Israeli Officials Likely on Damage Control Mission as Iran Nuclear Deal Revival Nears
Biden, Blinken and Sullivan have all met in Washington with Israeli security officials in the last week
The round of meetings between Israeli security officials and high-ranking members of the Biden team continued Friday in Washington, DC, when Mossad intelligence agency head Yossi Cohen met US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. President Joe Biden was also present at the meeting, although it is unclear to what extent. Israeli media reported that the meeting was between Biden and Cohen, while the US National Security Council said the president “dropped by” to offer his condolences for the disaster on Mount Meron in Israel’s north, in which a deadly stampede left 45 people dead.
This follows a meeting between Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, on Tuesday, as well as a meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Cohen on Thursday.
While the meetings reportedly touched on a number of security concerns shared by the two close allies, a central topic was the mostly abandoned Iran Nuclear Deal with the world powers and the American attempt to revive it. The US and Iran have conducted ongoing indirect talks in Vienna in recent weeks to return both countries to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement signed under former President Barak Obama.
Signed in 2015, the JCPOA was intended to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and put it under international supervision. While the signatories, notably the Obama administration and its European allies, voiced their strong belief in the agreement, it faced staunch opposition from within the American political arena as well as from American allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Critics expressed deep disbelief in the agreement’s ability to deter Iran from realizing its nuclear aspirations, which Tehran denies.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018 and reinstated economic sanctions on Tehran, which had been lifted as part of the agreement. Trump himself had been a strong detractor of the deal. Since then, Iran has made large strides toward a nuclear bomb, disregarding its obligations under the nuclear agreement. At the same time, the sanctions have put great pressure on Iran’s economy.
Some progress has been achieved in the recent Vienna talks and sources close to the matter have expressed careful optimism. Israeli officials have estimated that a revival of the agreement is imminent. Jerusalem repeatedly has voiced strong opposition to a return to the deal in its original form but its cries seem to have fallen on deaf ears, leading to the delegation of security officials sent to Washington by Israel last week.
It doesn’t end with a return to the agreement
“It’s obvious to Israel that the administration is determined to return to the agreement,” said Col. (res.) Eldad Shavit, an expert on Middle East security and US-Israel relations at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It’s possible that they are pointing out the negative consequences of returning to the agreement in these meetings,” he told The Media Line, adding that it appears more likely that Israel’s officials are now focused on the day after the return to the agreement, attempting to minimize the damage that a return to the deal may cause.
“It doesn’t end with a return to the agreement,” Shavit said. For example, it is of vital importance to Israel that the inspection of Iran’s nuclear sites under the agreement be carried out properly. Jerusalem also wants Iran to be pressured to halt its belligerent activities in the region, which include supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hizbullah in Lebanon, the latter a constant threat to Israel.
This second aspect of Iranian activity is not currently covered by the agreement, a cause for great concern both to Israel and to countries in the Gulf. Another issue is the short duration of the JCPOA, with many of its limiting clauses set to expire in 2030. US officials have stated their intention to make a return to the deal be a steppingstone to a wider agreement which covers regional security, and whose duration is longer. “In these talks, or in future talks, Israel should make sure that they [the Americans] persist with the intention of reaching a ‘longer and stronger’ agreement,” Shavit said.
The meeting also was important to open the lines of communication between Israel and the new administration in the White House.
“It’s important to Israel to be in dialogue with the American leadership, as a part of which it can relate its point of view, its ideas and try and exert some influence,” he said.
The US quickly nearing an agreement with Israel’s nemesis is reminiscent of the events of 2015. Then, tensions between Jerusalem and Washington reached new heights and, driven by a sense of urgency created by the potential of an Iranian nuclear threat, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the US Congress in an attempt to block Obama from sealing the agreement with Iran. The move was controversial and was seen by some as an illegitimate intervention of a foreign leader in inner American politics.
Israel’s current close communications with Washington may be a sign that a lesson was learned, and it will go to great lengths to avoid butting heads with the new administration. “You can’t take the same path of action with the Biden administration – which is just starting on its way – that you took with Obama at the end of the road,” according to Shavit.
There must be some kind of dialogue but it must be behind closed doors and without publicizing – that immediately makes me suspect that it’s about public relations
Professor Eytan Gilboa of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, whose fields of expertise include US policy in the Middle East and the American relationship with Israel, identifies the two central goals that Israel is trying to achieve with these talks. “Israel has two aims: there’s a short-term aim, and that’s influencing the current negotiations… and the second thing is preventing a bad agreement as an [ultimate] conclusion,” he told The Media Line. Gilboa explains that the delegation in Washington is trying to make sure that the US doesn’t lift its sanctions on Iran before Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement.
“The sanctions are the Americans’ strongest card in the negotiations. The moment this is dismantled, the Iranians have succeeded,” he said. “They need to reach a wide agreement with Iran, a serious agreement, before lifting the sanctions. Because the moment they will lift the sanctions, Iran will ignore them, and there is fear in Israel that that is what they plan to do.”
Gilboa, however, is pessimistic about the Israelis being able to influence American policy on the matter, calling their chances “close to zero.” He said that “when consultations are serious, they don’t publicize them.” Widely publicized meetings are indicative of a PR stunt, rather than a true intention of the US to hear its Middle East allies, whether it be Israel or its southern neighbors in the Gulf, he says. The Biden administration wishes to avoid a public confrontation with Israel, Gilboa suspects, so it is conducting these meetings to create the illusion that it is taking its ally’s concerns into consideration.
“There must be some kind of dialogue,” Gilboa said, “but it must be behind closed doors and without publicizing – that immediately makes me suspect that it’s about public relations.”
Shavit has a significantly more positive view of the recent meetings, pointing out that the Americans are showing a “willingness” to communicate with Israel and “have invested time” in this effort. This close interaction and coordination, he believes, is the right approach for Israel.