It appears that pressure by Israel as well as other factors have managed to halt or delay progress in Washington towards returning to the nuclear deal with Iran. This is clear in statements by senior Israeli officials and analyses by Israeli research centres and media.
In August, talks on Iran’s nuclear deal were close to fruition after the EU delivered a final draft of the agreement that was non-negotiable. However, Iran responded with a few more demands that the US rejected, while the UK, France and Germany saw this as a step back on the part of Tehran.
As negotiations approached a decisive milestone, Israel began intensive moves to counter that, including visits to Washington by Mossad Director David Barnea, Israel’s National Security Adviser Eyal Hulta, and Defence Minister Benny Gantz. Israel said this diplomatic onslaught aimed to prevent the revival of the nuclear agreement, which Tel Aviv sees as a threat to its security.
Israeli officials argue that lifting sanctions on Iran will inject Tehran’s budget with billions, which means more funding to its armed groups in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Yemen.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said he would visit the US this month to meet with US President Joe Biden on the fringe of UN General Assembly meetings to discuss the Iran matter. “Israel is running a successful campaign to stop the nuclear agreement with Iran, in order to block the lifting of economic sanctions there,” said Lapid.
Lapid, who visited Germany to discuss his country’s concerns about the agreement, pointed out that “it’s not over yet, but there are encouraging signs.” He was referring to Israel’s success in dissuading the US administration from returning to the agreement.
The Times of Israel quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying that a message was conveyed to Lapid in recent talks with Biden that the nuclear deal is not on the table, and will not be signed any time soon.
According to the website, lately Lapid is more and more convinced that Washington’s return to the nuclear deal is unlikely, and reordered the priority of national security threats to focus on escalating violence in the West Bank and tensions on the northern border with Lebanon due to exploration at the Karish gas field.
“We cannot predict when the deal will be signed by major world powers and Iran,” Aleef Sabbagh, a political analyst, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Right now, it’s not even close.” Sabbagh said it appears that pressure by Israel managed to postpone the signing of the agreement, and Israel’s diplomatic war against the deal has achieved some of its goals so far.
Several Israeli analyses, however, indicate that the delay in completing the agreement is due to some of its details, not Israel’s opposition to it – especially the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into traces of uranium at three sites that Tehran had not previously disclosed. Tehran is demanding an end to this investigation as a precondition for sealing the deal.
Sabbagh believes Israel will keep up pressure to the last minute to prevent the signing of the agreement, stating that Tel Aviv wants to galvanise a more hardline international position in support of the IAEA investigations. It will demand a mechanism to monitor the funds that Iran will access to ensure they do not reach Tehran’s proxies in the region.
The Israeli opposition led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserts the US administration has made up its mind about returning to the agreement but is holding out for better terms. Netanyahu also accuses Lapid’s incumbent government of failing to convince Washington of Tel Aviv’s security requisites that will be harmed by the agreement. However, Lapid counters that his cabinet is working quietly and diligently, and has so far succeeded in blocking the agreement.
Israel often reiterates that it would not be bound by the agreement if it is signed, and reserves the right to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state or a nuclear threshold. It also often threatens to resort to the military option to achieve this if Israel’s security needs require it.
In a veiled threat to Iran, the Israeli army recently revealed a secret document about its destruction of a nuclear reactor in Syria some 15 years ago. According to the document published by the Israeli army, the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria was involved in secret and suspicious projects in the nuclear realm. The army published a video which it claimed was the destruction of a possible nuclear site in Deir El-Zor in Syria.
“It would be impossible for the US and major powers to sign a nuclear deal with Iran without first allaying Israel’s concerns about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb,” stated Sabbagh. “Israel will never accept any deal with Iran without an alternative military plan in place to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons, and blocking its currently frozen assets from being used on military spending.”
Sabbagh expects operations by Israel’s security agencies against Iran to continue, and perhaps even intensify depending on Israel’s security needs. For Lapid, it seems that his desire to block an agreement with Iran is greater than Israel’s security demands. He wants to portray Washington’s aversion to the nuclear deal as a victory for him ahead of Israel’s general elections in early November.
However, even if political circles in Israel view the delay in reaching a nuclear deal as a diplomatic victory, there are security concerns about possible Iranian retaliatory steps through its proxies surrounding Israel, such as Lebanon’s Hizbullah, which is quickly escalating tensions on Israel’s northern front and making threats because of Israel’s gas exploration in disputed offshore waters in the Mediterranean.
This is also true of Palestinian factions, especially the Islamic Jihad, which is closest to Iran and has a strong urge for revenge after recent military confrontations with Israel in the Gaza Strip when Israel assassinated two prominent Jihad figures.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.