The closer we get to the scheduled renewal Monday in Vienna of the talks to restore Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers, the more the psychological warfare between the sides escalates. Oddly, perhaps, very few of these skirmishes are between Tehran and its negotiating partners. Most of them are between two countries that won’t have a foot in the door at the talks. The first is the United States, whose representatives will be in Vienna but won’t be participating in the direct talks on account of Iranian opposition. The other is Israel.
For a few weeks now, unidentified senior Israeli officials have been criticizing American policy toward Iran. The Biden administration, it is claimed, is eager to return to the 2015 agreement, almost at any cost. As soon as Tehran signals its willingness for serious negotiations, the Americans will become more flexible. The United States, which is slowly reducing its interest in the Middle East and is also withdrawing its forces from the region, is even holding back in the face of direct provocation – a suicide drone assault launched by a Shi’ite militia against the U.S. military base at Tanf in eastern Syria.
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It seems that now the Biden administration has decided to take off the gloves, and it is doing so in its preferred channel, The New York Times. At first, the paper of record reported that the drone attack in Syria was indirect revenge on Israel – for its numerous assaults against Iranian targets in Syria. On Monday the Times published a long article rejecting most of Israel’s arguments with regard to the nuclear talks.
According to the article, whose lead writer is Times White House and national security correspondent David E. Sanger, the Biden administration has indeed concluded that a new accord, if signed, will not include a return to the provisions of the agreement signed a little over six years ago. The old agreement is a dead letter. President Joe Biden’s hope that in his first year in office he could return to the agreement and afterward focus on a “longer, stronger” deal, has been dashed, in light of Iran’s intentional delaying policy. The regime in Tehran delayed talks during the period of the presidential elections in Iran, and waited a few more months after the hawkish President Ebrahim Raisi, entered office.
This is the current U.S. position, but the conclusion that goes along with it is interesting. According to the administration, not only has the policy of maximum pressure led by former president Donald Trump collapsed. Israel’s sabotage campaign against Iran’s nuclear program has also failed. Moreover, paradoxically, it seems that these actions have only served to move the Iranians closer to their goal.
According to Sanger and his co-authors in the article, over the past 20 months Israel assassinated the head of the Iranian nuclear project, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and caused significant explosions in four nuclear and missile facilities in Iran, in the hopes of delaying the ability of Iran to build a bomb. But the result, according to U.S. intelligence officials and the international inspectors, was the opposite of what was intended. The Iranians quickly restored operations at the sites and installed new centrifuges that can enrich uranium more rapidly.
After one of the installations took a paralyzing hit in the spring, it was back online by late summer. A senior American official described the program as Iran’s version of Build Back Better, the ambitious new U.S. infrastructure program. These briefings sound like a direct response to briefings from the Middle East this year and last, by which a series of mysterious explosions will set the Iranians back some years, possible many, from their goal.
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Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen said Sunday at the Haaretz-UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center conference on Israeli national security that Israel would consider a future accord a good agreement only if it would include the dismantling of the nuclear facility at Fordow and Natanz. According to Cohen, the Iranians are enriching uranium because they can. This must stop.
U.S. officials, including in the Defense Department’s Cyber Command, say that it is already much more difficult to carry out a cyberattack that will significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program, as the Stuxnet virus did more than a decade ago. Senior Israeli officials recently confirmed to Haaretz that Iran is constantly improving its air defenses and is making sure to place their sensitive nuclear facilities as deep underground as possible.
According to the Americans, they warned Israel ahead of time that the repeated attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be “tactically satisfying,” in the words of Monday’s Times article, but they will prove to be counterproductive. The Times quotes senior Israeli officials – similar statements have been made here, to the Israeli media – that according to them Israel has no intention of giving up the sabotage campaign.
The sources in the U.S. administration believe that Iran wants to reach the status of a nuclear threshold state, which will leave it a very short distance from manufacturing a bomb if it wants to. This gloomy conclusion underscores the most recent report of the Institute for Science and International Security. In the report, published Sunday, the chief researcher of the prestigious U.S. think tank, David Albright, writes that Iran has enough uranium enriched to near-20 and 60 percent to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon in as little as three weeks. Albright adds that some of the major advances are due to the installation of advanced centrifuges.
If Iran wants to manufacture a nuclear weapon, it still needs to execute the military part of its program – installing the bomb as a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, a process that according to various experts could take another one to two years. And yet, Albright’s conclusion shows how much the Iranians have advanced while the administrations in Washington – first Trump’s and now Biden’s – persuaded themselves that they were dealing well with the problem.