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Analysis'Iran is skilled at playing a bad hand well'

As Iran and the US move cautiously toward a deal, Israel needs a new approach

Ongoing covert actions against Tehran’s nuclear program risk causing a rupture with Biden, while being unlikely to stop a new agreement that both Washington and Tehran want

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Left: US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers at the Yad LeBanim House on the eve of Memorial Day, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP)
Left: US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers at the Yad LeBanim House on the eve of Memorial Day, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP)

Optimistic notes — albeit somewhat tempered — are being sounded this week in Vienna as Iran and the United States try to reach an agreement on a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

“After days of intensive talks,” tweeted Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, “it appears that we are now on the right track. But difficult way to go.”

“Progress has been made,” according to European Union diplomat Enrique Mora.

Russia and China also indicated that they were pleased with the direction of the talks.

An eventual deal is likely because all sides want one, not least Iran. Israel’s apparent ongoing covert sabotage campaign against Iran’s nuclear program — which has scored some high-profile successes — is unlikely to halt the slow-moving train, and could antagonize a Biden administration that doesn’t appear especially friendly toward Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speed up or slow down?

Though it needs to reach an agreement to salvage its economy, there are pressures that are pushing the Islamic Republic to slow-walk the talks.

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, leaves the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ after closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna on April 16, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran are holding their talks. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

“We have to take the optimism with a bit of a grain of salt because we are hearing primarily from the Iranians and the Russians and a bit from the Chinese,” said Henry Rome, senior analyst at the Eurasia Group.

The United States and the E3 — the three European countries that signed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — have been more circumspect in their statements.

“I think the task ahead is very challenging, and if you really read between the lines of what Araghchi and others are saying, it’s been that things are progressing, but we’re not at the cusp of either a breakthrough or a breakdown,” said Rome.

Iran’s paramount concern is getting the US to remove crippling sanctions reimposed under US president Donald Trump. Under the sanctions, Tehran cannot access billions of dollars of assets sitting in foreign banks, inflation and unemployment have risen, and oil exports have plummeted drastically.

Still, Iran’s negotiators are not rushing.

“The Iranians want to remove the sanctions but they do not feel they are under pressure,” said Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “If most of their demands are met — at the center is of course the full removal of the sanctions — they have no problem returning to their responsibilities in the nuclear deal.”

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, in the Oval Office of the White House, June 24, 2019, in Washington. Trump is accompanied by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, left, and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Since Iran began openly abrogating its responsibilities under the JCPOA in July 2019, it has always indicated it would be ready to reverse its actions if sanctions were fully removed.

“Their economy is not in a sustainable position where they can keep going like this indefinitely,” explained Rome. “On the other hand, of course, the leadership is very sensitive to the idea of appearing weak or trying to give up any negotiating leverage by acting desperate.

“We shouldn’t be surprised that the Iranians are not showing up hat in hand, begging for this relief. They’re very skilled at negotiations like this, at playing even a bad hand quite well. That helps to explain why they are not acting particularly needy at this point, even if the economic situation would suggest otherwise.”

The China factor

Some have suggested that the strategic partnership agreement Iran signed with China in March has given Tehran breathing room in negotiations by offering significant trade and investment, even if US sanctions remain in place.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, meets with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, right, in the capital Tehran, on March 27, 2021. Iran and China signed what state television called a ’25-year strategic cooperation pact,’ as the US rivals move closer together. (AFP)

That is a fundamental misreading of what the Iran-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership actually is.

“It’s not really a deal,” said Jason Brodsky, senior analyst at Iran International. “It’s a roadmap… there’s a lot of hype over this deal but in practice, China has been really cautious with the Iranian investment. I’m not so sure it’s making a huge impact on the talks.”

In fact, the agreement with China actually pushes Iran toward an agreement with the United States, which is the outcome Beijing wants.

“I think the deal with China actually lays out for Iran what an economic relationship could be with Beijing, that can only exist in the absence of US sanctions,” Rome said.

During the Obama and Trump administrations, China — a bitter critic of America’s policy toward Iran — showed that it was largely unwilling to challenge US sanctions. State-owned corporations in China were more interested in protecting their access to US investment and markets.

