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U.S. Knows Iran Is Stalling, but Isn’t Rattling Sabers for Israel

Envoy’s remarks are gratifying, but American threat of military force against Tehran still distant

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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ranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in Iran, in October.
ranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in Iran, in October.Credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL WEBSITE/רויטרס
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Even the Biden administration has been forced to admit that all the signs point to Iran having no interest at the moment in resuming talks with six world powers on a new nuclear agreement.

The preliminary talks about resuming the negotiations were apparently intended mainly to buy time. And the Iranians are using the repeated postponements to continue advancing their uranium enrichment.

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Rob Malley, the administration’s special envoy for the Iranian issue and someone viewed in Israel as taking a relatively conciliatory line toward Tehran, more or less admitted this Monday. Nobody wanted it but “we needed to be at least prepared for” the possibility that Iran won’t return to the nuclear agreement, he said in a telephone briefing for reporters.

Malley even mentioned an option that isn’t much talked about in Washington these days – the fact that the United States has other tools for dealing with the Iranian threat. “If diplomacy fails, we have other tools, and we will use other tools to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” he said. Admittedly, this was a qualified threat. But in the Biden administration, even that is nontrivial.

America’s recognition of this emerging new reality has left Israel’s leadership feeling a bit more encouraged. Washington is now more attentive to Israel’s recommendation that it draw up a Plan B – steps that will be taken if it becomes clear that Iran is indeed refusing to enter negotiations and is determined to continue its uranium enrichment.

Israel’s ideas for a Plan B don’t match the American ones; despite Malley’s hints, Washington appears to be quite far from threatening to use military force. Nevertheless, if the Americans decide to reinstate more rigorous sanctions, it may be easier for them to bring the Europeans and even Russia on board that it was for former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The dismal situation has exacerbated the mutual recriminations between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. When Bennett took office four months ago, he was surprised to discover two worrying developments.

First, Iran was closer than he had realized to accumulating sufficient enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb. Second, Israel’s military plans for dealing with this threat hadn’t been kept up to date in recent years. This also explains the recent media reports that Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi has ordered the air force to update its operational plans for a possible future attack.

The neglect of these plans stemmed in part from the way the IDF General Staff read the situation. After the original nuclear deal was signed in 2015, it created a window of opportunity for diverting resources from preparations to deal with the nuclear threat to other issues not directly connected to this threat.

Later, after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, with Netanyahu’s encouragement, and Iran responded by beginning to violate provisions of the agreement, the IDF requested additional funding to improve its preparedness for addressing the nuclear threat. But this didn’t happen with the requisite speed, in part because the government was operating without a budget for the past two years due to a lengthy political crisis.

Netanyahu, for his part, has accused Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of promising the Americans that there will be “no surprises” on Iran and thereby voluntarily conceding Israel’s ability to make independent decisions. Bennett and Lapid deny this.

But Netanyahu, now the opposition leader, has offered no evidence to support his accusation and doesn’t currently enjoy much public credibility. It’s sufficient to recall this week’s ridiculous episode in which he told a meeting of his Likud party’s Knesset members about the masses who surrounded him and begged him to return to power when he walked out of a barber shop in Jerusalem. A video of the incident shows clearly that the masses he spoke of amounted to a mere handful of people.

Meanwhile, according to Arab media reports, Israel and Iran are continuing to trade blows, and apparently at an accelerated pace. Earlier this week, an Israeli airstrike in Syria was reported, the fourth this month. This one took place near Quneitra in the Golan Heights.

On Tuesday, Iran suffered a cyberattack that disrupted the supply of gasoline to thousands of service stations around the country.

Just as happened in another cyberattack this year that was attributed to Israel, hackers broke into electronic billboards and posted messages blaming the leadership in Tehran for the shortages Iranians were suffering.

An Iranian attack on the al-Tanf garrison in eastern Syria over the weekend didn’t receive as much attention as it should have in Israel. Five drones participated in the attack on the isolated base, one side of which houses U.S. and coalition troops while Syrian opposition forces are based in the other side. A Pentagon spokesman called the strikes “complex, coordinated and deliberate.”

Iran, mainly via the Shi’ite militias it controls, was responsible for numerous rocket and drone attacks in Iraq in the past.
The American media reported that the U.S. military had advance intelligence about the planned attack on al-Tanf and that 200 soldiers had been evacuated from the base in a transport plane.

As usual, Washington promised to respond at a time and place of its choosing. Iran didn’t even make a real effort to deny responsibility for the attack. This was apparently a deliberate provocation against the Americans, despite the talks about resuming the nuclear negotiations.

But it was also a message to Israel. Over the past week, Iranian spokespeople have frequently mentioned the Israeli attacks in Syria and tied them to the American presence in the region.

It seems that the exchange of blows in this region isn’t just continuing, but intensifying. While the dispute over the nuclear issue is taking place openly, the Middle East is also teeming with mysterious attacks and counterattacks, mostly conducted with certain details shrouded in fog and with no public claim of responsibility.

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