Israel Says U.S. Surprised Over Iran's Hardened Stance in Nuke Talks

As world powers break for internal consultations, officials say U.S. did not anticipate Iran’s hardline demands on sanctions but believe Israel can yet 'influence’ the nuclear talks

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani at a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, Monday.
Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani at a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria,Credit: EU Delegation in Vienna/Handout via REUTERS
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israeli officials have rebuked the United States' handling of the Iran nuclear talks, with one saying Washington was “confused” in their expectation that Tehran would not harden its position on returning to compliance with the terms of the 2015 agreement.

Despite this, a senior U.S. State Department official stressed that U.S.-Israel coordination regarding the deal remains strong. "I think we may have some differences – well, that’s natural, and we understand that we are situated differently, we have different ways sometimes of approaching it," the official said, adding "but our goal remains the same, and our goal is absolutely resolute that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that is something where we are fully aligned with Israel."

The official highlighted the growing number of former senior Israeli officials who have criticized the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. "The conversations we’re having with Israel are always interesting, always important, and we strive to remain as transparent and as well-coordinated with Israel as possible," the official said.

"But it is taking place against a backdrop that I think we all need to take into account, which is to learn the lessons of the preceding three years, what it has meant for Iran’s program, and how it has put us in this very difficult situation where Iran is continuing to accelerate its nuclear program, and we have to face difficult decisions if Iran is not prepared to come back into compliance with the deal."

Over the weekend, Israeli officials cautioned against a scenario in which the U.S. agrees to lift Iranian sanctions in exchange for an intermediate agreement (“less for less”), under which Iran would consent to only some demands, like stopping uranium enrichment or nuclear research and development.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is seen leaving the Coburg Palais, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting in Vienna on Friday.Credit: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Such an agreement would eliminate one of the international community’s most important tools against Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli officials said.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Americans don’t deny their willingness to reach such a deal, but said that American officials were caught off guard by the Iranian delegate’s presentation of two position papers that included firm demands concerning the lifting of sanctions and Iran’s conditions for returning to the agreement.

The draft agreements submitted by Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, include a withdrawal from nearly all the understandings reached in the previous round of talks, in June, as well as a demand that the world powers commit not only to lifting the economic sanctions against Iran but also provide guarantees that no new sanctions would be imposed on it in the future, in a move meant to reassure potential investors.

Israel rallying opposition

Meanwhile, Israel's diplomatic efforts are set to intensify. Mossad chief David Barnea is scheduled to fly to Washington within a few days, where he will hold “very important” talks with administration officials to convince them not to sign an intermediate agreement with Iran. He will also seek to drum up international support for harsh sanctions that will force Iran to step back from its nuclear program.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been forthcoming, at least in his rhetoric. “If the path to a return to compliance with the agreement turns out to be a dead-end, we will pursue other options,” he said, adding that Iran must make very serious decisions over the next few days, as indirect talks between Iran and the U.S.broke until next week.

Another U.S. official also came down harshly on Iran’s conduct in Vienna on Saturday, saying the U.S. would not continue its efforts to renew the agreement “forever.” In a media briefing, the official said the U.S. was prepared for the possibility that agreement cannot be reached with Tehran, adding that if Washington reaches the conclusion that Iran killed the agreement, additional sanctions can be expected.

European officials expressed dismay at the demands of Iran's new hardline administration as Macron called Friday for increasing Israeli influence on the negotiations, telling reporters it will be hard to reach understandings with Iran without the involvement of Israel and the Persian Gulf states. The French leader was pessimistic about reaching such understandings in the near future.

Israeli officials said they view Blinken’s tough talk as a response to the hardening of the positions of his European partners in the negotiations. A few weeks after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, these countries’ representatives backed Israeli positions on the agreement.

Enrique Mora, the European Union representative at the talks, said last week that the talks could not continue forever, adding that there was “a sense of urgency” in restoring the agreement. He also said that the parties would base the next round of talks on the understandings reached previously.

Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported that the talks would resume Monday after Western states evaluated the Iranian proposal, without elaborating on the proposal. The agency also said that the delegations would remain in the Austrian capital to continue their work.

“It’s very clear that Iran came to Vienna not to obtain an agreement, but rather to obtain relief. In the days to come, we’ll see whether the world powers will move in the direction of a crisis with Iran or the direction of flexibility," a diplomatic source said.

Ben Samuels contributed to this report.

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