Iran Nuke Talks Resume Today: Israel Fears Failure Could Destabilize the Mideast

Israeli sources assess that the round of talks will not lead to real progress with Iran in the immediate term

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi meets with head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Mohammad Eslami, in Tehran
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi meets with head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Mohammad Eslami, in TehranCredit: via REUTERS
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Talks on the resumption of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran are set to begin on Monday in Vienna and the Israeli defense establishment assesses that their failure could lead to a period of regional instability fomented by Tehran.

According to officials familiar with the contacts that the United States and the other world powers are conducting with Iran, the regime of the ayatollahs is currently generating low-intensity but constant military friction with the Persian Gulf countries and Israel.

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It’s being done to pressure the international community to ease anti-Iranian sanctions and obtain concessions that would enable Iran to maintain its nuclear program. According to the assessments, if the current round of talks fail, the first since Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office, Iran could intensify the confrontations in the region.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) next to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, last month.Credit: Iranian Presidency/AFP

As reported by Haaretz, the Israeli defense establishment recently linked attacks carried out by Iranian drones in the Persian Gulf with pressure that Iran has sought to apply at the same time on the United States and the other powers on the nuclear issue.

There has been pessimism in Israel in recent days over the resumption of the talks. According to assessments, the round of talks will not lead to real progress in the immediate term between the two sides. Officials had the sense that Iran is not interested in a return to the nuclear agreement and instead would drag out the talks, enabling it to advance its nuclear program under the radar.

Israeli sources expect Iran to make maximalist demands in Vienna while the Americans, who at Iran’s insistence will not have their representatives in the room, will demand that Tehran return to full compliance with the nuclear agreement signed in 2015. The expectation is that the diplomatic drama between Iran and the United States will only begin after this round of talks.

In Israel, three scenarios are being suggested for the day after the talks, ranked from the highest probability, if the talks fail:

* An interim agreement (the most likely scenario): The United States would try to advance an interim agreement with Iran, which has been dubbed “less for less.” The United States understands that it’s not possible to get Iran to return to the original agreement and is working to advance a new agreement, one in which the two sides came to understandings on issues that are not in dispute, and that in the process limit Iran’s progress.

The United States recently presented Israel with a series of proposals along those lines, including demands that Iran stop enriching uranium and at the same time halt research and development around its nuclear industry. The Americans believe that such an interim agreement would put a stop to the technological progress of the nuclear program, and give the major powers relatively strong leverage to force significant negotiations on Iran down the line.

In Israel, the plans that have been presented to it so far have been deemed unacceptable, but senior Israeli officials have made it clear that they are not ruling out support for such a process if it is proven capable of delaying the nuclear program substantially and for many years. The main problem is a lack of trust on Israel’s part in the Americans’ ability to negotiate and the achievements that they would be capable of gaining in their talks with Iran.

* An antagonistic standoff (a less likely scenario): A failure of the talks would be expected to lead to a crisis. A disappointed United States would claim that Iran harmed its efforts to come to understandings and the Americans would then advance strong sanctions against Tehran. Iran would try to confront the international community and issue threats in an attempt to lift the sanctions.

* Iran gives in (a low prospect): The possibility that Iran would partially or fully retreat from its nuclear program and decide to comply with the world powers to have the sanctions lifted is seen at this stage as a low probability. Iran is not demonstrating good will towards the international community either through gestures or by restricting its activity.

* American flexibility (low prospect): The Biden administration’s agenda did not include the Iranian nuclear issue as one of its main goals. Instead, the administration was seeking to act against China increasing its strength and global efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic. A failure in the contacts with Iran could lead the United States to throw up its hands and become substantially more flexible in its demands from Iran to come to minimal understandings with Tehran – in an effort to conclude the crisis.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid flew to London and Paris to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron during the Vienna talks. He significantly reduced both the number of people in his entourage and the number of meetings he will hold due to the outbreak of a new coronavirus variant, but still plans to hold a joint press conference with Britain’s foreign secretary to coincide with the talks.

Of all the nuclear agreement’s signatories, Britain is currently the country closest to Israel’s positions, and Israeli officials said it is trying to persuade its partners to shift their positions closer to Israel’s as well. Aside from Iran, the other signatories are America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minsiter Boris Johnson in Glasgow, in November.Credit: Alastair Grant/AFP

Several sources said that all these countries share Israel’s intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear development since the agreement was signed in 2015 and agree on the significance of this intelligence. The dispute between Israel and the others is over what measures should be taken to make Tehran curtail its efforts.

Yet even though Britain’s views are the closest to Israel’s, London has little willingness or ability to push them without Washington’s acquiescence. “In the end, the only friends with whom we’re having a truly in-depth conversation and are able to speak most openly are the Americans, even if we don’t agree with them,” one government source said.

Israel isn’t ruling out the possibility that Tehran will offer limited gestures to the international community on Monday. These could include letting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visit its nuclear facilities or station cameras there.

In Israel’s view, Iran considers such steps the necessary minimum to prevent the imposition of additional and even more painful international sanctions. Israel expects Tehran to tender these gestures as a sign of its seriousness in order to win the other negotiators’ trust.

But Israeli officials are skeptical that such gestures can effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, people involved in the talks with Iran noted that these gestures were expected to be offered earlier, during IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi’s visit to Tehran last week, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian with IAEA Rafaek Grossi, last week.Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP

Israel views the nuclear agreement as dangerous. Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz said in an interview with Haaretz published over the weekend that the current agreement effectively recognized Iran’s right to a military nuclear program, because it only sought to suspend it until 2030 rather than seeking to end it entirely.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said repeatedly that Israel won’t let Iran become a nuclear threshold state. Government officials said that after taking office, Bennett discovered that Washington and the rest of the international community have no Plan B should the nuclear agreement collapse.

Israel would like the signatory countries to scrap the agreement in favor of heavier pressure on Iran that would cause it to abandon its nuclear program entirely. Such pressure would include severe economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and a credible international military threat should the talks fail. But Biden has so far refused to issue forceful military threats, making do with vague statements that Iran will never obtain nuclear weapons.

Prior to its recent efforts to promote a “less for less” agreement, Washington had said it planned to promote a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran. Under the best-case scenario, such an agreement would have led Tehran to end its nuclear program in nine years, when the current agreement expires.

“We have no problem with whatever road is chosen as long as it leads to the goal,” an Israeli official said. “The problem is that the chances that the U.S. will succeed in spearheading such a move don’t currently look high.”

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