Israeli Officials: Iran Close to Signing Nuclear Deal, but Agreement Still Unlikely

Tehran's apparent change of course, coupled with U.S. and European willingness to continue negotiations, keeps slender chances of a deal alive

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets Joseph Borrell, the EU representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Tehran, Iran, in June.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets Joseph Borrell, the EU representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Tehran, Iran, in June.Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israeli officials are beginning to think that Iran is changing course and seriously considering signing a nuclear agreement with West. But they remain divided over whether this actually testifies to the ability of talks to trudge forward and lead to a signed agreement.

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Senior Israel officials told Haaretz that Iran's response to the final draft sent by the European Union on Monday demonstrates that it is changing its approach. Other officials presented a humbler assessment, saying “a channel is beginning to develop that could lead to an agreement, even if the likelihood of that is low.”

One official clarified, “The very fact that Europe and the United States are willing to continue with the contacts and did not announce the latest draft as the final version that cannot be changed, shows that they are not going to throw the Iranians out so fast.

"The fact that there is willingness to renew the negotiations on the part of the United States and Europe increases the chances that there will be an agreement in the end, even if the chances that it will bear fruit do not look high at the moment.”

As a result of the developments in Vienna, officials back in Jerusalem have lowered their profile over the past day and avoided making public statements about the implications of ongoing contacts between Iran and the United States. After the Iranians responded to the EU, Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke on Tuesday with his U.S. counterpart Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on “the need to take action to prevent Iran from making progress in obtaining nuclear weapons.”

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata is scheduled to travel to the United States next week for talks on the matter. Israeli officials fear the EU is veering towards conceding on one of Iran’s key demands: closing the International Atomic Energy Agency's open investigations against it. But sources say it's unlikely the U.S. will reverse its commitment not to close those investigations.

Iran's three demands

Sources familiar with Iran's response say Tehran laid out three stipulations concerning Europe's proposal. The first: Iran’s demand to lift all the sanctions imposed on it, including removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from the list of terrorist organizations designated by the United States, even though President Joe Biden personally announced the U.S. would leave the Revolutionary Guards on the list. The second demand is to close the IAEA investigations into suspicious nuclear sites.

The third demand is for a U.S. guarantee not to withdraw from the agreement again, and by extension a safeguard against reimposing sanctions that have been lifted. This demand is meant to allow Tehran to rebuild its economy over the long term and provide a “safety net” for international corporations that want to trade with Iran but are afraid of the imposition of sanctions against them in the future.

Officials in Israel anticipated the Iranian response: While the European Union strived to receive a “yes or no” answer, Iran responded: “Yes, but” in an attempt to drag the sides back into another round of talks. A senior Israeli official warned last week against such a possibility, saying, “Israel hopes the powers will not allow the Iranians to continue with treading water and dragging the time out, and will internalize that the Iranians are not looking for an agreement.”

An Iranian flag flutters in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, in early 2020.Credit: ATTA KENARE / AFP

Last week, Israeli officials assessed that even though Iranian officials — the representatives of the Foreign Ministry and national security council — were acting to advance an agreement, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had not changed his position and was continuing to oppose any accord.

“There are differences between the [supreme] leader and the levels under him, and some of these [officials] are interested in reaching an agreement,” a senior official said last week. “The actions to put pressure on Iran in recent times are the product of cooperation between Israel and the powers, and it is possible to see that the results of these actions are being felt in Iran,” said the official. The official confirmed at the time that Israel had not ruled out the possibility of Iran returning to the nuclear agreement in the end. “Israel has been preparing for a while for a number of different scenarios and the operative implications derived from that,” he added.

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