Photographers and tv cameramen watch a demonstration of a monitoring camera used in Iran during a press conference of Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the current situation in Iran at the agency s headquarters in Vienna, (photo: AFP)
Though the American administration seems undecided on the future of talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, Israeli public statements are pushing for a possible military action. The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) censured Iran last week for what it saw as failure to “fully answer questions for over two years about the origins of uranium traces found at several locations inside the country.” Iran considered the resolution by the board of directors of the IAEA politically motivated and announced shutting down monitoring cameras at nuclear sites the agency inspectors use to make sure Iran commits to provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The IAEA investigation started four years ago after Israel said it stole a half-ton stash of documents from Iran, purportedly proving that Tehran is secretly violating the JCPOA, which was signed with world powers in 2015. The agreement was supposed to lead to Iran scaling down its nuclear programme in return for alleviating sanctions. When former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran started dropping its commitment to certain provisions.
The Joe Biden administration started a process to rejoin the deal through talks in Vienna that started in March last year and continued for eight rounds without concrete results. Israel, and to some extent some Gulf Arab countries, are wary of reviving the deal without addressing other issues like Iran’s missile programme and its support to proxy militias in Arab countries.
Some see the fallout of the IAEA with Tehran, and subsequent, strongly-worded statements from the Western countries against Iran as a pretext for more escalation. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett seized the moment to raise the bar of rhetoric against Iran. Israeli media highlighted the notion that Iran is now just weeks from producing weapons-grade enriched uranium.
Two weeks ago, Israel conducted a massive aircraft exercise over the Mediterranean. Hundreds of military aircraft took part, and the Israeli government said the exercise was intended to simulate a multiple-front war with Iran. Trumpeting possible preparations for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, the Israel Today news website mentioned this week that Israel Air Force (IAF) engineers have managed to design a system that eliminates the need to refuel its F-35 Adir stealth fighter jet mid-mission. The site added: “The F-35 is a radar-invisible warplane that reportedly will be used in a future massive IAF air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities”. The engineers have also “succeeded in placing a 1,000 kg bomb in the body of the thirty-six F-35s available to the Israeli Air Force.” Israel had earlier this year asked the US government for accelerated delivery of a modern tanker aircraft capable of re-fuelling the F-35s mid-air, “but the administration of President Joe Biden refused to comply with this request.”
Some pro-Israel and Hebrew news outlets in the West along with Muslim Brotherhood sites and social media accounts, used Bennett’s visit to Abu Dhabi last week to propagate a claim that Israel “is going to attack Iran and Gulf Arabs will help it.” As the US Congress passed a resolution demanding that American administration should encourage cooperation between Israel and Gulf countries in reinforcing their defences against Iran, some media reports started talking about an “alliance against Iran.”
Gulf sources played down media reports about the so-called Israeli-led military alliance against Iran. One source told Al- Ahram Weekly that the timing of the Israeli PM’s visit to Abu Dhabi has nothing to do with the rising tension with Iran. The visit “focused on bilateral relations and a broad review of regional issues. It was not meant to convey any messages to anybody in the region or beyond, apart from the Emirates’ established policy of seeking peace and security in the region,” he said.
A veteran British political analyst, who has good contacts with the Middle East, described the talk about a Gulf-Israel axis against Iran as a bit exaggerated. “Saudi Arabia, till now, is reluctant to normalise fully with Israel. Though the Crown-Prince [Mohamed bin Salman] is for closer relations with the Israelis, there is a clear major benefit to go for this now. Without the Saudis, Abraham Accord signatories wouldn’t go that extra mile,” he told the Weekly.
Many commentators think that Israel would not go as far as striking Iranian targets without an American green light. The Americans are still reluctant to give the nod, as the British analyst notes. He adds that “traditional rule of American foreign policy is not to open two fronts of conflict at the same time. With the war in Ukraine, and the West’s struggle with Russia, no one wants a Western ally like Israel to start another war in the Middle East. Next to Russia, the American focus is on China. So, Iran can wait.”
The Israeli government might be intensifying leaks about striking Iran, and raising the bar of the official tone, as a way to cover internal problems threatening a faltering government and early elections. Some commentators note that Israel is already in more than a “cold war” with Iran. Within a few weeks, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) colonel was assassinated, having been accused by Israel of involvement in plots against its citizens abroad. Then, another two of the IRGC’s officers also died in mysterious circumstances. Iran blamed Israel and its agents for killing them. The Iranian military complex at Parchin was struck by a drone, too. There have also been many cyber attacks on both countries, which they blame on each other.
Whether Israel attacks Iran or not, developments in the last couple of weeks indicate that the Vienna talks will not be resuming soon. Iran seems unwilling to give in to pressure. As an editorial of Tehran Times this week puts it, “if the West moves ahead with its diplomatic pressure, the chances of reviving the JCPOA will further diminish.”
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.