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Hoping to Sway Iran Nuclear Talks in Its Favor, Israel Gets Loud

The Biden administration may have hoped the removal of Iran's Revolutionary Guards terror designation would fly under the radar, but Israel's Bennett and Lapid prefer a noisy PR blitz, harnessing the concerns of Tehran's other regional foes as talks in Vienna near a close

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting on Monday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting on Monday.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

It has been a month since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett revealed two issues Israel was to target as Iran and world powers negotiate a new agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program: Iran’s demand to remove its Revolutionary Guards from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, and closing four investigations against Iran by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog for alleged violations of the 2015 deal.

While the draft deal has yet to be made public, Israel has so far struggle to impact its text, including its sunset dates set back in 2015. Israeli officials see the Iranian negotiators’ two contentions demands, which are not part of the agreement itself, as an opportunity for a public pressure campaign, to increase international criticism of the move, and try to achieve something that they believe would benefit Israel at the Vienna talks.

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Some Israeli officials are under the impression that the U.S. delegation is keen to ink a deal, and therefore may be more accommodating of the demand on the Revolutionary Guards' status. But in Washington, officials are still deliberating the move in light of opposition to it in Congress and on the National Security Council.

American officials backing the Guard's delisting hoped that the move would go largely unnoticed, officials assess. Israel, however, wanted to seize the moment to embark on a loud media blitz, harnessing the mutual concerns also shared by other countries in the region – namely Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia – who would not like to see the elite Iranian force, operating across the Middle East, gaining legitimacy.

It will soon transpire whether the Israeli gambit pays off, but some political officials have already began touting an "Israeli achievement" in the second fight Bennett picked: Rather than closing the International Atomic Energy Agency cases against Iran, a "compromise" was worked out earlier this month under which the four cases will not be closed, but rather reexamined. Only in June will IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announce whether the investigations should be shelved, according to the understandings that had been reached.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a news conference in Vienna, last week.Credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Speaking at a cabinet meeting last week, Bennett dubbed the IAEA's agreement to this compromise is "significant and positive," indicating that the UN agency has not caved in to Iranian pressure. But it could still lead to the cases being closed gradually instead, if the signatories to the new nuclear deal urge Grossi to back off from the investigations so as not to "blow up" the agreement they had just signed.

Either way, Bennett's government has maintained tight cooperation with the Biden administration, and a fiery statement issued on Friday by the Israeli prime minister and his foreign minister, Yair Lapid, isn't likely to change that; Israel was blowing off steam, in a way that apparently does not exceed the understandings between Jerusalem and Washington.

Bennett had decided right after he assumed office to make his peace with the American determination to sign a deal with Iran, to avoid confrontation with the United States on this issue, and to focus his government's efforts on discussion about "the day after" the resumption of the nuclear deal, which would expire in eight years anyway. While declining Israel's offer of a military threat that would stop Iran's nuclearization efforts, U.S. President Joe Biden did make a step toward Bennett’s position when he publicly vowed in August, for the first time, that "Iran never develops a nuclear weapon."

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