perhaps because of—growing tensions between Israel and Iran.
It is hard to know exactly when Israel informed the Biden Administration of the Natanz operation. In all likelihood, Israeli officials hinted that some kind of action was on the horizon but waited to inform Austin until after his meeting with Gantz.
It is hard to know exactly when Israel informed the Biden Administration of the Natanz operation. In all likelihood, Israeli officials hinted that some kind of action was on the horizon but waited to inform Austin until after his meeting with Gantz. Having just declared that the US-Israeli relationship is “built on trust,” it is likely that Austin—not to mention President Biden—felt that this trust might have been violated by an action that seemed timed to complicate US-Iran diplomacy.
A Strange Day in Israel-Israel Relations
But if April 11 was a strange day for US-Israeli relations, it seems to have been equally awkward for relations between Israel’s own leaders. Unfolding against the backdrop of Israel’s March 23rdparliamentary elections, and the ensuing, if still chaotic, quest to create a new coalition government, the Natanz attack raised questions in Israel about whether Defense Minister Gantz was fully informed about the operation. Indeed, as one veteran expert on Israel’s politics noted, it is possible that “Gantz and Netanyahu apparently do not consult one another.”
Gantz himself hinted at such a possibility when he ordered Israeli intelligence officials to begin an internal investigation into who leaked Israel’s involvement in an operation that was carried out by Mossad, an agency that reports directly to the prime minister’s office. Asked whether he believed that Netanyahu’s actions were dictated primarily by his internal political concerns rather than Israeli security interests, Gantz suggested as much when he asserted that “I think the prime minister has extensive experience in the political-diplomatic field and I wouldn’t belittle that. I think that all other considerations must be removed, and I hope that is what he is doing.”
This remarkable statement surfaced differences within the Israeli political establishment that are as much political as they are strategic. Israel’s decision to send a high level team to Washington following Austin’s trip suggests that the security establishment will try to distance itself from these internal disputes and wants to work with rather than confront the Biden White House. The goal, as two Israeli experts have argued, is not to scuttle the talks but rather to “promote the linkage the United States asserts that it seeks, between a return to an agreement and an Iranian commitment to discuss an improvement agreement.” To do otherwise, they warn, could “cause a conflict between Washington and Jerusalem.”
Iran’s Internal Debate Heats Up
If, as reported, the Natanz attack has set Iran’s enrichment program back by some nine months, it not only represents a deeply embarrassing moment for Iran’s intelligence services, but it has weakened the negotiating leverage that Iran had gained by deliberately raising its enrichment capacity in ways designed to pressure the United States. Given this setback, it is not surprising that Iranian leaders have promised that the attack will not stop the country’s enrichment program. Signaling defiance, Tehran has declared that it is now moving to 60 percent enrichment.
Iran’s leaders must now grapple with the fact that Israel has the capacity to strike deep into the heart of their nuclear program and would probably do so again.
But despite this action, Iran’s leaders must now grapple with the fact that Israel has the capacity to strike deep into the heart of their nuclear program and would probably do so again. With the prospect of getting drawn into a prolonged military conflict with Israel, Iran has good reason to keep pushing for an agreement in Vienna. Paradoxically, Israel’s actions might very well induce Iran to accept a face-saving compromise on the crucial question of who goes first: Washington, by taking steps to eliminate all nuclear related sanctions, or Tehran, by taking steps to return to the enrichment requirements established in the JCPOA.
Predictably, Iranian hard-liners are warning against any such move. Thus Kayhan, a newspaper with close connections to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has called for the Iranian delegation in Vienna to return home. Hard-line members of parliament have tried to throw a monkey wrench into the talks by issuing a report that concludes that Iran will need at least six months to verify that all nuclear related sanctions have been removed, thus precluding a “simultaneous” formula for removing sanctions and bringing Iran back to compliance with the JCPOA.
