From Sanctions to Military Action: Israeli Foreign Ministry Director Lays Out Plan Against Iran

'Not a single partner is saying to us, "We’ve come to terms with the Iranians getting a bomb." Quite the contrary,' says Alon Ushpiz, a former career diplomat

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Ebrahim Raisi, president of Iran, speaks during a news conference in Tehran in September
Ebrahim Raisi, president of Iran, speaks during a news conference in Tehran in September Credit: Majid Asgaripour/WANA
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz, is concerned.

Next Monday, Iranian representatives will be arriving in Vienna to negotiate a revival of the international nuclear agreement that it signed with the major powers in 2015. Ushpiz believes that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is known, is a bad agreement that legitimizes a military nuclear program that the Iranians have no intention of retreating from.

“There should be no return to the JCPOA. I’m not certain it will even be relevant two months from now,” the director general said, speaking after reports of Iran’s recent progress in amassing nuclear know-how and technology. And it's coming at a time when Tehran has barred international inspection of its activities.

“This time, the failure of the negotiators sitting across from the Iranians could end with a whole different scenario. That scenario is that the Iranians will be inside what is considered a threshold state. That’s a whole other story.”

In other words, if the talks fail, Iran will be able to become a nuclear threshold state within an immediate time frame?

“I wouldn’t put it that way. There is a process here and it has to take place with the person sitting across from the Iranians understanding that they have not stopped their technological advances. If this time [the negotiators] don’t manage to halt such a technological advance, the chances that such a failure would culminate in something different from the previous times is much greater.”

Do you think the Iranians are coming to the talks to soften [the terms]?

“You have to take into account that the Iranians won’t be coming to Vienna to return to the agreement. I think the Iranians will be coming to obtain whatever they can and wish for in the economic [sphere], in other words, an easing of sanctions at the lowest possible cost.”

The United States, Britain, France and Germany, which were all original signatories to the JCPOA (although President Donald Trump later pulled his country out of the agreement), see practically eye to eye with Israel regarding the relevant intelligence material, although the dialogue with two other signatories, Russia and China, is “a little different,” Ushpiz said.

“I don’t think there are big differences in the understanding of where the technological situation is. But [Iran’s] intentions are more difficult to analyze,” said the Foreign Ministry’s top civil servant. “Not a single partner is saying to us, ‘We’ve come to terms with the Iranians getting a bomb.’ Quite the contrary.”

Ushpiz believes the international community needs to adopt a different plan of action, one that is much firmer and more forceful. He describes a pincer action of sorts in which the United States (which, under President Joe Biden is seeking to return to the accord) and the other signatories would impose harsh sanctions and demand that Iran retreat from its nuclear ambitions – while at the same time threatening a significant military operation if it fails to cooperate. Such a move could genuinely bring an end to Iran’s nuclear program, Upshiz asserted, unlike the original agreement, which imposes limitations on the Iranians that expire in 2030.

“Multidimensional pressure needs to be applied on the Iranians all the time,” he said. “Pressure is an entire universe: There’s diplomatic pressure, there’s isolation, there are sanctions and there are other things. For many weeks now, in his talks with top officials around the world, including in Washington, Foreign Minister [Yair Lapid] has been saying that there has to be a credible public military threat on the Iranians.” And Ushpiz added, “The Iranian military nuclear program cannot be given legitimacy. Absolutely not. As soon as that happens, this whole story unravels.”

And the present agreement gives legitimacy to such a program?

“As I see it, yes. It gives legitimacy to an Iranian nuclear program the moment you tell [the Iranian regime] that from a certain point, you can conduct whatever research and development that you wish. Do we agree with all of our partners all of the time on 100 percent of the things that are being discussed? The answer is no.”

Behind the scenes, the Biden administration is trying to show flexibility and come up with creative solutions to get the stalled deal back on track. “In the minds of the people whom we’re talking to, such flexibility is aimed at preventing Iran from getting a bomb,” he noted, “but I think it’s a mistake. I think the only way to do that is through pressure.”

Diplomats from the EU, China, Russia and Iran at the start of prior round of nuclear talks in Vienna, April 6, 2021.Credit: Lars Ternes/EU Delegation in Vienna/AFP

One of the possible steps that was shown to Israel is an attempt to get Iran to sign a partial interim agreement that bypasses points in dispute and is based on understandings that the parties can agree upon. Haaretz has learned that one possibility that has been examined is that Iran suspend its nuclear research and development and its efforts to enrich uranium to 60 percent in return for a partial lifting of the sanctions. Israel has expressed opposition to the idea but has not ruled out the possibility of supporting an alternative down the line.

Let’s talk about the American attempt to promote an interim agreement instead of the current nuclear agreement. Has Israel clearly said that it opposes such a move?

“I don’t know if I would put it the way you did just now. I can point to a series of serious problems with an interim agreement: First of all, an interim agreement confers legitimacy. Second, I can’t say what the content of the interim agreement would be and what would happen after it.” Ushpiz added, “I don’t exclude a diplomatic solution out of hand to Iran’s ambitions to attain capabilities.” But he declined to cite a specific formula that would enable Israel to consent to such an agreement.

“It’s reasonable to assume that an interim agreement is a very bad idea – both because there is ambiguity and also because I don’t know what will come after it, and because it’s not certain that anything will come after it, and because it rewards the Iranians and gives them legitimacy.”

Another source for concern, Ushpiz said, are Iran’s warnings of its intentions to attack Israeli embassy staff around the world. In 2012, when he was Israel’s ambassador to India, Ushpiz experienced such an attack from up close: The wife of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s representative at the embassy was wounded by a bomb that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force attached to her car.

