Iran’s nuclear program ignites new tensions between US and Israel

WASHINGTON – Long-standing differences over how to handle Iran’s nuclear program have erupted into new tensions between the Biden administration and Israel, with two senior Israeli officials leaving Washington this week over fears that the Americans’ commitment to restore the he 2015 nuclear deal does not lead to a flawed deal allowing Tehran to speed up its nuclear enrichment program.

The tensions were evident throughout the week, as the Biden administration sought to rally the alliance with Israel into a united front over how to deal with Iran over the next year.

In an effort to close the gap, U.S. officials announced this week that two months ago, Mr. Biden asked his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to review the revised Pentagon plan to undertake a military action if the diplomatic effort collapsed. Administration officials also highlighted new efforts to tighten, rather than relax, sanctions against Iran.

Mr Biden’s emphasis on military options and sanctions was an effort to signal Tehran that the United States was starting to run out of patience with Iran dragging its feet in nuclear talks in Vienna, said said administration officials. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last week that Iran’s new government “does not appear to be serious about doing what is necessary to return to compliance” with the 2015 nuclear deal.

But the harder line was also aimed at calming increasingly frustrated Israeli officials. While they will not criticize the US president in public like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did under the Obama administration, Israeli officials privately maintain that the Iranians are pushing their nuclear program forward while betting states United, eager to reduce American commitments in the Middle East, will not abandon the Vienna talks for more energetic action.

This article is based on discussions with more than a dozen U.S. and Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss both sensitive issues of diplomacy and assessments of classified intelligence.

After a strained phone call with Mr Blinken 10 days ago, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett dispatched his Defense Minister Benny Gantz and new Mossad chief David Barnea to Washington this week armed with new information on the Iranians. ‘uranium enrichment and the work of what Israel says is their weapons group. Despite the harsher US rhetoric, Israeli officials left worried about continued diplomatic relations with Iran.

The disagreement over Iran is just one of the many issues troubling the Biden-Bennett relationship. The couple started off on a solid footing: Mr Biden spoke to Mr Bennett hours after the Israeli leader took office in June – a sign of support given Mr Biden had taken weeks after his nomination to speak directly with Mr. Bennett. predecessor, Mr. Netanyahu.

But the two governments have since clashed over whether the United States should reopen the U.S. consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem, which was closed by President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Bennett said such a move would undermine Israel’s sovereignty in its capital.

There are also disagreements over Israeli plans to expand its settlements in the occupied West Bank, and over the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist two Israeli spyware companies, NSO Group and Candiru, whose products, according to the United States, has been used by authoritarian governments to hack the phones of dissidents and rights activists.

But at the heart of the tensions between Israel and the United States is the fundamental disagreement over how to stop the Iranian agenda. This is not a new argument: the two allies fought bitterly over the 2015 accord, which Israel opposed and which President Barack Obama signed.

More recently, they disagreed over the wisdom of Israel’s sabotage of Iranian facilities, which Mr. Bennett’s government said has rolled back the program, and which some in the United States claim only encourages the Iranians to rebuild nuclear enrichment facilities with more efficient means. , advanced equipment.

Israeli officials were pleased with the warm welcome the White House extended to Mr. Bennett. The Biden administration had praised his government for being much more transparent with him than Mr. Netanyahu had been. Indeed, the Israelis consulted the Americans before launching two secret strikes against Iran, one in September against a missile base and one in June against an Iranian factory building nuclear centrifuges, according to people informed of the actions.

But the call between Mr Bennett and Mr Blinken last week was controversial, with the two sides sharing very different views on the value of a renewed deal to verify Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The call frustrated officials in both countries, officials from both countries said.

During the phone call, Bennett said Iran was trying to blackmail the United States by increasing the enrichment percentage, according to an official with knowledge of the details of the call. Mr Bennett added that no official, American or Israeli, wants to be the one to report that Iran has achieved bomb-grade enrichment, but fears of a nuclear-armed Iran should not lead to surrender to Iranian demands or sign an irresponsible deal.

Some US officials believe these concerns about concessions are misplaced. Israeli officials had complained that the United States was considering offering an interim deal with Tehran that would lift some sanctions in exchange for a freeze on some of its nuclear activities. But U.S. officials say such an offer is not being actively considered, at least for now, due to Iran’s reluctance to make a commitment.

Israeli officials were not reassured. They are increasingly concerned that the United States will eventually strike a deal with Tehran and then seek to prevent Israeli intelligence services from carrying out covert sabotage attacks. Israeli leaders say they want a guarantee from the Biden administration that Washington will not seek to curtail its sabotage campaign, even if a renewed nuclear deal is struck.

Disagreements over intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear stockpile and bomb-making know-how remain relatively low, mainly focused on how long it would take the Iranians to produce a weapon if they get enough nuclear fuel. bomb quality.

But the chasm as to the meaning of these evaluations is great. US officials believe that until Iran decides to develop a bomb, it does not have a nuclear military program, since it suspended the existing one after 2003. Israeli officials, on the other hand, believe that Iran has continued its covert efforts to build a bomb since 2003.

Some Israeli officials believe the sabotage campaign has strategic effects and may be one of the reasons the Iranians, however timidly, have returned to Vienna. A senior Israeli intelligence official said the sabotage operations created crippling paranoia at the top of the Iranian government. The operations, the official said, caused Tehran to question whether it should speed up the nuclear project.

But even American supporters of the Israeli approach say it is akin to “cutting the grass,” a step necessary to keep Iran in check, but one that will never completely stop Tehran’s nuclear research. These U.S. officials believe the only sustainable way to stop Iran from developing a weapon is to reach a deal, like the one in 2015, that requires Iran to ship its nuclear fuel out of the country. And that would in turn require significant easing of sanctions.

In this week’s meetings, Israeli officials tried to persuade Washington not to work on a diplomatic deal and to toughen sanctions instead. But Israeli officials say they fear the United States will conduct secret communications with Iran and that a new round of talks in Vienna will ultimately lead to a deal being signed.

The meetings took place against the backdrop of a recent Iranian attack on US forces in Syria, a senior US official said. The Israelis, the official said, have an aggressive stance towards the Iranian threat, linked both to the nuclear program and the risk of proliferation of missiles and other weapons.

But Americans are increasingly concerned that it is only a matter of time before a US serviceman is killed or injured in an Iranian proxy drone strike under Mr Biden’s watch. With Iran making it clear that it will retaliate against U.S. personnel in Syria or Iraq if Israel strikes Iran or its proxies, this complicates planning for strikes.

In an appearance on the Wall Street Journal CEO Council on Monday, William J. Burns, the director of the CIA, has expressed his concerns about Iran’s nuclear work. He said the Iranians were “dragging their feet” in the negotiations as they “were making steady progress in their nuclear program, especially 60% enrichment now as well.” This is the closest the Iranians have ever known to bomb grade fuel, which is generally defined as 90% purity.

But, added Mr. Burns, the United States continues to believe that Iran has not made the decision to arm its nuclear program.

Patrick kingsley contributed to Jerusalem reporting, and Eric schmitt from Washington.

Source link

Previous Opinion: The Iranian drone fleet, the threat and the means to neutralize it
Next Iran prepares for space launch during nuclear deal talks, satellite images and expert suggestions