Military Intelligence backs revived Iran deal, breaking with IDF chief, Mossad

Supporters of renewed JCPOA say it buys army time to prepare for more extensive strike on Iran and deal with other regional threats, but they appear to be minority among leadership

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Enrique Mora, a leading European Union diplomat, second right, attends a meeting with Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, third left, in Tehran, Iran, March 27, 2022. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)
Enrique Mora, a leading European Union diplomat, second right, attends a meeting with Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, third left, in Tehran, Iran, March 27, 2022. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

Senior defense officials are at odds over Israel’s stance on talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, according to an unsourced report Sunday in Hebrew-language media.

According to the Ynet news site, several Israeli generals, including the chief of Military Intelligence, have begun to support a return to the 2015 accord between Iran and world powers, against Israel’s official policy.

The report was published as world powers prepare to reconvene talks in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after months of deadlock.

Officially, Israel is fiercely opposed to a return to the 2015 deal, which it campaigned against at the time of its signing, viewing Iran as untrustworthy and unable to keep its commitments.

Successive Israeli governments have warned for decades that Iran seeks to build a nuclear weapon.

But senior intelligence officials now believe that a bad agreement is preferable to no agreement at all, as it gives Israel time to prepare for extensive military responses against Iran, Ynet said.

The past year has seen the Israel Defense Forces ramp up its efforts to prepare a credible military threat against Iran, with dozens of Israeli Air Force fighter jets conducting air maneuvers over the Mediterranean Sea simulating striking Iranian nuclear facilities earlier this month.

The officials in support of a return to the deal listed by the news site were the head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva; Brig. Gen. Amit Sa’ar, who leads Military Intelligence’s Research Division; Brig. Gen. Oren Setter, the head of the IDF’s Strategic Division; and Brig. Gen. Tal Kelman, the military official in charge of Iran affairs.

Military Intelligence chief Aharon Haliva, right, presents ranks to a new intelligence officer during a ceremony on October 13, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

The report said the intelligence generals believed Defense Minister Benny Gantz also supports a return to the deal. Gantz has previously said he supports a “broader, stronger and longer” accord.

But against them, and supporting Israel’s official stance against the deal, were senior members of the Mossad, including chief of the spy agency David Barnea, and the chief of the IDF, Aviv Kohavi, the report said.

Ynet said the Mossad maintains that a deal is bad for Israel and at most would only buy it two and a half years of Iran not advancing its nuclear capabilities. Separately, the report said the Mossad believed that publicizing the positions of the intelligence officers was intended to influence incoming prime minister Yair Lapid, to support a return to the agreement.

Mossad chief David Barnea at a ceremony marking his taking the helm of the agency, on June 1, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The Military Intelligence directorate told Ynet that its positions regarding the Iranian nuclear deal had not changed since Haliva took his post in October 2021.

Gantz responded to Sunday’s reports, saying discourse relating to the nuclear deal must be kept behind closed doors.

“The defense establishment is dealing with the Iranian threat day and night as the most important and urgent strategic issue now for Israel’s security,” Gantz said on Twitter.

“This is done in coordination between all the security arms, and while giving freedom of opinion, the decisions are made by the political echelon,” he said.

“We will continue to hold this open and deep discourse only in the closed rooms. Any other way harms the security of the State of Israel,” Gantz added.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a Blue and White party faction meeting at the Knesset, June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The original 2015 agreement gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, but the US unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, who reimposed heavy economic sanctions.

That prompted Iran to begin rolling back its own commitments and enrich uranium to a purity level only a short technical step away from what is needed to produce atomic weapons.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, second right, listens to an explanation while viewing an advanced centrifuge at an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran on April 9, 2022. (Iran President’s Office)

Talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which have been stalled for three months, are expected to resume within days, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Saturday during a surprise visit to Tehran.

Israeli officials charge that if economic sanctions are again lifted, Iran would send even more money to terror activities against Israel, and to its proxies throughout the Middle East, including on Israel’s northern border.

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