Thus far, these moves have not had their intended effect. On the contrary, Iran’s negotiators not only returned to Vienna on April 15, but they have done so with Khamenei’s backing. Therefore, while warning that Tehran will not retreat from his insistence that Washington first eliminate sanctions, Khamenei declared that, “Officials have determined that we negotiate to achieve our policies” and that Tehran has “no issue with this on the condition that … the parties don’t drag out the negotiations.” Seizing the opportunity, President Hassan Rouhani insisted “the Supreme Leader has clearly defined the framework of our negotiations and we will continue our work within that framework.”
Vienna Round Two: Getting Down to Business?
This second round of talks picked up where the first round ended, i.e., with a working agreement to create two joint committees—one to explore the sanctions issue and another the compliance question. No one should minimize how difficult the work of these committees will be, if and once they are actually convened. The sanctions issue is especially intricate because the parties must contend with all JCPOA sanctions that the Trump Administration reimposed on Iran, plus some 1,500 new sanctions. Many of the latter blur the boundaries between nuclear related sanctions that target Iran’s capacity to sell oil and engage in dollar-denominated trade, and other types of sanctions that are linked to human rights and other issues. Unravelling this knot will take time, thus complicating any bid to craft a deal that allows for parallel progress on both the sanctions and compliance tracks.
The ultimate question is not technical but rather political: do Iranian and American leaders have the political space and political will to advance negotiations despite resistance from their respective hard-liners? Thus far, the signs are relatively encouraging.
Still, the ultimate question is not technical but rather political: do Iranian and American leaders have the political space and political will to advance negotiations despite resistance from their respective hard-liners? Thus far, the signs are relatively encouraging. Iran’s lead negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, stated at the outset of the talks that, “It seems that a new understanding is taking shape, and now there is agreement over final goals.” But Araghchi, a veteran diplomat and pragmatist, faces opposition from hard-liners who, in an apparent effort to undermine the talks, circulated a story, supposedly from “informed sources,” suggesting that US negotiators are insisting that the United States will only issue temporary rather than permanent sanction waivers. Pushing back on April 20, the last day of this second round of talks, he insisted on Twitter, that “I don’t know who the ‘informed source’ of Press TV in Vienna is, but s/he is certainly not ‘informed’.”
The Logic of Diplomacy
It is certainly paradoxical that such signs of muted but real optimism from Vienna seem to be partly a product of the Natanz attack. But the fact that diplomacy is slowly moving forward has less to do with Israel’s actions than it does with one basic reality: Netanyahu and his allies reject the basic premise of the JCPOA or any diplomatic deal with Iran—namely, that in return for agreeing to strict limits on Iran’s enrichment program and a comprehensive regime of international inspections, the United States and its allies will remove all nuclear related sanctions. Netanyahu believes that sanctions must be used not to prod Tehran toward compromise, but rather as a weapon to force Iran to relinquish any enrichment program, whatever the conditions or constraints.
Netanyahu believes that sanctions must be used not to prod Tehran toward compromise, but rather as a weapon to force Iran to relinquish any enrichment program, whatever the conditions or constraints.
The Biden Administration’s position that Iran can enrich uranium to levels set in the JCPOA ultimately helps the White House to negotiate in ways that clearly show the United States is not letting Israel call all the shots. This means signaling that the sabotage of the Natanz facility has not only failed to derail the Vienna talks but has, in fact, provided additional cause to sustain diplomacy. The challenge now for the administration is to make good on Austin’s assertion that the US commitment to Israel’s security will remain “iron clad” even as Netanyahu and his allies in Washington continue to reject the White House’s Iran diplomacy.
Iranian leaders, especially Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, not to mention their negotiators, face a similarly tricky balancing act. With the presidential election less than two months away, they cannot be seen as condoning a deal that would only play into the hands of hard-liners who question the very premise of reaching an agreement that, they argue, could easily be scuttled by the US Congress or repudiated by another administration four years from now. But if no deal emerges, there will be no relief on sanctions. Further, the prospects for a much wider military conflict between Iran and Israel, or even Iran and the United States, will accelerate. The logic of a deal remains powerful, even if the path to an agreement is full of minefields, any one of which could go off at any time.