Nuclear deal with Iran off the table for time being, US has indicated to Israel

Message conveyed to PM Lapid in recent conversations with Biden and other US officials; Iranian demands to halt IAEA probes appear to have derailed talks

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid meet in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid meet in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A new nuclear deal between Iran and world powers is off the table and will not be signed in the foreseeable future, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site Zman Yisrael has learned. This is the message that was conveyed to Prime Minister Yair Lapid in his recent conversations with US President Joe Biden and other administration officials.

This emerging outcome of the nuclear negotiations, which would have major international implications, is likely to be touted by Lapid in the coming election campaign, particularly against opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly attacked the premier on the issue.

The potential new nuclear deal was at the center of Israel’s diplomatic and security consultations over the past year, with a concerned Jerusalem tracking the negotiations between Iran and representatives of the world powers in Vienna, as well as the exchange of draft agreements between the sides in recent weeks.

As Lapid became convinced in recent days that a deal was becoming increasingly unlikely, he reprioritized national security challenges to focus on escalating violence in the West Bank, the fight against terrorism and the urgent need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority as it increasingly loses clout.

The nuclear agreement that was being negotiated since Biden entered the White House in January 2021 focused on removing sanctions on Iran in exchange for limiting Tehran’s ability to reach the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

The Americans said that under the framework of the new nuclear deal, Iran would not be able to enrich uranium above 3.67 percent and could not reach a level at which it would be possible to produce a nuclear weapon. This limitation on Iran’s nuclear program would continue until 2031 under the proposed deal.

A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, February 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, file)

According to American comments given to Walla news reporter Barak Ravid two weeks ago, Iran would need to give up all uranium enriched to 20% and 60% in its possession as part of the agreement. Hundreds of kilograms of enriched uranium would need to be removed from Iran or diluted. The centrifuges to enrich uranium would be removed and stored on Iranian soil at a warehouse under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Americans also said Iran would not be able to carry out any plutonium processing, which can be used for weapons purposes, and would redesign the plutonium reactor at Arak so it cannot produce material for a nuclear bomb.

Additionally, the Americans pledged that if a deal were signed, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be able to renew its strict monitoring of nuclear facilities in Iran, after it was significantly curtailed by the Iranians.

The IAEA monitoring is one of the major points of division that Israel has become involved in. The Iranians refused to let the IAEA continue its activities and the Americans insisted after Israeli pressure. Now a deal appears to be off the agenda.

The potential Iran deal has caused intense concern in Israel. Former prime minister Naftali Bennett appealed to the US administration last month to refrain from an accord. “I call on President Biden & the US administration to refrain, even now at this last minute, from signing the agreement with Iran,” Bennett tweeted on August 23.

“This agreement will send approximately a quarter of a trillion dollars to the Iranian terror administration’s pocket and to its regional proxies, and will enable Iran to develop, install and operate centrifuges, with almost no restrictions, in a mere two years,” he added.

“Throughout the past year, even when it was very close, we successfully convinced our White House counterparts not to give in to Iranian demands. I hope this will remain the case.”

Then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and Mossad chief David Barnea meet at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 15, 2021. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

The emerging deal with Iran led to serious friction and arguments between Israel and the United States, and significant internal tensions in Jerusalem.

Two weeks ago, Mossad chief David Barnea briefed defense reporters and warned of the dangers of a restored nuclear deal. According to a report in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Barnea warned during a meeting with the prime minister that the deal would allow Iran to obtain significant capabilities.

According to Barnea, hundreds of billions of dollars would flow to Iran after the removal of sanctions. The money would serve to strengthen terror groups that encircle Israel, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Furthermore, he said the Iranians would accelerate their vision of a “Shia crescent” running from their border with Iraq to the Mediterranean, strengthening the Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iranian militias in the region. Barnea added that a deal would be a “strategic disaster” and declared it does not oblige Israel.

The Mossad head, who is currently in the United States for talks on the Iranian issue, was later reprimanded by Lapid for his direct criticism of the Americans.

Netanyahu, who dealt with Iran extensively during his years as prime minister, has maintained that the emerging deal was worse than the original signed in 2015 under then-US president Barack Obama.

A week and a half ago, Netanyahu invited himself for a security briefing with Lapid on the Iranian issue, as is his right by law as opposition leader. After the meeting, Netanyahu claimed Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz had fallen asleep at the wheel and that they were responsible for the “Iranian nuclear failure.” Netanyahu demanded that officials meet with members of Congress, influential officials and senior media figures in the US in an effort to thwart the deal.

On Monday, a senior government official said that “Netanyahu taught us exactly what not to do. In 2015, he went to Congress, spoke with senior government officials and the media, and we got the nuclear deal shoved in our faces.”

This time, the official said, “We worked quietly. We put in tremendous efforts and reached the opposite result.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid briefs opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu regarding Iran and the emerging nuclear deal, August 29, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In a little over two weeks, Lapid will fly to participate in the UN General Assembly in New York. It is not yet clear whether he will meet with Biden while there. Biden is expected to be in New York on September 18-20; Lapid and his entourage will land there on the morning of September 20.

Lapid is due to speak at the General Assembly on Thursday, September 22, and Iran is expected to be at the center of his comments. Immediately after the speech, Lapid will quickly fly back to Israel to take part in his son Yoav’s wedding on Friday afternoon.

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