“In terms of actually affecting their ability to withstand sanctions over the longer term,” said Rome, “I think it does very little and I think it’s one way for the Chinese to actually assert themselves, trying to nudge Iran to get back to the nuclear agreement by saying, ‘Look at all these areas of cooperation that are available if US sanctions are to be lifted.’”

Elections

Domestic political considerations are also influencing how quickly Iran wants to move forward in talks. Iran holds its presidential elections in June, and hardliners are favored to triumph over a reformist-minded candidate from outgoing president Hassan Rouhani’s camp.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, December 14, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in the country’s nuclear policy, supports the JCPOA and the ongoing talks; otherwise Iranian negotiators would not be in Vienna. At the same time, he wants to see a conservative candidate replace Rouhani, and may well wait till after the elections to finalize a deal.

“If there’s an early deal it could allow Rouhani to end his term on a very high note and empower his allies in the election,” said Rome. “Conservatives and hardliners want to deny the Rouhani government this kind of final success and ensure that Rouhani and [foreign minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif leave office with the agreement still in tatters. And then that leaves whoever comes next to kind of pick up the pieces.”

The elections aren’t going to affect Khamenei’s bottom line, Brodsky emphasized, but they could impact the timing of a deal. “The supreme leader is going to be the supreme decision-maker on the nuclear file both before and after the presidential election. How fast or how slow the negotiations go, the pace of the negotiations, will be affected by his calculations on the Iranian elections.”

It may also be that Khamenei would prefer more hardline negotiators striking the final deal, and wants to suspend real progress until a conservative candidate takes office in August.

At the same time, the looming elections create an impetus in Iran’s government for an early deal. Rouhani and Zarif’s achievements would strengthen the position of the pragmatic camps if real progress is made in the talks before the June contest.

Iran advances

Complicating talks further are Iran’s deliberate and very public violations of its responsibilities under the JCPOA. In 2019, Iran began slowly suspending its compliance with parts of the deal, and accelerated its violations this year. In January 2021, Tehran revealed that it was taking steps to produce uranium metal, days after it resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity at the underground Fordo facility. The next month,  Tehran officially suspended its implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol, which gave nuclear inspectors increased access to Iran’s nuclear program, including the ability to carry out snap inspections at undeclared sites.

Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, January 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)

A week after an April 11 explosion at the underground enrichment facility at Natanz — widely believed to be the work of Israel — knocked out power and damaged centrifuges, Iran announced that it was raising enrichment levels to 60 percent, a short technical step from the purity needed to make nuclear weapons, and a significant violation of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The violations are meant to create a sense of urgency around returning to the nuclear agreement, said Rome. “I think this is all about building leverage, not a bomb.”

“I think the goal here is to say that yes, we had a sizable amount of our nuclear capability knocked offline, and we have to compensate somehow and show that we’re not on our back foot.”

Even if the violations are designed primarily to influence nuclear talks, Iran is still making meaningful progress toward nuclear weapons capability.  “All the steps the Iranians have taken since summer 2019 have dramatically shortened the breakout time,” said Zimmt, stressing that this only refers to fissile material, not other elements of a weapon like a detonator.

Footage of the Natanz nuclear facility aired by Iranian state TV on April 17, 2021. (Screen capture/Twitter)

“No one knows the difference between a message and a tangible step,” argued Joab Rosenberg, former deputy head analyst in the Israel Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Directorate. “In reality, they are moving closer to a bomb. With the current fragile situation, that is extremely dangerous.”

Observers are especially concerned by the expertise achieved by Iranian scientists over the past two years. “I think that there is a concern because of the technical knowledge that Iran gains with a higher rate of enrichment,” said Brodsky. “It’s very difficult to undo that technical knowledge.”

“Tehran seeks to be ready to build nuclear weapons on short order, meaning it needs to achieve technical aptitude along all steps of this complex process,”  said Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Tehran can quickly roll back its enrichment program, but the knowledge it gains from this new step is irreversible. Iran has already taken a variety of nuclear advances that provide irreversible knowledge gains for a rainy-day nuclear weapon.”

