The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Rafael Grossi, opened a meeting of the agency’s board of governors on Monday with remarks that echoed what he said during a visit to Israel over the weekend: The open questions regarding Iran’s nuclear project haven’t yet been resolved, and Iran is a few weeks away from having a “significant quantity” of enriched uranium – in other words, enough uranium to produce one nuclear bomb.
Iran had hoped these unresolved issues, which include uranium particles found at three sites not declared as nuclear facilities, would soon be settled. But Grossi said the Iranian government hadn’t provided “technically credible explanations” for the presence of uranium at the sites.
Leaving this issue unresolved will further weigh on the already paralyzed negotiations between Iran and five other countries over a new nuclear agreement. And Grossi’s statement comes on top of another recent obstacle – the Biden administration’s refusal to remove the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Israeli government and defense officials are divided over whether a new nuclear deal that doesn’t differ significantly from the original one would be in Israel’s interest. But Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who opposes the new deal, will see Grossi’s refusal to accept Iran’s explanations on these unresolved questions as a positive development. This issue was discussed during Grossi’s visit to Israel, which came on the heels of the publication of damning documents from Iran’s nuclear archives in the international media.
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“What will distance Iran from developing a bomb are resolute actions by the international community that hurt Iran,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Monday at a meeting with his Kahol Lavan party’s Knesset members. “Iran promised to give the IAEA information that would enable the investigation into the ‘open files’ to be closed. This didn’t happen, and Iran is continuing to try to hide the truth deep underground, in a variety of facilities.”
The fog of war
Media coverage of developments related to the negotiations has been somewhat overshadowed by bombastic headlines about a series of assassinations in Iran over the past two weeks. During this time, five relatively senior people connected to the regime have reportedly been killed in five separate incidents – two IRGC officers and three scientists reportedly involved in Iran’s nuclear, missile production and drone projects. The Israeli media, and to some extent the global media as well, has speculated about Israeli responsibility for their deaths.
Of all these reported assassinations, the only one in which an outside source has made a well-grounded claim of Israeli responsibility is the first – that of Col. Hassan Khodaei, whose name has been linked to attempted attacks on Israeli targets overseas. Sources in the Biden administration told The New York Times that this was an Israeli operation.
With regard to the other incidents, it’s so far hard to determine to what extent Israel was involved. In some of them, the attempt to blame Israel seems forced (for instance, there are claims that the second officer was thrown off a roof due to suspicions of treason) or dubious (two scientists were reportedly poisoned, a tactic Israel has rarely used since its failed attempt to assassinate senior Hamas official Khaled Meshal in 1997).
Iran itself hasn’t divulged much information about these incidents. This cloud of uncertainty, and the regime’s problems protecting its own people, obviously create the impression that it suffers from internal instability.
Dropping hints about assassinations could also serve Israel’s leadership, which is mired in its own political woes. Bennett and his staffers have been telling reporters in recent weeks about a change in policy toward Iran. They say Israel has developed capabilities for conducting operations in Iran on a regular basis and will no longer suffer Iranian attempts to attack Israel or Israeli targets overseas in silence. Moreover, according to media reports, these operations won’t just target nuclear scientists, but also people involved in terrorism, missile production and arms smuggling.
In recent days, there have been clear signs of an attempt to leverage these mysterious incidents in Iran for political gain. In a long and unusual open letter to Israelis, Bennett wrote explicitly that he has created “a new equation, in which we strike inside Iran in response to attacks on us by their agents.” A Twitter account unofficially affiliated with Bennett’s Yamina party retweeted a Channel 12 television report about “embarrassment in Iran” after “four nuclear scientists were assassinated in a single month.”
If Bennett or any of his staffers has indeed contributed to such reports, it’s a bit hard to blame them for imitating Benjamin Netanyahu. The former prime minister constantly dropped hints about secret operations against Iran for political gain, especially during his later years in office. And Bennett’s situation truly seems almost desperate, with a governing coalition that barely functions, a quarrelsome cabinet and a bureau that loses another aide every few days. This is a moment that cries out for positive coverage.
Nevertheless, it’s also a moment of escalating security risks. The increasing friction with Iran, the new tensions with Lebanon over gas drilling in the Mediterranean Sea, the ongoing conflict in the West Bank – any of these fronts could ignite in the near future due to localized, even almost trivial, sparks and put a government with almost no room to maneuver to the test.
Above all, what Israel needs now is responsible management of security affairs. Fear of Netanyahu returning to power can’t justify military adventures that aren’t genuinely necessary.