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Israeli ambassador says world mulling ‘plan B’ to stop Iran’s nuclear program

Gilad Erdan claims chances of Tehran reentering nuclear deal have dropped from 80% to 30%

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan speaks to a group of American Jewish community leaders in New York, on June 27, 2021. (Shahar Azran)
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan speaks to a group of American Jewish community leaders in New York, on June 27, 2021. (Shahar Azran)

Israel’s ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said on Monday that the US and other world powers are increasingly considering a “plan B” to stop Iran’s nuclear program, should talks fail.

“The international community and Americans are starting to talk to us more about a plan B on Iran,” Erdan told Army Radio, without elaborating on what the alternative plan would entail. “In the past, the estimate was that there was an 80 percent chance it [Iran] would return to the [2015 nuclear] deal, today that has dropped to around 30%.”

“If Iran doesn’t return [to the deal], this changes the whole picture for the world,” he added.

Erdan’s comment came shortly before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was set to address the UN General Assembly, with his speech expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear program, among other issues.

“The direction [of his talk] will be that we are at a critical stage in the Iranian nuclear program,” an adviser of the prime minister said on Sunday, pointing at Iran’s continued enrichment, and the possible resumption of nuclear talks in Geneva.

Bennett will also address Iran’s support for regional terrorism and armed proxies, and will speak briefly about Iran’s new hardline leadership.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

European-sponsored talks in Vienna have aimed to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. The pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), granted Iran relief from sanctions in return for dismantling parts of its nuclear program to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

After former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 and reapplied crippling sanctions, Iran also dropped some of its own commitments, notably upping its uranium enrichment to levels said to put it within a few months’ grasp of enough material for a nuclear weapon.

The Biden administration has said that it is willing to return to the JCPOA, if Iran first rolls back its recent moves and recommits. But the Vienna talks have been on hold since June, when ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran’s president.

Earlier this month, US and Israeli security officials reportedly held a meeting to discuss what to do if Iran does not return to the nuclear deal. The secret talks focused on an unspecified “plan B,” according to a report.

Citing two unnamed Israeli officials, the Walla report said that the secure video meeting was the first time a special bilateral strategic group aimed at collaborating on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon had convened since Bennett and the new Israeli government took office in June.

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

Leading the talks at the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group were US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, his Israeli counterpart Eyal Hulata and diplomatic officials from both countries.

The Israelis reportedly pressed for moving forward with alternative plans due to the stalled nuclear talks, feeling Iran is seeking to draw the negotiations out while advancing with its nuclear program.

An Israeli official quoted in the report said that the main message from the US was that if the nuclear talks don’t resume soon, the Biden administration will impose further sanctions on Iran. US sanctions already in place have caused chaos to the Iranian economy, crashing the rial currency, though Tehran has remained defiant to the pressure.

Biden has signaled a willingness to return to the deal, which was negotiated when he was Barack Obama’s vice president and under Iran’s relatively moderate former president Hassan Rouhani. At the UN General Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Biden said that the US will return to the pact only if Iran returns to all its commitments, while also vowing to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon… We’re prepared to return to full compliance with [the deal] if Iran does the same,” he said.

Russia’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency Mikhail Ulyanov stands in front of the Grand Hotel Vienna where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place, in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Hopes of a revitalized deal were kept alive earlier this month by Iran agreeing with the UN nuclear agency on a new compromise regarding surveillance of its nuclear sites.

Earlier this month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that he was prepared to accept a scenario in which the US negotiates a fresh nuclear deal with Iran.

While Israeli defense officials not in government have indicated a degree of tolerance for a negotiated nuclear deal of any kind in the past, that sentiment has not extended to public officials, and Gantz appears to be the most senior cabinet member to reflect it on the record.

The defense minister also made clear that he wanted to see a “viable US-led plan B” that includes significant political, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Tehran imposed jointly by the US, Europe, Russia, and China — as well as a credible military threat — if talks in Vienna seeking a US-Iran return to the JCPOA fail to bear fruit.

Bennett assured Biden at the White House in August that he would not publicly campaign against Washington’s efforts to coax Iran back to the 2015 accord. The Israeli leader has made it clear, however, that he opposes a return to that deal.

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