Former IDF chief calls US withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal ‘a strategic mistake’

Gadi Eisenkot says pullout gave Tehran ‘legitimacy’ to violate pact; criticizes Bennett for refusing to meet with Biden’s Iran envoy; claims Israel nearly killed Soleimani in 2018

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks during a conference in Netanya on March 18, 2019. (Flash90)
Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks during a conference in Netanya on March 18, 2019. (Flash90)

Former army chief Gadi Eisenkot criticized the US decision in 2018 to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, calling it a “strategic mistake” in an interview published Thursday.

According to Eisenkot, top Israeli security officials were kept in the dark ahead of then-US president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 accord, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Eisenkot commanded the Israel Defense Forces when the deal was signed.

“Only Yossi Cohen, Ron Dermer and Benjamin Netanyahu dealt with this issue of leaving the nuclear deal. No one spoke with the security establishment,” Eisenkot told the Maariv daily, referring to the former prime minister and two of his closest confidantes.

Netanyahu was a vocal opponent of the deal when it was reached during the Obama administration and pushed for world powers to scrap the agreement before Trump withdrew from it.

“To us, it was completely out of blue. In my opinion, it was also a strategic mistake,” he added.

Eisenkot said the US pullout from the deal removed “certain shackles” on Iran, granting it “legitimacy” to push forward its nuclear program in violation of the pact.

“The sanctions are partial, there is no oversight, the Chinese and Russians aren’t cooperating with the Americans,” said Eisenkot, who led the military from 2015 to 2019.

“The United States of today is a different United States than of 2015,” Eiseknot continued. “How much the Iranians are taking the Americans into account is a very relevant component, and unfortunately at the moment, they are not considering them and not taking into account an American attack. They are taking advantage of the situation and this is a problem.”

Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a handover ceremony at the Defense Ministry for new Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on January 15, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Asked if Israel was capable on its own of striking Iran, Eisenkot said, “It’s complicated.”

“Let’s take the United States. When you lift off an F-35, they don’t need you to update them, they know it, everything is connected to their systems,” he said.

The ex-general went on to criticize Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for ruling out a meeting with Robert Malley, the US special envoy on Iran, before his visit to Israel in November, noting Israeli requests for fresh armaments after the conflict in May with the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

“There’s a sort of arrogance here for domestic purposes. I understand the fear of Bibi, but to earn a point and a half in public relations, you don’t do a thing like this,” he added, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Robert Malley, US Special Envoy for Iran, is shown in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)

Eiseknot claimed Israel nearly assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in May 2018 after Iranian forces in Syria fired rockets at the Golan Heights.

“There was a decision, that got approval, to hit everyone in this incident who took action against us,” Eisenkot said. “We decided that if he was in some command post or operations room or in the area, we’d take him down.”

“We had permission for that but we didn’t succeed in carrying it out,” he said.

Eisenkot issued a thinly veiled threat to Soleimani in 2019 as he was leaving the IDF, and reports from 2018 said Israel discussed assassinating the Iranian general with the US.

Soleimani, who headed the overseas branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was killed in January 2020 by a US drone as he arrived in Baghdad.

In the interview, Eisenkot also said the IDF was involved in the campaign against the Islamic State jihadist group.

“We decided to participate in the war on Daesh and Israel is waging war throughout the Middle East,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

According to Eisenkot, Israel was working with “many armies, on countless special operations” against IS, but did not specify which other militaries the IDF was cooperating with.

“I can estimate that in our operations, hundreds of Daesh operatives were killed and over a thousand wounded, facilities and infrastructure destroyed,” he said.

The comments by Eisenkot were the second part of an interview first published last week.

Eisenkot was a soldier for 40 years and the 21st commander of the IDF, and was replaced by Aviv Kohavi in January 2019 when his four-year term ended.

After leaving the military, Eisenkot worked for a number of think tanks. He was one of the most sought-after figures in the 2020 elections, and appeared to hint at one point that he was set to enter politics, but ultimately decided not to.

A long list of IDF chiefs of staff have gone on to political careers after leaving the military, including Eisenkot’s predecessor, Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

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