“There are threats all the time, including concrete ones,” he noted. “I’m not going to tell you whether they relate to this or that ambassador.”

Have there been attacks that were thwarted recently?

“I don’t think that’s something I ought to talk about.” 

Ushpiz, who is 55, was appointed the ministry director general in June after an impressive diplomatic career in which, in addition to serving as ambassador to India, he was congressional affairs attaché in Washington and head of the ministry’s department of diplomatic and strategic affairs. After a decade in which then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut back Foreign Ministry funding and was cool to the Israeli diplomatic corps, Lapid, the current foreign minister, has brought the ministry back to center stage. Its budget has grown substantially, dozens of positions have been filled and ministry representatives are given an important place around the decision-making table.

“I don’t think our situation has been this good for at least a decade,” Ushpiz declared. “Is it perfect now? No.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid have made their unity government a diplomatic “flak jacket” – primarily when it comes to the Palestinian issue. They have made it clear that due to the coalition’s diverse political makeup, spanning almost the entire the range of the political spectrum, they will not be advancing the diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority. But Ushpiz rejected the assertion that it’s a government of diplomatic paralysis.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset chamber in September.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“It would be strategic mistake to look at Israel’s interaction solely through the prism of ‘whether and what they’re doing with regard to the Palestinians.’ Between 60 to 70 percent of my time, in terms of diplomatic work, is spent on countries such as the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan.”

Even if a peace agreement with the Palestinians is not on the horizon, there are moves being made to improve life in the West Bank, Ushpiz said. “There’s a whole array of things related to stability, economics, standard of living, and governance. Some people call this managing the conflict. I think it’s more about managing the fabric of life.”

Are you managing to convince the world of this?

“Absolutely. The statements from the American administration talk about the two-state solution, but I don’t know of a single American in the administration who is coming to me or to another Israeli diplomat and saying, ‘I want peace talks.’”

In recent months, Bennett and Lapid have been leading an effort to block the opening of an American consulate in Jerusalem, which would serve the Palestinian public. Lapid has been telling his colleagues in the U.S. administration that opening the consulate would lead to the collapse of Israel’s governing coalition. Ushpiz is firmly opposed to the consulate but declines to predict whether or not it will open in the end. “The Israeli government’s position on this matter, as Foreign Minister Lapid relates it to the American administration, is very clear – and that is No. No, period. No to the opening of an American consulate in Jerusalem. That’s the position and that’s what I say too.”

Is such a position effective?

“I don’t think I need to get into this matter, and I don’t think I need to turn up the volume around the issue. I don’t want to get into predictions. I can just tell you that the Israeli position is no.’”

The possibility that the United States would announce the cancelation of the visa requirement for Israeli visitors has also made headlines since the Bennett government took office. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s UN ambassador and until recently its ambassador to Washington, who spearheaded the move, believes it has a good chance of bearing fruit by January 2023. Other professionals say the headlines on the matter have been blown out of proportion and that the bureaucracy involved in advancing the move will ultimately bury it. But Ushpiz is cautiously optimistic.

“I think there’s a chance,” he said. “I can’t say if it will happen in January 2023, because the answer depends on things that we need to do. We need to meet certain American targets and demands.” And then he added, “How realistic is it? Realistic enough that it’s worth it for us to keep working on it.”

The effort to obtain funding from Congress to replenish the supply of Iron Dome interceptors has exposed a challenge of another sort when it comes to Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party. “Israel’s standing in Congress is strong. There was a challenge in the House of Representatives. It was dealt with quickly and efficiently. There is no one in Washington, in the administration or Congress who was saying to Israel, ‘You won’t get it.’” And they added, “Now, let’s find the right platform for you to get it,” the Foreign Ministry director general said.

The Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, left, intercepts rockets, right, fired by Hamas movement towards Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, May 14, 2021.Credit: Anas Baba/AFP

“The biggest stronghold of political support for Israel outside of Israel’s borders is the U.S. Congress. I’m not saying that there is no problem. There is a different challenge than there was five years ago. But in the end, the vote, which was on a very sensitive subject, ended with a tally of 420 in favor versus 9 opposed. That’s not a victory on penalty kicks,” Ushpiz quipped.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been trying for months to warm his country’s relations with Israel. Last week, after the release of Mordi and Natalie Oknin, Israeli tourists who were arrested after photographing a Turkish presidential palace, Israel believed the two sides were on the path of rapprochement. But then this week, Erdogan attacked Israeli policy toward the Palestinians again, and Lapid called for Hamas’ Istanbul offices to be closed.

“I can’t tell you whether in X amount of time from now there will be a [Turkish] ambassador here. There is potential for improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations, more than there was two weeks ago, and I think this should be fully examined.” Ushpiz managed the efforts from Israel to free the couple, efforts that were led by Israeli Foreign Ministry personnel in Turkey. “I’m very proud of what the Foreign Ministry did and of the ability of the Israeli system to work together and quickly achieve this goal within the parameters set out by the prime minister and foreign minister,” he declared.

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, between Israel and UAE, Bahrain and other Arab countries, the Foreign Ministry has been working under the radar to try to get additional countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Five countries are considering the possibility, but it’s unclear who will be next in line, Ushpiz acknowledged.

“There will be another country,” he said. “I don’t think I need to comment on specific countries. If I did so, it would only lessen the chance of it happening. But there are very few options that you could put on the table in this context about which I would then tell you no.”

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