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Gantz urges Vienna negotiators to toughen stance against flailing Iran

Defense minister tells Knesset panel that Tehran’s economic woes have left it with little bargaining room in nuclear talks, giving powers a chance to push Islamic Republic around

Defense Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting of his Blue and White party at the Knesset, on December 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Defense Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting of his Blue and White party at the Knesset, on December 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared Monday that punishing sanctions that have gutted Iran’s economy have left it without bargaining power at nuclear talks, urging world powers to take a harder negotiating stance against Tehran.

Gantz’s comments to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee came days after European and US negotiators expressed frustration following a mostly fruitless round of talks in Vienna aimed at salvaging the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“Iran’s domestic situation presents an opportunity for the international community,” Gantz told the influential committee, accusing Iranian negotiators of using the talks to stall for time.

He noted that investment in Iran had been slashed in half in the last decade, on top of other unspecified “internal and external challenges.”

“Iran is coming into negotiations without real bargaining chips,” Gantz said, according to a statement from his office. “It is possible and necessary to put an end to Iran’s ‘foot-dragging’ strategy.”

Western powers have reported some progress in Vienna, though European diplomats warned at the end of last week that they were “rapidly reaching the end of the road.”

Underlying Western concerns are fears that Iran will soon have made enough progress that the accord will be obsolete.

The current talks in Vienna among the remaining signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement opened on November 29, after more than five months, a gap caused by the arrival of a new hardline government in Iran. There was also a short break last week as delegations returned home to consult with their governments.

The European-sponsored talks aim to rescue the JCPOA after the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018, under then-president Donald Trump. The deal offered Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear development program. After withdrawing, Trump reimposed stiff sanctions, and the Islamic Republic responded by publicly stepping up its nuclear project, enriching uranium beyond the purity levels and stockpiles allowed in the deal.

The US is participating in the talks through mediators and the Biden administration has said it is interested in rejoining the JCPOA. Iran is demanding the US lift all it sanctions before it will consider rolling back any advances it has made, while Washington insists Iran first recommit to the deal and then negotiate on changes to tighten some terms before it will ease the economic pressure.

Palais Coburg, where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, Dec. 17, 2021. (Michael Gruber/AP)

Israel has opposed a return to the 2015 deal, instead pushing for negotiators to revamp the accord with stricter restraints on Iran and to address malign activity in the region beyond the nuclear portfolio. Officials, including Gantz, have threatened that Israel could take military action to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, even without the support of other nations.

Earlier this month, Gantz said he notified US officials that he had instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for a strike against Iran.

Gantz told the Knesset panel that Israel was “deepening international cooperation,” regarding how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

“I am certain that soon both overt and covert actions will be expanded, by a variety of means,” he said, without going into details.

“At the same time, for the past year and a half, we have been engaged in force buildup, procuring new means that will ensure Israel’s security superiority in the region in the face of all threats,” Gantz said.

Gantz also addressed the apparent uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence in recent weeks, vowing to bolster the presence of troops following a terror attack last week in which an Israeli man was shot dead and two others were injured.

“We will increase our presence on the ground and we will charge a price from those who spread terror and incitement. We will act in the face of any attempt by Hamas to gain strength or to harm Israeli citizens – anywhere, anytime,” he threatened.

At the same time, the defense minister denounced attacks by Israeli settlers and their allies. The last several months have seen a marked jump in reported attacks on Palestinians by Israeli extremists.

Israeli soldiers stand between Palestinians and a Jewish settlers following a settler attack on the West Bank village of Burqa, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021 after the funeral of Yehuda Dimentman, 25, who was killed in a shooting attack by a Palestinian gunman (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

“These events are unacceptable, both morally and operationally and we will not tolerate them,” he said.

However, he noted that “the vast majority of [West Bank] settlers are moral and law-abiding individuals who support and appreciate the activities conducted by our security forces and who oppose acts of violence.”

Recent days have witnessed a national discussion over violence by Jewish extremists in the West Bank, after Public Security Minister Omer Barlev announced that he had discussed “settler violence” with a visiting American diplomat earlier this week. The coalition’s right-wing flank quickly moved to denounce Barlev from what it said was an attempt to smear the entire movement.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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