NEW YORK — Recognizing that the Biden administration is intent on returning to the Iran nuclear agreement in its original form, Israel has focused on convincing the US to leave in place sanctions instituted by former president Donald Trump after the 2015 accord was signed, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
Israel believes that the removal of those sanctions would squander the bulk of the remaining leverage the US still has to pressure Iran on its ballistic missile program and its malign activities in the region, the official said.
This position against the removal of Trump-era sanctions was passed along in recent weeks during successive visits to Washington by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, President Reuven Rivlin as well as during Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
A source familiar with the matter said that Israel does not believe that the Biden administration will be able to negotiate the “longer and stronger” agreement it says it wants to reach with Iran once the sides agree to return to the original agreement.
“And it will be even more unlikely [to reach a longer and stronger agreement] if most of the non-nuclear related sanctions are no longer in place.”
A US official told ToI that the White House recognizes the importance of maintaining leverage over Iran, but that sanctions are not the only form of influence at its disposal.
The Biden administration has since April been engaged in indirect talks with Iran in Vienna aimed at returning to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has all but fallen apart since Trump bolted the accord in 2018 and Tehran proceeded to violate its nuclear curbs with impunity.
While the new US administration has indicated willingness to withdraw some of the newly imposed sanctions in exchange for an Iranian return to compliance with the agreement, it has acknowledged as recently as this week that Tehran’s efforts to continue enriching uranium risk blowing up the talks altogether.
Analysts speculate that the US is hoping to reach an agreement before August 6 when the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani is replaced as president by hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
Commenting further on the matter, the Israeli official said that Jerusalem is working to keep disagreements with the Biden administration behind closed doors but has made clear that it reserves the right to act against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “The US seems to accept this,” the official said.
The Israeli official also gave the Biden administration credit for refraining from lifting sanctions against Iran thus far in the Vienna negotiations.
Also on Wednesday, the Axios news site reported that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been holding discussions on Israel’s Iran policies and has ordered a comprehensive review of the matter ahead of his first meeting with US President Joe Biden, which could take place at the White House as early as this month.
“There are several questions in the discussions,” an unnamed Israeli official told Axios. “Is the current treading water better or worse than a US return to the deal, if and how Israel can influence the Biden administration, and what the current situation means for developing an Israeli military option?”
The official said the new Israeli government was debating whether it is better off in the current situation in which the deal has fallen apart and Iran is accelerating its nuclear efforts or the pre-2018 reality when both sides were abiding by the agreement, which Jerusalem opposed.
Axios said Bennett has already held first his policy meeting on the Iran nuclear deal with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the heads of the security and intelligence services.
The official who spoke with ToI said that when the agreement is in place, Israel was not concerned that Iran would find ways to violate the clauses, but rather that it would wait until the terms of the deal expire.
“Iran knows that it will eventually sunset and that it will then be able to proceed toward a bomb, thanks to all of the sanctions relief that the deal provided,” the official said.