As Biden Seeks New Iran Nuclear Deal, Netanyahu Knows He Has Little Say

While Netanyahu urges Biden to use 'maximum pressure' on Iran, a swift International Atomic Energy Agency agreement extends the deadline for U.S., Iran negotiations

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IAEA and Iranian officials in discussion in Tehran, yesterday.
IAEA and Iranian officials in discussion in Tehran, yesterday.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The lightning visit of the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Tehran at the end of the week yielded the expected results. Director General Rafael Grossi reported on the achieving of a temporary agreement with the Iranian government, according to which inspectors from the United Nations agency will be allowed to carry on with their inspection activity at Iranian nuclear facilities for another three months.

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The arrangement was achieved swiftly, in order to precede a law passed by the Iranian parliament that is scheduled to come into effect on Tuesday. The law imposed restrictions on the inspection activity and was meant to prevent surprise visits by the inspectors to suspicious facilities. In recent weeks Iran took a series of additional steps in which it violated the nuclear agreement that it signed with the great powers in 2015. The steps were adopted in response to the sanctions imposed against it by the United States, following the withdrawal of the Trump administration from the agreement in 2018.

Grossi admitted that the new agreement between the IAEA and Iran limits the scope of oversight, but claimed that this arrangement will be sufficient to guarantee satisfactory oversight for the next three months. In other words, the IAEA bought time for renewing negotiations between the United States and Iran regarding the U.S. return to the nuclear agreement. Iran also profited: Its public steps really are spurring the Biden administration to return to the negotiating table, as Iran wanted in the first place.

The new administration has not yet shifted into a higher gear on the Iranian issue. The president and his top officials are very preoccupied with domestic issues, headed by an acceleration of the anti-coronavirus vaccination campaign and the formulation of stimulants for firing up the U.S. economy. In the international arena they have already registered one achievement – the signing of a new agreement with Russia to limit the two countries’ nuclear missile arsenals. There are other urgent arenas, first of all Afghanistan, from which former President Donald Trump promised to pull out the last U.S. soldiers.

Biden in Michigan, last week.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

For the most part, a new U.S. administration only really gets going in late spring, after the inauguration of the president on January 20. In the present administration not all the positions in the State Department and the Defense Department have been filled as yet. Some of them are conditional on processes of Congressional hearings and approval. In the balance of domestic powers, it seems at the moment that Biden will give the State Department greater weight that the National Security Council. Both of the special envoys to the region, Robert Malley (Iran) and Hady Amr (Israeli-Palestinian negotiations) are subordinate to the State Department.

And yet the Biden administration does not have much time to waste now. The Iranian presidential election will take place this coming June. It is quite possible that the Americans will want to reach a new agreement before that. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu published a declaration over the weekend to the effect that Israel is adhering to its commitment to deny nuclear weapons to Iran and its position regarding the nuclear agreement remains unchanged. “Israel believes that a return to the previous agreement will only pave Iran’s way to a nuclear arsenal. Israel is conducting a continual discourse with the United States on this matter,” declared Netanyahu.

In effect, he is asking Biden to adhere to Trump’s positions and to the campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Iranians. That won’t happen, and no one knows that better than the prime minister.

Some actors in Israel are also concerned about the large number of provocative Iranian moves, some of which are de facto advancing the nuclear project. As reported here last week, the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence division is disturbed by Iran’s renewed preoccupation with producing metallic uranium, a step that may be of damaging importance for promoting the military aspects of the project (production of the nuclear warhead).

Tehran, as indicated by the most recent declaration by Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, is awaiting the total lifting of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, in exchange for ending the Iranian violations, and then an accelerated U.S. return to the nuclear agreement. According to the initial signals from Washington, the administration seems to be trying to focus on the main issue, the nuclear program, and not to reopen a discussion of the additional issues that disturb Israel and that the original agreement ignored: restricting the Iranian missile program and Tehran’s involvement in sabotage and terror throughout the region.

The chances that President Biden will extract an agreement from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei that will meet Israeli expectations look very slim. At best, the Americans will insist on extending the period of the agreement, in a way that will make it difficult for the Iranians to return to the project in the coming decade.

On Monday an initial discussion took place with Netanyahu, in a broad forum, regarding Israeli policy on the Iranian question. That happened after many postponements and repeated requests on the part of Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has already conducted five preliminary discussions with senior defense officials. But Netanyahu, who is now exactly a month away from the election that could turn out to be decisive, does not look like someone who plans to share control of Israel’s Iranian policy with anyone. As things appear now, he is about to present a confrontational, critical policy vis-à-vis the Americans. But despite the renewed Israeli threat of the military option, it is very doubtful if that will happen. Netanyahu knows that in the new game that has begun with Biden he has only modest cards in his hand.

And in general, he is now increasingly choosing to devote his emotional rhetoric, which regularly conveys an atmosphere of impending doomsday, to his battles against the Israeli legal system. Somehow, the Iranian threat no longer seems to head the list of Netanyahu’s nightmares.

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