Analysis

US-Iran deal doesn’t mean full nuclear pact is next — but it shows Israel’s limits

Iran has little reason to run toward a new deal now, but prisoner agreement last week underscores that the Netanyahu government has minimal influence on Washington’s Iran policy

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden, in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden, in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Israeli officials did not sound thrilled in the wake of last week’s deal between the US and Iran, which will see Tehran free five American detainees in exchange for the release of several billion dollars in frozen Iranian assets.

“Arrangements that do not dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will not stop its nuclear program, and will only provide it with funds that will go to terrorist elements sponsored by Iran,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

He was not the only Israeli voice tying the prisoner deal to Iran’s nuclear program.

A pair of Israeli officials told The New York Times that the exchange is part of a larger set of understandings between Tehran and Washington, who have been working toward an informal arrangement that would limit the Iranian nuclear program.

US officials repeatedly denied that the two topics were tied, but the day after the deal was revealed, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had slowed its enrichment of nearly weapons-grade uranium and reduced a small amount of its stockpile.

Israel has no new reason to be alarmed, said Iran expert Raz Zimmt of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, center, inspects the honor guard before meeting Kenya’s President William Ruto at State House in Nairobi, Kenya, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

“We are returning more or less to where we were two months ago,” he explained.

In June, reports emerged that the US and Iran were homing in on informal, limited understandings aimed primarily at anchoring the current status quo and preventing a potentially catastrophic escalation, referred to by Iranian officials as a “political ceasefire.”

Israeli officials believe those parameters are now in effect.

Israel does not have to worry about a larger nuclear deal emerging anytime soon, said Zimmt.

An Iranian man reads a copy of the daily newspaper ‘Omid Javan’ bearing a picture of then-US president Donald Trump with a headline that reads in Persian, ‘Crazy Trump and logical JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action),’ on October 14, 2017, in front of a kiosk in the capital Tehran. (AFP Photo/STR/File)

He noted that there would be far less economic benefit for Iran now than in previous years. Furious at Tehran for its military support of Russia, European countries and the US are not about to start pouring money into Iran.

At the same time, it is also in less desperate straits economically than it previously was. With China as its main customer, Iran has been circumventing US sanctions to see its oil exports reach their highest point in five years.

Kicking Iran down the road

Still, there are broader links between the recent deal and a comprehensive nuclear deal, a European diplomat told The Times of Israel.

“It’s all part of a big picture, it’s part of de-escalatory steps,” said the official. “It’s an overall set of behaviors that the EU and US would like to see from Iran.”

Meir Ben-Shabbat, then head of the National Security Council, speaks at a trilateral meeting of the Israeli, US and Russian national security advisers, in Jerusalem on June 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)

Even without an impending deal, some see reason for alarm.

“The Joe Biden administration wants to kick the Iran problem down the road to the year 2025, in order to gain temporary quiet from this issue during the US election campaign,” charged Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, now head of the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy.

Biden “is giving Iran for the first time de facto license to enrich uranium to 60%,” Ben-Shabbat continued. “The framework of the understanding could also cement Iran’s status as a threshold state with US consent.”

The agreement, said Ben-Shabbat, is more evidence that the Biden administration is pursuing a nuclear containment strategy with Iran, not the military deterrence strategy that Israel would prefer.

The deal also encourages bad behavior, argued John Hannah, senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and former national security adviser to former US vice president Dick Cheney.

FILE – This undated photograph released by the Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate shows the wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP, File)

“Iranian officials have repeatedly said that taking US hostages is a lucrative business that can earn Iran billions of dollars in ransom to fill the coffers of the regime to pursue its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East,” posited Hannah. “It seems hard to argue that their argument has not been completely vindicated by this latest deal.”

He also said the billions of dollars that Iran will receive will endanger US allies, including Israel and Ukraine.

“Since money is fungible, as sure as night follows day, billions of dollars will be freed up for use by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to ratchet up their attacks on US interests and our allies via terrorism, expanding their nuclear infrastructure and missile programs, continuing drone supplies to Russia, and suppressing the Iranian people.”

Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the capital Tehran, on September 22, 2018. (Stringer/AFP)

Biden’s Cinderella

Under the tentative agreement, the US has given its blessing to South Korea to convert frozen Iranian assets held there from the South Korean currency, the won, to euros.

That money then would be sent to Qatar, a small, energy-rich nation on the Arabian Peninsula that has been a mediator in the talks.

The Qatari role is notable, Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told The Times of Israel.

This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

“Qatar is Biden’s Cinderella,” she said. “Biden has decided to bet on Qatar as the Gulf state he trusts, as the state he invests his diplomatic energy in.”

Doha has emerged as a trusted mediator for the US since Biden came to power in 2021. It helped the US reach the Doha Agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and has been working as a go-between for Washington and Tehran for most of Biden’s tenure.

Its importance as a supplier of liquefied natural gas has grown in the same period, as it replaces Russian supply to Europe.

This undated file photo shows a Qatari liquid natural gas (LNG) tanker ship being loaded up with LNG at Raslaffans Sea Port, northern Qatar. With gas reserves dropping and concerns a war could interrupt flows from Russia, the focus now is getting gas from the United States, Qatar, Algeria and elsewhere, until renewables catch up. (AP Photo, File)

In March 2022, Biden rewarded Doha by designating it a Major Non-NATO Ally, giving it increased access to US weapons and security cooperation.

Israel — along with regional partners Egypt and Bahrain, as well as Kuwait — enjoys the same status, though, notably, pro-Western Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do not.

That fact is not particularly comfortable for Israel.

“We have an interest that the US pushes moderate states forward, in the Middle East and especially in the Gulf,” said Zaga, referring to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

President Ebrahim Raisi, center, is welcomed by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, center right, as he arrives in Doha, Qatar, February 21, 2022. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

But the same ties that make Israel wary of Doha make it useful to Washington.

“Qatar has a much closer relationship to Iran, to Hamas, to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE and Saudi Arabia don’t have,” Zaga explained.

At the same time, those ties have occasionally been useful for Israel. Qatar has become Gaza’s economic patron, giving $30 million a month for fuel, salaries, and welfare.

Paralysis

Perhaps the most worrying part of the Iran-US deal, however, is what it says about Israel’s ability to prevent a larger nuclear agreement.

“There’s a policy paralysis in Israel on Iran,” said the European diplomat.

Protesters lift flags and banners during a rally against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on August 12, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

Netanyahu and his government have been less vocal about Iran of late. While the ongoing domestic row over sweeping judicial reform has something to do with it, Jerusalem seems to be unable to offer a realistic alternative to Biden’s de-escalation drive.

“Even Netanyahu’s statement last week sounded performative,” said the official. “He hasn’t been able to influence US policy.”

“It doesn’t sound like he especially wants to talk about Iran at the moment.”

Ben-Shabbat called on the Israeli government to speak more sharply on the issue: “It must formulate its position on this matter in accordance with what comes out of the secret dialogue taking place at the White House.”

“At the same time,” he said, “Israel must continue its efforts to improve its operational capabilities. Israel must stick to its public opposition to these agreements and concessions, and demand practical steps from the US against Iran.”

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