Netanyahu revives working groups on Iran nuclear threat following new intel — report

PM has established 6 teams after previously neglecting the issue, Axios says, amid fears that Iran could seek a nuclear breakout before next US president takes office

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says prove Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says prove Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reestablished a series of working groups two weeks ago to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, amid concern that the Islamic Republic could aim to develop an atomic bomb as early as January, according to a report in Axios on Wednesday that cited three unnamed senior Israeli officials.

Netanyahu’s directive to reassemble the working groups came after having ignored the issue throughout his most recent term in office, the report contended.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

The working groups are a cooperative effort of the security forces, the Foreign Ministry and the intelligence community, according to the report, with the National Security Council responsible for managing the process of setting them up.

The renewed attention to Iran’s nuclear program came after new intelligence indicated that Iran could be looking to “shorten the timetable” for going nuclear, according to Yaakov Nagel, a former national security adviser who remains close to the prime minister.

The intelligence reportedly covered new computer modeling and scientific experiments conducted by Iranian scientists.

File – Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, visits an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, at his office compound in Tehran, Iran, June 11, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, via AP, File)

The Iranian research is taking place “under an academic umbrella,” Nagel said, and is believed to be without official approval from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Intelligence officials in the US and Israel believe that Khamenei knows of the activity but is seeking to preserve a measure of deniability, he said.

There are six total working groups, according to the report. One group, led by the Mossad spy agency, deals with Iran’s nuclear program itself, Axios said, while another, led by the Shin Bet domestic security service, deals with Iranian influence operations in Israel, which have reportedly increased over the last year.

Other teams deal with Iran’s efforts to assist its regional terror proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and militias in Iraq and Syria, with intelligence and cyber coordination, the report added.

It is the first time the government has seriously addressed the Iranian nuclear issue since it took power in December 2022, Axios reported, citing two former Israeli officials.

“As of late, they’ve finally understood, and they’ve started to work on the issue again,” one official was quoted as having said.

The officials blamed the prime minister’s initial neglect of the issue on his government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary in 2023.

Then, they said, Netanyahu was distracted by the war against Hamas, which began on October 7, when thousands of terrorists invaded Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing some 1,200 people and taking 251 hostages.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, meets with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (not in picture) at the Pentagon in Washington, June 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The United States is reportedly in close cooperation with Israel on the Iranian nuclear issue, amid concern that the Islamic Republic may take advantage of the American election season, when US President Joe Biden will be busy campaigning.

Iran may also hope that the US president is preoccupied with the war in Gaza, as well as escalating fighting between Israel and the Iranian proxy terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has sparked fears of a full-scale war.

If former US president Donald Trump defeats Biden in the November presidential election, Iran may seek to “break out” —  meaning to accumulate enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon — before the new president takes office on January 20, 2025, according to the Hebrew version of the report, published on the Walla news site.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington on Tuesday that “time is running out” in the fight to prevent an Iranian breakout, telling him that “now is the time to realize the commitment of the American administrations over the years” that have promised action if necessary.

“Iran will never get a nuclear weapon,” one official said to Axios, pledging that the Biden administration “will make sure this is the case.” The official also said that the US is working on the issue “24/7 and are consulting with Israel on this issue all the time.”

A delegation of Israeli officials led by National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi is expected to travel to Washington in mid-July to discuss the Iranian issue as part of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group.

The meetings were originally set to take place earlier this month, but were then canceled amid a diplomatic spat over the US’s supply of weapons to Israel, which Netanyahu publicly accused the Biden administration of withholding, prompting backlash from the White House. The talks were then rescheduled.

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