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Biden's Decision on Iran's Guards Signals Nuclear Deal Is Off the Table. But Israel Is Still Worried

President Biden's decision to keep Iran's Revolutionary Guards on the terror list will likely collapse the new nuclear deal, to the delight of Naftali Bennett

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
U.S. President Biden decided to keep Iran's Revolutionary Guard on terror blacklist, marking achievement for Israel's Bennett. Biden speaking at the White House on Tuesday.
U.S. President Biden decided to keep Iran's Revolutionary Guard on terror blacklist, marking achievement for Israel's Bennett. Biden speaking at the White House on Tuesday.Credit: STEFANI REYNOLDS - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to keep the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on America’s list of sanctioned terrorist organizations apparently reflects Washington’s acceptance that the chances of signing a new nuclear deal with Iran this year have shrunk.

Biden’s special envoy for the Iranian issue, Rob Malley, whom Israel views as the administration’s dovish flank, addressed a Congressional hearing in Washington on Wednesday. Though he is usually careful to project optimism, he said the chances of signing a deal were now low (or “tenuous,” to use his term) and the administration would consider intensifying sanctions.

The issue of sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards, which has no direct connection to the nuclear issue, has been described recently as a critical obstacle to an agreement. But which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The Israeli defense establishment says the order should be reversed: Biden insisted on leaving the Revolutionary Guards on the blacklist only after the chances of signing an agreement in Vienna had declined. That was partly due to Iran’s stubbornness, and not just on the sanctions issue, but also due to internal disagreements within the Biden administration.

Diplomatic sources, in contrast, still put the chances of signing a deal this year at 50-50.

In less than six months, America will hold its midterm elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the Democratic Party’s situation doesn’t look great. So it’s possible that signing a controversial agreement, about which senior U.S. defense officials and even some of the administration’s political officials are divided, no longer looks so tempting from the administration’s perspective.

Either way, Biden’s decision, which was made a month ago but divulged only now, was a significant accomplishment for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his staff. Israel achieved the goal it set for itself: persuading the administration not to make this gesture toward the Iranians.

    Israel would have liked the administration’s more pessimistic and even slightly tougher stance to be accompanied by a more significant American military threat. But that hasn’t happened so far, and reports of American participation in a major Israeli military exercise taking place this month, which includes the scenario of an Israeli air strike on Iran, have been inflated out of all proportion.

    Ex-MI chief’s bombshell

    Meanwhile, the former head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Tamir Heyman, threw a small bombshell of his own on Wednesday. Heyman, who recently left active service and became managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the daily Israel Hayom that “in the current situation,” signing the nuclear agreement “is very much the right thing” to do.

    He explained that the deal would “roll back” Iran’s nuclear capabilities, since it would have to send its highly enriched uranium out of the country. And delaying Iran’s achievement of nuclear weapons capability would buy time for Israel to prepare better for other options.

    Though Heyman declined to comment on MI’s assessments from his own term as head of the unit, his comments now presumably come as no surprise to the government.

    When former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in office, he made sure to prevent any such public statements by military or intelligence officials, because they would deviate from the official Israeli line and, above all, because he feared such statements could affect Israel’s dispute with Washington over the Iranian nuclear issue. Bennett isn’t far from Netanyahu’s views on the nuclear issue, but he has a very different tone and style. Therefore, he didn’t bother to respond to Heyman’s comments.

    Senior officials who are still serving also seem to have greater freedom to express their views under Bennett, both in closed forums and, to some extent, even outside them.

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