Analysis |

The West Is Waiting on One Man to Determine the Fate of the Iran Nuke Deal

Biden administration would like an Iran deal reached before Raisi's inauguration in August, but it's unlikely Khamenei will be convinced

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Ayatollah Khamenei receiving a coronavirus vaccine in Tehran, last month.
Ayatollah Khamenei receiving a coronavirus vaccine in Tehran, last month.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Israeli defense establishment believes that Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei has not yet decided whether to adopt the new nuclear deal with the United States. The final decision is in his hands and the chances that it will be signed may diminish after the inauguration of the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, on August 5. The Biden administration has been eager to secure an agreement before Raisi takes office.

The original agreement between Western powers and Iran on the restriction of its nuclear project was signed in 2015, but former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018. A year later, the Iranians began to systematically violate the agreement and increase the amounts of enriched uranium in their possession. Since U.S. President Joe Biden’s term began in January, there have been six rounds of talks in Vienna between Iran and the other countries party to the agreement to try to come up with a new version. No agreement has yet been reached, and the gaps between Iran and the United States have been described as wide.

After the Bennett government was sworn in, IDF Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi went to Washington and spoke with several senior administration officials, expressing Israel’s objections to the character of the evolving agreement. But Jonathan Lis reported last week in Haaretz that associates of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett believe Israel’s ability to influence the American position on the new agreement is very limited, and that practically speaking, the choice is now between renewing the old agreement or continuing the status quo of no binding agreement.

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Nevertheless, Israel is on the one hand making an effort to toughen the demands to be made on Iran after the current agreement expires in 2030, while on the other hand trying to boost its coordination with the United States in the event of Iranian violations, and to get a defense “compensation” package from the Americans if Washington does reenter the deal. Bennett, at Biden’s invitation, is expected to go to Washington at the end of this month or early next month. In recent weeks, he has been devoting a considerable amount of time to discussions on the Iranian issue.

Israel believes that Khamenei greeted Trump’s loss in last year’s election with a sigh of relief because he feared a surprise American attack on nuclear sites, following the U.S. assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, in January 2020. (In a new book published last week, journalist Michael Bender writes that Trump said he decided to assassinate the general to enlist the support of hawkish Republican senators ahead of his pending impeachment by Congress.)

Biden’s election instilled hope in Iran, among both conservatives and moderates, and fears of an American attack have waned. But it seems Khamenei’s sense of urgency has also dissipated, and he may now feel there is no burning need to reach an agreement, despite the heavy damage that Trump’s economic sanctions continue to inflict.

Khamenei, 82, is thought to have a long-term historical perspective and is prepared to sacrifice and endure difficult times to ensure the stability of the regime. At this point, 32 years since he was appointed Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, he is also preoccupied with the legacy he will leave behind.

“He would probably be happy to close a deal that would ensure economic relief and a return to the family of nations,” says a security source in Israel. “But he hasn’t yet decided. There is a cultural, even religious, preference in the Iranian system to reach important decisions by broad consensus. But the agreement will be signed when it is clear that this is what Khamenei wants. He is the final arbiter – and it’s very difficult to predict what will happen there. We do know that he doesn’t like to make difficult decisions; he prefers to postpone them as much as possible and keep things ambiguous.”

The countries involved in negotiations with Iran would also prefer to close a deal in less than a month, before Raisi takes office. Raisi, who is considered a hawk compared to outgoing President Hassan Rohani, is expected to appoint a long line of new officials in his government, and the bureaucracy in Tehran will probably need time to adjust. Although, as noted, the final word on the agreement remains with Khamenei, the role of the president in the process cannot be ignored.

Israel views Khamenei’s conduct during last month’s presidential election process as proof of his growing self-confidence. In the weeks leading up to the election, there was a sweeping disqualification of candidates, including outright conservatives, often on the grounds that they were not loyal enough to the Islamic Revolution. And yet the regime also has cause for concern, related to the young generation distancing itself from revolutionary ideas, the historically low voter turnout and the large number of voters who cast a blank ballot.

Sanctions didn’t stop Iran

While the talks in Vienna are being delayed, Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance. Iran is accumulating more enriched uranium and shortening the time it will take to produce a bomb. The 2015 agreement left Iran about a year away from producing a sufficient amount of enriched uranium. This period has recently been shortened to a few months. Meanwhile, the centrifuges that Iran is producing are becoming smaller and more advanced; future models will take up less space and be usable in smaller, more protected and more secretive complexes underground. The knowledge and experience being accumulated by Iranian nuclear scientists are also assets that no future agreement will be able to erase.

The International Atomic Energy Agency announced last week that Iran has begun producing metallic uranium, a significant component for the military aspects of the nuclear program. The agency’s finding confirms claims made by Israel as early as February of this year. Yet even after a sufficient amount of enriched uranium is obtained, Iran will still need to develop a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile, a process that could take another two years.

The bottom line is that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than it was in 2018, before the United States withdrew from the agreement, a move made by Trump under the influence of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another move by Netanyahu did prove itself: The documents that Israel stole from the Iranian nuclear archive provided evidence of Iranian violations of nuclear protocols from nearly 20 years ago, which potentially complicated the regime’s relationship with the international community.

Tehran has account to settle

Between the rounds of negotiations in Vienna, there have been numerous security incidents in the region. The Iranians are behind drone and rocket attacks against Saudi Arabia and American military bases in Iraq and Syria; the United States attacked Shi’ite militia targets in Syria and Iraq; Iran attacked Israeli-owned ships in the Indian Ocean, in response to similar attacks it attributed to Israel against its ships in the Red Sea; and at the end of last week there was a wide-ranging cyberattack against the Iranian rail system.

In Israel, it is believed that Iranian attacks, most of which are carried out by Shi’ite militias, are expected to continue regardless of the negotiations in Vienna, because Tehran does not believe these attacks put the talks at risk. Iran still believes it has an account to settle with Israel, due to a range of incidents it attributes to Israel, first and foremost the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and a series of mysterious explosions at nuclear sites in Iran.

Still, Iran isn’t rushing to take revenge. It appears to prefer to wait for a suitable opportunity before making an appropriate move. “The perception of time there is incredibly elastic,” says a security source. “There’s no panic; everything depends on the needs of the regime and its constraints.”

At the end of last year, the Iranians’ regional balance seemed negative and was even causing them some worry. That was connected to a series of developments, some of which stemmed from American moves and some from Israeli ones: The assassinations of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh; air force attacks in Syria; the pressure of the economic sanctions; the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic; and the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Since then, however, from the Iranian perspective there has been a marked improvement in the regional power they’ve managed to project: Saudi Arabia has gotten a cold shoulder from Biden and his people while absorbing heavy drone attacks from the Houthi rebels in Yemen; the United States has suffered attacks in Iraq, while Iran is continuing to make progress in both its nuclear project and in weapons development.

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