Iran nuclear ambitions high on US-Israel meeting's agenda

As the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, visits Israel, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz says his government is ready to work with its ally to ensure any new deal with Iran does not undermine regional security.

Video Transcript

HARRY FAWCETT: Flying into the major foreign policy issue confronting Israel's alliance with the United States, the divergence in approach to Iran and its nuclear program. US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, is the most senior Biden Administration official to visit Israel since the new US president was sworn in. After four years of a Trump White House, which favored the Israeli line on Iran, these are different days, as the US explores options for reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

LLOYD AUSTIN: As a major strategic partner for the United States, our bilateral relationship with Israel in particular is central to regional stability and security in the Middle East. During our meeting, I reaffirmed to Minister Gantz our commitment to Israel is enduring and it is ironclad.

HARRY FAWCETT: Austin's opposite number, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, pledged cooperation in confronting what he called a threat to international security to the region and Israel.

BENNY GANTZ: And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interest of the world, of the United States, prevent dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.

HARRY FAWCETT: But in the midst of talks in Vienna aimed at finding a new agreement, the language from Israel's prime minister has been very different. Benjamin Netanyahu insisting that Israel would not be bound by any deal that paved the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Israel is already confronting Iran on multiple fronts, reportedly behind the attack on an Iranian ship in the Red Sea last week, regularly targeting the Iranian military inside Syria, blamed by Iran for assassinating its chief nuclear scientist last year.

Israel's defense minister may be talking about cooperating with the Americans on a new deal, but it'll be interesting to see the language used by his political rival, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long the most vehement opponent of any such deal, when he meets US Defense Secretary on Monday. Harry Fawcett, Al Jazeera, West Jerusalem.

- Let's speak to Laura Rockwood about all this. She is the director of the Open Nuclear Network and she earlier helped write global atomic rules in a three-decade long legal career with the International Nuclear Atomic Energy Agency. She's joining us live from Vienna. Thank you so much, Ms. Rockwood, for being with us on Al Jazeera.

Of course, any incident at a nuclear plant, a nuclear facility, is a worrying thing. The Iranians are describing this as an act of terrorism, implicitly pointing the finger at Israel. First of all, how much damage do you think this facility would have sustained if the electrical distribution grid was indeed affected?

LAURA ROCKWOOD: It's really hard to say without having more information. If you recall, when the Stuxnet virus was deployed against Natanz, it really did interfere with the operation of the centrifuges. But eventually, Iran got the centrifuges back up and running. So it's really hard to know until we hear a little bit more from the AEOI, the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran. So just have to wait and see.

- All right. Tehran says it had launched new advanced centrifuges at the site because of the fire that happened last year, which they also blamed on Israel. Do we know exactly what type of work happens and goes on at the Natanz facility?

LAURA ROCKWOOD: Oh yes, yes. The IAEA has its eye on the Natanz enrichment facility on a regular basis, regardless of the JCPOA, regardless of the Iran deal. So the IAEA inspectors have a very good sense of what's going on, what kind of centrifuges are spinning, how much enriched uranium is being produced. So I don't think that's a serious issue. I think this could be a brief setback for Iran, but what I don't think it will do is deter Iran from continuing to enrich uranium and to install more and better centrifuges.

- All right. Well the timing certainly is a very interesting and suspicious one, the Iranians would say, as they're about to resume nuclear talks, indirect talks for the time being, with the US, trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Do you see this as perhaps being an attempt to derail those negotiations, and what effect could it have on the talks?

LAURA ROCKWOOD: In my view, without a doubt this is definitely not a coincidence. And one thing you need to remember, while Israel is the usual suspect in these events over the last few years, one must be mindful. There are many opponents in many different corners to the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, not the least of which is from within Iran itself. So it certainly is not coincidental in my view, but I think that both President Rouhani and President Biden are committed to trying to find a peaceful resolution to this issue and a way to get back to the basic constraints in the JCPOA.

- And what would it take precisely to return to the 2015 nuclear deal? Neither side right now seems willing to compromise. What needs to happen on the Iranian side and on the American side do you think?

LAURA ROCKWOOD: Well, I think what they're doing in Vienna, if I'm understanding it correctly, is Iran is identifying the sanctions it wishes to have listed, and the US is identifying those actions which they wish to have Iran do. And perhaps it will be done simultaneously. I think we have very imaginative and creative diplomats who are negotiating this deal, so I think it is possible. It happened before at a time when nobody believed it could, so I think both sides are so fundamentally committed to making this happen that they just need to be clear about what they want and clear about what they are prepared to give up on in order to achieve a peaceful solution.

- Thank you very much for talking to us about this. Thank you for your insight. Laura Rockwood from the Open Nuclear Network joining us there from Vienna. Thank you for your time.

LAURA ROCKWOOD: My pleasure.