The Israeli government is stepping up pressure on the Biden administration to withdraw from international efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
But the White House isn’t budging.
Israel’s national security adviser Eyal Hulata visited the White House on Tuesday, where he met with his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan, to express Israel’s concerns about the latest draft roadmap for reviving the 2015 accord. Israel defenseman Benny Gantz is scheduled to see Sullivan in Washington on Friday.
An Israeli official confirmed the meeting. Readings were not immediately available.
Meanwhile, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sent out a series of tweets urging the US, “even now at the last minute”, to pull out of the talks, the outcome of which, he feared, would enrich a dangerous Iranian regime that cannot be trusted.
“One way or another, the state of Israel is not a party to the agreement,” Bennett warned, reiterating a long-standing Israeli position. “Israel is not committed to any of the restrictions under the deal and will use all available tools to prevent the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program.”
The 2015 nuclear deal, reached during Barack Obama’s presidency, lifted a number of US sanctions on Iran in exchange for major restrictions on its nuclear program. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it was too weak and too narrow, and reimposed sanctions while adding new ones. After about a year, Iran began violating the terms of the deal, including by enriching uranium to high levels and barring inspectors.
President Joe Biden has sought to rejoin the deal — which he and aides have argued remains the best vehicle for containing an Iranian nuclear threat. Over nearly a year and a half, a period that included some long pauses, Biden’s emissaries engaged in indirect talks with Iranian officials to revive the deal.
The two sides, whose talks have been mediated mainly by European officials, have been embroiled in a variety of thorny issues. These include: whether the US will rescind Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; the fate of an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into traces of nuclear material at various Iranian sites; and Iran demanding certain guarantees that the lifting of sanctions will lead to economic benefits — and that the US will not withdraw from the deal under a different president.
Biden has said he will not rescind the IRGC’s terrorism designation, and the IAEA has said it will not abandon the investigation.
Iran recently responded to a European draft proposal to revive the deal with comments that focused mainly on sanctions and financial guarantees. US officials are reviewing the Iranian demands and preparing their own response, which may be sent to European negotiators later this week.
The US is consulting allies, including Israel, before sending its response, although it was not immediately clear whether it would wait until Gantz’s meeting with Sullivan.
“Every step of the way, we’ve been in touch with our Israeli partners to let them know where we’re at, to compare notes on the status of Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.
Israeli officials are making their push at a sensitive time: the country, currently overseen by an interim government, will soon hold its fifth election in less than four years.
The main internal debate among U.S. negotiators has been over the economic guarantees Iran is seeking, said Ali Baez, a top Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. Those guarantees partly address Iran’s concerns that even if the 2015 deal is revived, foreign companies will find it too risky to invest in the country. Even when the deal was in full force, many foreign companies were hesitant to do business in Iran.
For Israel’s political leaders, an Iran whose economy is stronger is an Iran that poses a greater threat to their country’s existence. Iran’s rulers consider Israel an illegitimate state, and some have predicted its eventual destruction.
Israeli political leaders’ argument against the nuclear deal often boils down to concerns that, if the US lifts sanctions on Iran, the regime will use the incoming cash to engage even more in a range of unsavory activities, including financing and armaments terrorist groups targeting Israel.
Many Israeli political leaders also believe that Iran’s government will never truly abandon its nuclear ambitions and that, eventually, a more economically stronger Iran will resume such a program. Many of the provisions of the nuclear deal have expiration dates.
But some Israelis in the security establishment — often retired officers with more freedom to speak — have broken with their political leaders over the issue. They argue that, as imperfect as the nuclear deal is, it is better than no restraint or monitoring of Iran’s program. (Iran officially denies that it wants nuclear weapons, arguing that its program is for medical and other purposes.)
Biden administration officials acknowledge that Iran’s nefarious activities do not begin and end with the nuclear program. But they argue that reining in that program will make it easier to deal with the many other challenges Tehran poses. These challenges include curbing the ballistic missile program and the sponsorship of terrorism.
At present, Iran’s fission time – the time required to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon – is believed to be a few weeks. According to a restored agreement, it will probably be about six months. Under the original 2015 deal, it was estimated at about a year.
Stephanie Liechtenstein contributed to this report from Vienna, Austria.