Israel Hopes Nuke Talks Collapse With Biden's Refusal to Remove Iran’s Guards From Terror List

While Israel had struggled to influence the text of the new nuclear agreement negotiated in Vienna, it seized an opportunity afforded by a move to lift the terror designation from the Revolutionary Guards

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Biden in the oval office.
Biden in the oval office.Credit: Andrew Harnik /AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel sees the likely U.S. decision to refuse Iran’s demand to remove its Revolutionary Guards from its terror blacklist, as reported Saturday by the Washington Post, as a sign of success of concentrated lobbying efforts in recent weeks, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

While U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are leading talks in Washington to reach a final decision on the matter, an informed Israeli source told Haaretz that Israel expects Biden to make the announcement soon. "It's not final, but that's where it's headed," the source said.

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The Israeli leadership now hopes that keeping the U.S. designation of the Guards as a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO) would be met with Iranian resistance, potentially leading to the collapse of talks between Tehran and world powers who have been negotiating in Vienna in a bid to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Saturday Tehran would not give up its “nuclear rights” to develop its industry for peaceful purposes, but didn’t comment specifically on how the talks were progressing.

The Americans stalled on making their decision on the Guards due to disagreements in the administration. Biden and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are seen as supportive of the Israeli stance, but Blinken and his office fear it would jeopardize the entire agreement.

Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel started its public campaign on March 18 with a rare statement issued by Bennett and Lapid, attacking the Biden administration’s consideration of Tehran’s demand.

“The attempt to delist the group as a terrorist organization is an insult to the victims,” they said then. “We believe that the United States will not abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists.”

The collaboration between Lapid and Bennett – both appreciated by the U.S. administration – on this issue and a focused Israeli message were meant to give the move more chances of succeeding.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, in February.Credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Israel had so far struggled to influence the text of the new agreement that is being worked out by the delegations in Vienna, and avoided public confrontation with the United States.

But when Israeli leaders heard about talks on lifting the U.S. terror designation of the Revolutionary Guards – which was enacted by former President Donald Trump in 2019 and therefore wasn’t a part of the original nuclear deal – they saw an opening to influence the talks at a sensitive moment and make it harder to strike a new deal.

Minister Lapid was leading Israel's efforts to sway Blinken's mind. In a meeting in Riga in early March, Lapid told his U.S. counterpart: "We're not going to let you do that." A similar tone was reflected in phone calls the two had since then, climaxing with a meeting on the matter during the Negev Summit of Israeli, Arab and American foreign ministers in Israel's south.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog had started lobbying members of Congress, spurring a public debate over the issue, which boosted the Israeli efforts. Bennett’s senior political adviser, Shimrit Meir, visited Washington last week to meet with senior American officials, including Sullivan.

Another way to pressure decision-makers in the United States was to present a united front with Israel’s Gulf allies, mostly behind the scenes. Alongside Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain all expressed a joint, clear message that delisting the Guards would send a terrible message to America’s allies, who are often on the receiving end of attacks by the elite Iranian paramilitary force.

Beyond the symbolic aspect of it, Israeli officials were concerned the delisting of the Guards would make it easier for the organization to acquire more funds and weapons and help grow its regional proxies. This, officials fear, would force Israel to boost its defense spending.

While the U.S. administration has signaled that it intends to leave sanctions on the Guards even if it removes its designation, Israel was concerned that delisting the organization would still give it access to Western markets, who will no longer fear facing criminal charges over violating U.S. sanctions.

One Iranian diplomat told Reuters that Tehran had rejected a U.S. proposal to overcome the sticking point by keeping the Guards’ overseas arm, the Quds Force, under FTO sanctions, while delisting the Revolutionary Guards as an entity.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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