Israel alone

Complicating talks further is Israel’s covert campaign against Iran. While Israel has been waging an effective “campaign between the wars” against Iran and its allies in Syria and Iraq, in recent weeks the fight has escalated at sea. Iranian-backed forces are accused of targeting Israeli-owned civilian ships with missiles and mines, while Israel allegedly responded by mining an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps ship in the Red Sea.

Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an assassinated top nuclear scientist, during his funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

Israel’s security services have also stepped up their campaign against Iran’s nuclear program. A series of explosions in June and July 2020 — including an attack at Natanz which was said to have set the Iranian program back by as much as two years — damaged Iranian nuclear and missiles sites.

In November, senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was traveling on a highway outside the capital when he was killed by what was reported as a remote-controlled machine gun.

The April 11 explosion blamed on Israel at the Natanz plant is said to have caused considerable damage, including to its various kinds of uranium-enriching centrifuges.

Beyond setting back Iran’s nuclear program, many experts believe that Israel is trying to do what it can to derail the Vienna talks.

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP, File)

“Israel is trying to provoke Iran to retaliate in such a way that would disrupt the negotiations,” said Rome, “or to convince from a domestic policy point of view that it is just too unacceptable to be contemplating concessions to the West at a time when we’re being hit at home. I think there is there is a direct connection to trying to derail the progress in the negotiations.”

The Biden administration seems worried about this very outcome. Washington has conveyed to Israel in no uncertain terms that the “chatter” about its alleged involvement in the blast at Natanz week must stop, warning that it is dangerous and detrimental as well as embarrassing to the administration during the nuclear negotiations.

“I think it’s certainly a risky game to try to very overtly undermine a clear US foreign policy objective here,” Rome said.

The approach is a marked departure from that employed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013-2015, as the JCPOA was being hammered out. While Netanyahu and Israeli ministers waged a concerted and highly controversial political campaign in the US against  Obama’s efforts to close the deal, Israel mostly refrained from attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. With Biden in office, Israel is not openly trying to sway American lawmakers, but is instead pursuing an aggressive covert campaign in Iran.

US President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, in Washington, April 7, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Still, it is difficult to envision Israel’s covert operations successfully sabotaging an agreement that both Iran and the US want to reach. “It knocks the program off its feet for a short time,” said Rome. “But I think it’s not sustainable.”

The campaign might even strengthen the position of Iranians who want to convince Khamenei to pursue a nuclear weapon. “This is something they haven’t succeeded in doing for the last 20 years,” said Rosenberg.

Though Israel is unlikely to disrupt a deal, the covert campaign could stress to the Biden administration that Israel’s concerns need to be taken more seriously than they were in 2015.

“The Israeli concerns are important here and if the United States doesn’t find a way to make the diplomacy bulletproof, then we’re going to have a real problem,” said Brodsky.

Some of Israel’s concerns could be met if the “sunset clauses” — limits on enrichment activities that phase out between 2026 and 2031 — in the JCPOA are extended. In January 2026, Iran will be allowed to enrich using advanced centrifuges. Five years later, it will be free to enrich uranium to higher levels than 3.67 percent and to stockpile more than 300 kilograms of enriched uranium.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (L); Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) and political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Abbas Araghchi take part in a Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ministerial meeting on the Iran nuclear deal on July 6, 2018 in Vienna, Austria. (AFP/APA/Hans Punz)

In addition, under Annex B of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, restrictions on arms transfers to Iran ended in October 2020, while a ban on supplying Iran with the components needed to build a nuclear-capable missile ends in October 2023. Extending both of these limits will go a long way in softening Israeli opposition.

Still, if Israel is going to effectively shape an emerging deal, its leadership will have to formulate a broader strategy than a covert sabotage campaign.

The upcoming trip to the US by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi early next week could be an indication that Israel recognizes that the focus of its efforts must shift. According to the Kan public broadcaster, the officials will lobby for greater international oversight of Iran’s nuclear sites.

“‘We will never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon’ is not a strategy,” said Rosenberg. “It’s just boasting.”

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