With U.S. President Joe Biden planning to visit the Middle East in mid-July, there has recently been an uptick in American activity in the region.
On one hand, thanks to vigorous European mediation, the nuclear talks with Iran seem likely to resume in the near future. On the other, Washington has intensified its efforts to create a regional defense alliance against Iranian drones and missiles that will include Israel and several friendly Arab countries.
The announcement about resuming talks on a new nuclear deal was made in Tehran on Saturday at a meeting between the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and his European Union counterpart, Josep Borrell. The first negotiating session will apparently take place in Qatar.
The talks had derailed over the prior two months, due to both the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demand for further explanations on the “open files” – i.e., the enriched uranium found at various undeclared Iranian sites – and the Biden administration’s refusal to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from America’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Israeli politicians boasted of having influenced the administration on the latter issue.
The talks are resuming at Europe’s initiative. Israel still thinks America has limited room for flexibility in the negotiations, in part because the administration is focused on November’s congressional elections and fears making mistakes. Nevertheless, various ideas for compromises were raised in the preliminary talks, including removing other sanctions from Iran as compensation and enhanced IAEA supervision in exchange for ignoring the “open files.”
In Israel, opinions are divided about the benefits of returning to the nuclear deal. Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, like his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has consistently opposed the agreement (albeit in more moderate tones). But Military Intelligence argues that signing the agreement is the lesser evil under the circumstances.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that a secret meeting took place in the Sinai resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh in March. Organized by the United States, the meeting’s participants included Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and senior army officers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The meeting was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote a regional aerial defense system against Iran. It was convened several weeks after American fighter jets shot down two Iranian drones in Iraq that were apparently en route to attack Israel.
As Haaretz has previously reported, the administration hopes to use Biden’s visit to the region to publicly announce the launch of the regional defense system. In the optimistic scenario, Saudi Arabia would also agree to join openly.
In practice, as the incident in Iraqi airspace shows, there is already sweeping cooperation between the Americans and various Mideast countries, including in intelligence sharing, in linked radar systems and in deployment of interception methods. Nevertheless, officially announcing this alliance would give it a big push and be considered an American achievement. Washington is using the Iranian threat to underscore the need for such an alliance.
Biden’s main goal in coming to the region is reconciling with Saudi Arabia. America needs the Saudis to increase oil production and thereby reduce the havoc wreaked by the global energy crisis that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused. But any regional progress, and certainly progress that brings Israeli-Saudi relations out into the open, would be an important bonus.
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At the same time, there is indecision in Israel over when to lower the travel warning level for Israeli citizens who wish to visit Turkey. The close cooperation between Israel and Turkey in both intelligence and operations has resulted in the foiling of several attempts to attack Israeli citizens on Turkish soil and the arrest of several suspects linked to Iran.
News of the foiling of the terrorist attacks was followed a short time later by reports from Tehran about the dismissal of Hossein Taeb, the intelligence head of the Revolutionary Guards. Taeb is thought to be the person who led the Iranian campaign to avenge the assassination of a colonel from the Revolutionary Guards at the end of last month, a killing that was blamed on Israel. Taeb’s dismissal might be related to the Iranian failure thus far. According to intelligence officials, he is considered a representative of the old generation of the Iranian security establishment.
Israeli security sources have expressed the view that the personnel changes could, further down the line, result in a change in the form and venue of attempted terrorist attacks. They find it difficult to believe that Iran has given up entirely on its intention to settle its accounts with Israel.