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State Department insists efforts to return to deal ongoing

Senior Israeli official: Iran talks are dead, time to start discussing a new deal

Source in Lapid’s delegation says Israel gave Europeans intel showing Tehran was lying during negotiations, calls for credible US military threat and a pact without sunset clauses

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid during a visit of the House of the Wannsee Conference memorial in Berlin, Germany, on September 12, 2022. (ANNEGRET HILSE / POOL / AFP)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid during a visit of the House of the Wannsee Conference memorial in Berlin, Germany, on September 12, 2022. (ANNEGRET HILSE / POOL / AFP)

BERLIN, Germany — A senior Israeli official called on Europe and the US on Monday to begin talking about demands for a “longer, stronger” nuclear agreement with Iran, saying current talks aimed at reviving a 2015 pact were dead after Jerusalem provided proof that Tehran had not been forthright during negotiations.

The official, traveling with Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s delegation to Berlin on Monday, spoke to reporters hours after the premier said he passed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “sensitive and relevant intelligence information” on Iran’s nuclear program, and a day after Germany, France, and the United Kingdom issued a statement expressing “serious doubts” over Iran’s sincerity in seeking a nuclear agreement.

“We gave information to the Europeans that proved that the Iranians are lying while talks are still happening,” the Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“There’s not going to be a JCPOA, say the Americans and most Europeans. They say, ‘We have a lot of reservations about the possibility of a nuclear agreement,'” the official added, shortly before the delegation left Germany back for Israel as the 24-hour trip drew to a close. “There are no talks right now with Iran. There is no one in Vienna.”

The official echoed comments from Lapid earlier in the day calling on the US and Europe to stop pursuing the “failed negotiations with Iran.”

“It’s time to start a strategic dialogue with the Americans and Europeans about a longer, stronger agreement. But what we need now is for the Americans to put a credible military threat, and everyone to push for a better agreement,” the Israeli official said. “We need an agreement without sunset clauses.”

Senior Israeli officials have been holding intensive contacts with counterparts in Europe and the US in recent weeks to try to convince them to back away from reviving the 2015 agreement.

On Sunday, Lapid told his cabinet that Israel had given the Europeans “up-to-date intelligence information on Iranian activity at the nuclear sites,” and last week, the Prime Minister’s Office said Mossad chief David Barnea had also given American officials unspecified intelligence.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Scholz indicated Monday that the sides were at loggerheads over Iran’s refusal to budge on certain terms.

“There is now actually no reason for Iran not to agree to these proposals. But we have to note that this is not the case, and will not happen certainly in the near future,” he said alongside Lapid.

A major sticking point had been Tehran’s insistence that the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency drop a probe into unaccounted for traces of enriched uranium at three sites in Iran, which the agency and the West have rebuffed out of hand.

Various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP/ File)

The nuclear watchdog said in a report last week that it “cannot assure” the peaceful nature of Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran reaffirmed Monday its “readiness” to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Everyone has their own excuse,” the Israeli official said. “Some say the Iranian response, some say [EU Foreign Affairs head Josep] Borrell and [Borrell’s chief of staff Enrique] Mora were getting ahead of themselves, some say the Americans decided to toughen up after the dialogue with the Israelis.”

The official indicated that Robert Malley, US President Joe Biden’s envoy to the indirect talks and a frequent target of Israeli criticism, had been shunted to the side.

Robert Malley, the Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, May 25, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

“This is out of the hands of Malley’s camp by now. The decisive talks that we are doing with the US are no longer in Malley’s hands,” said the source.

A US State Department spokesperson denied to The Times of Israel that Malley had been pushed to the side or that the US position had hardened, saying that efforts to return to the JCPOA were ongoing.

“We have a very close dialogue with Israel and other allies and partners about Iran, including the JCPOA. Special Envoy Malley is an integral part of those talks. It is not correct that our position has ‘toughened,'” the spokesperson said.

“There is only one reason that we have not yet reached an understanding: Tehran has not yet accepted the reasonable basis presented by the EU as coordinator of JCPOA talks,” they added.

Israel has long opposed a revival of the 2015 accord, which has been moribund since then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and reimposed biting sanctions on Tehran. The administration claimed at the time that it would negotiate a better deal with Iran, but that effort never advanced.

Many of the US demands, such as clamping down on malign Iranian activities abroad, dovetailed with Israeli complaints about the 2015 JCPOA’s failings, but fell outside what Iran and much of the international community considered to be the scope of a possible deal.

Barnea, the Mossad chief, said Monday that Iranian state-sponsored terrorism had continued during the ongoing nuclear talks with world powers, detailing several instances of alleged thwarted attacks.

Mossad chief David Barnea speaks at the annual conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) at Reichman University in Herzliya on September 12, 2022. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

“It is state terrorism, ordered by [Iran’s] leader [Ali Khamenei] and perpetrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iranian intelligence organizations. It is not spontaneous; it is planned, systematic, and strategic terror,” he said at a conference at Herzliya’s Reichman University, in his first public speech since becoming head of the spy agency in June 2021.

Biden favors restoring the deal. Under the proposed agreement, Iran would enjoy sanctions relief and again be able to sell its oil worldwide in return for tough restrictions on its nuclear program.

Lapid has said that Israel is not opposed to a deal, but that the specific one being negotiated would still allow Iran to advance toward a nuclear bomb in the future. Israel also insists Iran would use revenue from sanctions relief to bolster allied groups capable of attacking Israelis, notably Lebanese Shiite terror group Hezbollah, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two key Palestinian terror organizations.

Demonstrators burn representations of Israeli, British and US flags during the annual pro-Palestinians Al-Quds, or Jerusalem, Day rally in Tehran, Iran, April 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The source said Israeli officials had played up European jitters over the fact that Russia, which is a party to the JCPOA, will use Tehran as a way to bypass Western sanctions imposed since the invasion of Ukraine.

“We of course encouraged this,” the official said.

‘Hezbollah will suffer’

The official also warned that Israel was uncowed by Hezbollah’s threats to attack an extraction rig readying to pump gas from the offshore Karish field, which is at the center of a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon.

“We will extract from Karish the minute we’re ready. If Hezbollah does something they’ll suffer,” the source said. “A terror group won’t decide our foreign policy.”

London-based Energean, which holds the Israeli lease to the field, said last week it planned to start production “within weeks.”

A sea-based Iron Dome air defense system is seen on a Navy ship, guarding the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel says the Karish field is located entirely within its exclusive economic zone, but Lebanon insists that part of the field falls within its own waters.

The official said US-mediated talks to end the dispute were “close” to a deal.

“I’d say we have especially cautious optimism,” the official said.

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