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Netanyahu Wakes Up Late to Find Israel Is Merely a Spectator on Iran Nuclear Talks

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iranian President Hassah Rouhani examines Iran's newest nuclear facilities at an exhibition in Tehran, last week
Iranian President Hassah Rouhani examines Iran's newest nuclear facilities at an exhibition in Tehran, last week Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

This week’s convening of the security cabinet, after months in which it didn’t meet, is simply astonishing. Only after U.S. President Joe Biden restarted negotiations with Iran, after a round of mutual attacks by Israel and Iran, and specifically after the recent attack on Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz did Israel remember that it might be appropriate to hold some kind of discussion about what’s happening with regard to the “existential threat” from Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s belated awakening from a beautiful year and the hangover he suffered from the vaccination campaign has confronted him with a new reality. One in which Israel has been relegated to an observer on the sidelines of a game in which it was supposed to be one of the main players.

Israel is trapped amid substantive diplomatic moves that it can neither influence nor intervene in. Its assessment of the damage caused by the Natanz strike has collapsed. Its status as the mobilizer of international support against Iran – an enormous achievement whose benefits Netanyahu reaped – has been destroyed. And now, all it can do is make harsh remarks about “the American betrayal.”

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White smoke has already begun rising from the second round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program, which began in Vienna over the weekend. “We think that the talks have reached a stage where parties are able to begin to work on a joint draft,” Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and the head of its delegation to the talks, said on Saturday. “It seems that a new understanding is taking shape.”

Granted, as several participants in the talks warned, there’s still a long way to go. But the direction is clear.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in military briefing in northern Israel, in 2015.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did describe Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to a level of 60 percent as “provocative,” and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had done so. But Washington wasn’t particularly upset.

Enriching uranium to 60 percent still isn’t making a nuclear bomb. The amount being enriched remains small, mainly because Iran needs to operate a large number of its newest model of centrifuges. And even if Iran manages to increase the amount it enriches, it will need many other components to overcome the difficulties of launching nuclear warheads.

No less important, Tehran doesn’t want to risk being blamed for the collapse of any chance of returning to the nuclear deal now that Biden has begun clearing the United States of blame. This is evidenced by Iran’s effort to frame the decision to increase its enrichment level merely as a response to Israel that had no intention of undermining the negotiations.

Pundits for Iranian government media outlets did accuse the “Zionist-American-Arab” axis of plotting to damage Iran’s capabilities, but the regime seems to be convinced that Washington was involved in neither the decision nor the implementation. And in any case, Iran’s interest in reviving the nuclear deal is currently more important than poking America in the eye.

Consequently, Israel’s working assumption should be that Washington will make every effort to revive the nuclear deal, and that every Israeli action to hinder this, whether diplomatic or military, will be viewed as harming America’s national interests.

Reports from Vienna indicate that all sides are feeling the pressure of time. The frequent meetings and the Iranian delegation’s swift consultations with the country’s leaders, compared to the breaks of weeks and even months that characterized the last round of talks (before the original deal was signed in 2015), indicate that Iran wants to sign an agreement before its presidential election in June. This is a tight timetable that will require a lot of flexibility and concessions from all sides.

It’s not entirely clear what Araghchi meant by a “new understanding” that will enable the parties to start drafting an agreement. But it presumably includes American willingness to give up on its phased plan, in which each side makes some concessions and compliance is tested for a while before the next stage is implemented, until the entire process is completed.

Top European official Enrique Mora and Iran's Abbas Araqchi wait for the start of a meeting of the nuclear deal talks in Vienna, on Saturday.Credit: EU Delegation in Vienna/Handout via Reuters

As far as Iran is concerned, it already made concessions by agreeing to enter negotiations before all the sanctions on it were lifted and agreeing to a three-month delay on implementation of its decision to prohibit IAEA inspections (within limits agreed on with the agency). Now, it is demanding the full removal of all sanctions.

Biden wanted the new agreement to include an Iranian commitment to and a timetable for negotiations on additional issues, like Tehran’s ballistic missile program, its support for terrorist organizations and expanding inspections to its nonnuclear military facilities. So far, Iran has treated these demands as unacceptable interventions in its internal affairs and violations of its sovereignty. But we’ll have to see how it responds after additional rounds of talks.

Any such concession would have to be acceptable to its conservative elites and the Revolutionary Guards, and might well spark political controversy right before the election. But in the past, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei has been able to coin terms like “heroic flexibility” to navigate between the country’s economic and diplomatic interests and its need to uphold its ideological principles and quiet domestic criticism.

To this tangle of considerations driving Tehran and Washington has now been added the Financial Times’ revelation that senior Iranian and Saudi officials held discussions in Baghdad on April 9. This was the first meeting between the countries’ official representatives since they severed relations in January 2016, following an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Iran that in turn followed Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shi’ite Saudi cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.

Riyadh and Tehran both denied that the April 9 meeting ever took place. But that sounded like the denials Israel and Saudi Arabia issued after a reported meeting between Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been conducting a diplomatic flirtation for many weeks now. It included a statement by Khamenei’s military adviser, Gen. Hossein Dehghan (a former defense minister), in an interview with the Houthis’ Al Masirah television station that “Saudi Arabia isn’t considered an enemy. But this position might change if the kingdom continues taking deceitful steps against Iran.”

After Tehran announced its decision to enrich uranium to 60 percent, Riyadh responded moderately, merely urging Iran to rescind its decision, since “this is a step that can’t be seen as intended for peaceful purposes,” and to participate seriously in the talks on the nuclear deal to fulfill its stated goal of developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes under IAEA supervision.

Last Wednesday, a senior Saudi official said Riyadh “is proposing that resumption of the nuclear deal be a starting point for additional discussions with the countries of the region on expanding the agreement’s provisions.” This is precisely how Biden is marketing the negotiations.

Admittedly, Iran has opposed Saudi Arabia’s participation in the nuclear talks. But it did propose that the Saudis launch a regional dialogue in which Iran “would be happy to lend a hand.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision how Netanyahu’s gut wrenched when he heard this Saudi response, which indicated that the anti-Iranian coalition’s days are numbered. This isn’t the reaction of an Arab country that planned and led the campaign against Iran, depicted itself as Israel’s ally on the issue and has waged a brutal war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen for five years to combat Iran’s regional influence.

But Riyadh doesn’t need a security cabinet meeting to understand the new diplomatic map. If it has to change its tone, or even its policy, toward Iran to get back on the White House guest list, it will do so.

It’s not absurd to think that this Saudi move and the talks on the nuclear deal are part of a broader package that includes an American promise to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s status in Washington in exchange for Riyadh supporting the nuclear deal and ending the fighting in Yemen. If former U.S. President Donald Trump used Saudi Arabia to advance his Mideast “deal of the century,” Biden has his own deal for which the Saudis will be asked to pay a diplomatic price.

On this issue, too, Israel has nothing to contribute. In the past, it could market its services to lobby American administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, on behalf of Arab states and others who needed better relations with Washington or economic aid. But these services now appear to be on unpaid leave.

This is the development that ought to most concern the security cabinet, once it realizes that Washington is managing the nuclear issue on its own and losing patience with anyone who tries to interfere.