Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad chief David Barnea will push during their meetings this week in Washington with senior Biden administration officials for the United States to carry out a military strike on Iranian targets, Israel’s three main TV news broadcasts reported Sunday night.
According to the reports, which did not cite sources, Gantz and Barnea will urge their American interlocutors to develop a “Plan B” vis-a-vis Iran, seeing the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna as an opportunity to press the US to take a more aggressive stance toward the Islamic Republic.
Along with calling for tougher sanctions, the Israelis will reportedly ask the US to take military action against Iran.
Channel 12 news said the target of a US potential attack would be not a nuclear facility in Iran, but rather a site like an Iranian base in Yemen. The aim of such a strike would be to convince the Iranians to soften their positions at the negotiating table.
The network also said Barnea is expected to say that Israel must continue taking action against Iran’s nuclear program, noting alleged Israeli operations against Iranian targets. Recent reports have said America has warned Israel that these strikes are counterproductive, with Iran building back improved facilities after each setback.
The reports came after the long-delayed resumption of nuclear talks were suspended after five days — with Iran digging in and its negotiating partners openly voicing frustration and pessimism.
After the talks in Vienna were halted last week, the United States said Iran did not appear to be serious. American and European officials accused Iran of backtracking on previous promises. Even Russia, which has stronger relations with Iran, questioned Iran’s commitment to the process. Israel, an outside observer with a stake in the outcome of the talks, has ramped up its rhetoric.
“I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday during the weekly cabinet meeting. “Iran must begin to pay a price for its violations.”
Perhaps the only encouraging outcome of last week’s talks was an agreement to continue talking, though an American official told reporters on Friday that he could not say when the negotiations would resume.
The negotiations seek to revive the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers. That agreement, spearheaded by US president Barack Obama, granted Iran relief from crippling sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
But three years later, president Donald Trump, with strong encouragement from then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, withdrew from the deal, causing it to unravel. Since then, Iran has stepped up its nuclear activities — amassing a stockpile of highly enriched uranium that goes well beyond the bounds of the accord.
Iran last week took a hard stance, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated. In the midst of the negotiations, the UN’s nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had begun enriching uranium up to 20% purity at its underground facility at Fordo – a site where enrichment is not permitted under the deal.
Despite Iran’s claims that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes only, the continued advances in its atomic program have further raised the stakes.
Last week’s talks in Vienna came after a hiatus of more than five months and were the first in which Iran’s new hard-line government participated. The US, no longer a party to the agreement, was not in the room and negotiated remotely through mediators.
A senior US State Department official said over the weekend that negotiators had expected Iran to “show seriousness” at the talks. He said that even Russia and China, important trading outlets for Iran that have traditionally taken a softer line, were concerned about the prospects for a deal.
When Tehran finally returned to the table on Monday, he said, it was “with proposals that walked back any of the compromises that Iran had floated during the six rounds of talks.” He accused Iran of seeking to “pocket all of the compromises that others — the US in particular — had made and then ask for more.”
“Every day that goes by is a day where we come closer to the conclusion that they don’t have in mind a return” to the deal, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters on the US assessment.
European negotiators also expressed frustration. In a joint statement, senior diplomats from Germany, Britain and France said Iran has “fast-forwarded its nuclear program” and “backtracked on diplomatic progress.”
“Unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic time frame on the basis of Iranian drafts,” they said.
Mikhail Ulyanov, a senior Russian diplomat in Vienna, said that Iran had offered a “radical revision” of previous understandings.
“Technically, amendments are always possible,” he said. “However, it is desirable that such amendments … do not turn into a roadblock to progress.”
On Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a nine-page document that appeared to slightly step back from its tough positions.
“Other parties only need to show political determination and express readiness to take necessary practical steps,” the document read. “Then, ways will be opened for the conclusion of a deal and settlement of differences.”
But the document gave few specifics on what Iran might have in mind.
That is unlikely to satisfy Israel, which has returned to its role as a possible spoiler.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy and it strongly opposed the 2015 deal.
It says it wants an improved deal that places tighter restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and addresses Iran’s long-range missile program and its support for hostile proxies along Israel’s borders.
Israel also says that the negotiations must be accompanied by a “credible” military threat to ensure that Iran does not delay indefinitely.
Bennett said Israel was using the time between rounds to persuade the Americans to “use a different toolkit” against Iran’s nuclear program, without elaborating.
Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, delivered an uncharacteristically blunt message Sunday as he welcomed the new American ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides.
“If the international community does not take a vigorous stance on this issue, Israel will do so. Israel will protect itself,” Herzog said.
Despite Israel’s support for Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, prominent voices in the country are now saying in retrospect that the move was a blunder.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily Sunday that pulling out “was a delusional decision that allowed the Iranians to move forward quickly in the direction of becoming a nuclear threshold state.”
Barak, who reportedly favored a military strike when he served as Netanyahu’s defense minister early last decade, said Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s opposition leader, had failed to put together with the US a “Plan B in the form of a surgical military operation.”
In a Channel 12 TV interview on Sunday evening, Barak noted, however, that the original 2015 agreement was “a lousy deal.”
Over the past decade, Iran has greatly complicated any military operation by scattering its nuclear sites and hiding some deep underground. Israeli officials insist military action is still feasible.
Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow and Iran expert at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the Israeli threats should be taken seriously, especially in light of questions over America’s willingness to use force in the region.
“I think the United States doesn’t understand our red lines,” he said. “They think we’re bluffing, but we’re not.”
Over the weekend, Iran said it had tested a surface-to-air missile defense system near its Natanz nuclear facility. Late Saturday, people leaving nearby saw a light in the sky and heard a loud explosion.
“Any threat from the enemies will be met with a decisive and firm response,” state TV quoted Lt. Cmdr. Ali Moazeni as saying.