The Israeli government is ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to walk away from international efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
But the White House isn’t budging.
Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata visited the White House on Tuesday, where he met with his U.S. counterpart, Jake Sullivan, to raise Israel’s concerns about the latest draft roadmap to a revival of the 2015 agreement. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is due to see Sullivan in Washington on Friday.
In a readout of the meeting sent late Tuesday, the White House said Sullivan had underscored the Biden administration's "steadfast commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat or combination of threats, including from Iran and Iranian-backed proxies; and our commitment to ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon."
Also late Tuesday, the U.S. military announced it had carried out precision air strikes against facilities used by Iranian-backed armed groups in Syria, which have often threatened U.S. forces.
Meanwhile, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sent out a series of tweets urging the U.S., “even now at this last minute,” to walk away from the talks, whose result, 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 longstanding Israeli position. “Israel is not committed to any of the restrictions stemming from the agreement and will utilize all available tools to prevent the Iranian nuclear program from advancing.”
The 2015 nuclear deal, struck during Barack Obama’s presidency, lifted an array of U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for major restraints on its nuclear program. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it was too weak and too narrow and he reimposed the 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 shutting out inspectors.
President Joe Biden has sought to rejoin the deal — he and his aides argued that it remains the best vehicle to contain an Iranian nuclear threat. Over nearly a year and a half, a period that included some long pauses, Biden’s emissaries have engaged in indirect talks with Iranian officials about reviving the agreement.
The two sides, whose discussions have been mediated primarily by European officials, have tangled on a variety of thorny topics. Those include: whether the U.S. will rescind Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; the fate of a probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency into traces of nuclear materials at various Iranian sites; and Iranian demands for certain guarantees that the lifting of sanctions will lead to economic benefits — and that the U.S. won’t pull out of the deal under a different president.
Biden has said he will not rescind the IRGC’s terrorism designation, and the IAEA has indicated it will not give up on the probe.
Iran recently responded to a European draft proposal on reviving the deal with comments mostly focused on sanctions and economic guarantees. U.S. officials have been looking at the Iranian demands and preparing their own response, which may be sent to European negotiators later this week.
The U.S. has been consulting allies, among them Israel, before sending its response, though it wasn’t immediately clear if it would wait until after Gantz’s meeting with Sullivan.
“At every step of the process, we have been in touch with our Israeli partners to update them on where we are, to compare notes on the state of Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.
The Israeli officials are making their push at a sensitive time: the country, currently being overseen by a caretaker government, will soon hold its fifth election in less than four years.
The main internal debate among U.S. negotiators has been about the economic guarantees sought by Iran, said Ali Vaez, a top Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. Those guarantees deal in part with Iran’s concerns that even if the 2015 deal is revived, foreign companies will consider it too risky to invest in the country. Even when the deal was in full force, many foreign firms were hesitant to do business in Iran.
For Israel’s political leaders, an Iran whose economy is stronger is an Iran that is a bigger threat to their country’s existence. Iran’s rulers consider Israel an illegitimate state, and some have predicted its eventual doom.
Israeli political leaders’ argument against the nuclear deal often boils down to concerns that, if the U.S. lifts sanctions on Iran, the regime will use the incoming cash to engage even more in an array of unsavory activities, including funding and arming terrorist groups that target Israel.
Many Israeli political leaders also believe Iran’s government will never truly abandon its nuclear ambitions, and that, eventually, a more economically robust Iran will again pursue such a program. Many of the nuclear deal’s provisions have expiration dates.
But some Israelis in the security establishment — often retired officers with more freedom to speak out — have broken with their political leaders on this issue. They argue that, as imperfect as the nuclear deal may be, it’s better than having no restraints on or surveillance of Iran’s program. (Iran officially denies wanting nuclear weapons, arguing its program is for medical and other purposes.)
Biden administration officials recognize that Iran’s nefarious activities don’t begin and end with the nuclear program. But they contend that containing that program will make it easier to tackle the many other challenges posed by Tehran. Those challenges include reining in its ballistic missile program and its sponsorship of terrorism.
At present, Iran’s breakout time — the amount of time needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — is believed to be a few weeks. Under a restored deal, it would likely be around six months. Under the original 2015 agreement, it was estimated at around a year.
Stephanie Liechtenstein contributed to this report from Vienna, Austria.