For Israel, US Return to JCPOA with Iran is Done Deal
However, the US ally may try to influence American efforts to secure a "longer and stronger" agreement after the 2015 treaty is revived
Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said regarding Iran that “a country enriching at 60% is a very serious thing – only countries making bombs are reaching this level,” in an interview late last week with the London-based Financial Times. At the same time, talks in Vienna continued in an effort to return the United States and Iran into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal signed with Iran in 2015 that limited its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions on the country.
The current attempt by the Biden administration to return to the agreement follows on the 2018 unilateral withdrawal of then-President Donald Trump, who was highly critical of the deal. The former president’s move came after Israel revealed classified Iranian documents purported to prove that Iran was indeed pursuing nuclear weapons. After Trump stepped back from the agreement, the Islamic Republic made rapid progress with its nuclear program, completely disregarding its obligations to the other signatories and advancing toward building nuclear weapons, despite claims that it has no such aspirations.
The White House was at first unable to make headway with its wish to see the deal resuscitated, but the various sides to the agreement – which include Russia, China and European allies – repeatedly have voiced optimism regarding the Vienna talks that began in early April.
Israel’s chance at influencing the first stage is close to zero. It stands a better chance at influencing the second stage
While all the signatories have expressed their desire to see the deal revived, American allies in the Middle East have voiced concerns about this intention. Most notable is Israel, which opposed the deal strongly when it was first signed in 2015. Israel sees the Iranian regime as an existential threat. Indeed, Iranian officials have repeatedly voiced their desire to wipe the country of the map. The Jewish state strongly doubts the agreement’s efficacy with regard to the Iranian nuclear program and criticizes the fact that it doesn’t address other issues with the Islamic Republic, such as its support throughout the region for groups like Hizbullah and Hamas.
Jerusalem, which was busy in recent weeks with a round of fighting with Palestinian terror organizations in Gaza, as well as a wave of violence inside the country, may now find a revival of the JCPOA imminent. The Russian representative at the talks, Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted on Tuesday that this latest, fifth, round of negotiations “can be final,” although he added that “in order to be on the safe side I would prefer to say: let’s see.”
I think it can be final. But in order to be on the safe side I wold prefer to say: let’s see. https://t.co/nW2nlW37oM
— Mikhail Ulyanov (@Amb_Ulyanov) May 25, 2021
Israel has tried to convince the White House of the dangers of returning to the Iran nuclear agreement “as-is,” but has failed to change US policy. Professor Eytan Gilboa of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, an expert on US-Israel relations, told The Media Line that “Israel’s chance at influencing the first stage is close to zero. It stands a better chance at influencing the second stage.”
Gilboa differentiates between a first stage in the White House’s policy, in which the Americans return to the 2015 agreement, and a second stage, when a “longer and stronger” agreement is intended to be achieved. This new agreement is supposed to lengthen the duration of the current deal, as well as include further topics: most importantly for Israel and Iran’s local Sunni opponents, the Islamic Republic’s regional activities and its ballistic missiles’ program.
“The problem is that the Iranians are demanding that all the sanctions will be lifted at the first stage, including the sanctions that have no connection to the nuclear program. Those are sanctions connected to human rights [violations] and other topics,” he said.
If the US agrees and lifts all the sanctions per the Iranian demand, Gilboa says, the Americans will lose all the leverage they have to ensure a wider agreement. Israel, therefore should accept the fact that the 2015 deal will be revived unchanged, but should focus its efforts on making sure that a sizable portion of the sanctions remain in place – as a way to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table.
Dr. Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, agrees with Gilboa, and told The Media Line that Israel has “no chance” at changing the US approach to the deal. “The Americans are holding on to their position that the most important mission right now is to, as they call it, put Iran back in the box,” he said, meaning that the American position is that a first step is bringing Tehran back into compliance with the agreement, and reversing the leap forward made in their nuclear program.
Zimmt, however, is skeptical about the chances of a “longer and stronger” agreement being negotiated in the near future. “Certainly not in the coming year,” he said, adding: “it’s possible that in the future, as we get closer to the end of the JCPOA’s duration, the Iranians will possibly agree to negotiate an extension of the agreement in exchange, of course, for American concessions.”
Instead, Zimmt suggests that Israel focus on “formulating agreements with the Americans about what comes next. For example, what happens if Iran violates the agreement … [or] if Iran isn’t willing to negotiate a better deal in the future.” When – and if – negotiations for a second agreement do materialize, Israel may also be able to influence those, he says.
Jerusalem should also request some kind of “compensation” or balancing measures, both experts agree. Israel ought to see “what kind of benefits and compensation the Americans can give Israel in connection with improving its ability to cope with the Iranian threats in the future,” said Zimmt.