In reaction to unexpected new Iranian demands in the Vienna talks on renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, and its rejection of concessions it had previously accepted, the United States is “making decisions” and preparing “for a world in which there is no return” to Iran compliance with the restrictions on its nuclear development program, according to a senior State Department official.
“We’ve been waiting patiently for five and a half months” since Tehran suspended the Vienna talks in June, the US official said. “The Iranian government said it needed time to get ready” following the election of a new Iranian president.
“What we’ve seen over the last week or so is what getting ready meant for them … it meant continuing to accelerate their nuclear program in particularly provocative ways” to extract unreasonable concessions far beyond the scope of the original agreement, the senior State Department official said, adding that if Iran’s progress towards making a nuclear advances make it “impossible to come back to the deal, then there’ll have to be other diplomatic outcomes that we’d be prepared to pursue.”
“Of course … we will have to use other tools, tools that you could imagine, to try to increase the pressure on Iran to come back to a reasonable stance at the diplomatic table,” the official said. But the “date of resumption matters far less to us than if Iran is prepared to come back with a serious attitude … So far what we’ve seen … unfortunately suggests the opposite.”
The goal of the Vienna talks, which began in April, is to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, signed by Iran, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States. The original deal, negotiated by President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, lifted all US and UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear activities in return for Iran’s agreement to strict and verifiable limits on the quantity and quality of enriched uranium it had stockpiled and was producing.
TRUMP’S MAXIMUM PRESSURE STRATEGY FAILED
When he ran for president in 2016, Donald Trump condemned the nuclear deal as the worst bargain he had ever seen. After reluctantly approving the continuation of the agreement during his first year in office, Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, citing Iran’s continued bad behavior. He then imposed a series of new US sanctions on Iran, embargoing its lucrative oil exports and cutting off Iran’s access to the international banking system.
It was all part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy to pressure Iran into renegotiating the original agreement. Trump wanted the deal’s temporary restrictions on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons to be made permanent, and to expand its scope by placing limitations on Iran’s ballistic missile program, requiring Iran to end its support for Islamic terrorism and to cease its attacks upon Israel and other pro-US governments in the Middle East.
Trump’s sanctions made it more difficult for Iran’s leaders to pursue their aggressive policies. But Trump’s maximum pressure strategy was undermined by the advice given to Iran’s leaders by John Kerry. He told them to wait until after the 2020 presidential election, when they could expect a new Democrat president to offer them better terms for renegotiating the deal.
IRAN WON ITS BET ON THE 2020 ELECTION
The Iranians followed Kerry’s advice. Instead of agreeing to renegotiate the deal, Iran’s leaders dug in. Eventually, Iran used Trump’s sanctions as an excuse to violate first the spirit, and eventually the letter, of the 2015 agreement by launching a major expansion of its nuclear program.
Iran began to use its advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to the higher concentrations of U235 required to fuel a nuclear weapon. That was explicitly banned under the 2015 agreement, which limits Iran to a maximum of 3.67% enriched uranium used as fuel for civilian nuclear reactions.
When the current round of Vienna talks started in April, Iran began producing even more highly enriched uranium (HEU) at 60% purity, which is a just short step from 90% weapons-grade material.
The Iranians won their bet on the 2020 election when Biden narrowly defeated Trump — but Biden did not prove to be as generous as the Iranians had expected. Instead of immediately relaxing Trump’s sanctions, Biden insisted on real negotiations and significant Iranian concessions which they were not prepared to make. Instead, they followed the same strategy which they used to negotiate the 2015 deal, when they relied on domestic political pressure to force Obama to give in to all the Iranian demands, one by one.
Because the US is no longer a party to the original 2015 nuclear agreement, the US delegation was not in the room where the negotiations were taking place between Iran and three of America’s closest European allies, in addition to Russia and China. US views were being transmitted by the European representatives who were talking face-to-face with the Iranians.
THE NEW DEAL THAT NEVER WAS
During six negotiating sessions, tentative compromises were reached under which US sanctions would be lifted in return for Iranian nuclear activities in violation of the 2015 deal being halted and reversed. The two sides drew up a draft text that resolved around 70% of the issues, although differences remained on some key issues, like the extent of the US sanctions relief and what restrictions would remain on Iran’s use of its more advanced centrifuges.
Iran argued that all the sanctions imposed upon it since Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 had to be lifted as the first step of the revised deal. The US position was that because the original agreement covered only “nuclear-related” measures, the sanctions the US has imposed as punishment for other Iranian activities, such as its human rights abuses, missile programs and its support for terrorism, must remain in force.
Despite those remaining differences, at the time that Iran suspended the Vienna talks in June, following the election of its new hardline president Ebrahim Raisi, US officials said they believed a revised deal was still within reach.
However, according to a State Department official, when the talks resumed in Vienna last week, Iran’s negotiators returned with “proposals that walked back … any of the compromises Iran” had previously floated, “pocketed all the compromises that others, and the US in particular, had made, and then asked for more.” Because Iran had gone back on everything it had agreed to in the previous negotiating sessions, the US concluded that Iran was “not serious” about reaching a new agreement.
SECRETARY OF STATE BLINKEN SAYS IRAN CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAY
Speaking to reporters in Stockholm last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the United States would not let Iran drag out the diplomatic process while continuing to illegally advance its nuclear weapons program.
Blinken conceded that Iran’s “recent moves, recent rhetoric don’t give us a lot of cause for optimism. But even though the hour is getting very late, it is not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage meaningfully in an effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. What Iran can’t do is sustain the status quo of building their nuclear program while dragging their feet on talks. That will not happen,” the Secretary of State declared.
He also said, “I had a very good and detailed conversation with Prime Minister [Naftoli] Bennett today. This is in keeping with the many exchanges that we’ve had with our Israeli allies on any number of issues, but to include, of course, the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. And we have exactly the same strategic objectives: we are both determined to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”
In a separate statement the following day, Blinken said, “What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s necessary to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna… If the path to a return to compliance with the agreement turns out to be a dead-end, we will pursue other options,” the Secretary of State said, without elaborating further.
IRAN’S NUCLEAR CHEATING REVEALED
The extent of Iran’s cheating was revealed in the November report by nuclear monitors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which supervises Iran’s compliance with the 2015 deal. It confirmed that Iran escalated its enrichment of uranium at the same time that talks were continuing in Vienna. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi expressed additional concern that Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20% purity at its Fordow facility, a heavily fortified underground site where the original deal had banned any uranium enrichment activities at all.
Grossi also admitted that his visit last month to Tehran for the purpose of restoring proper IAEA supervision at all of Iran’s nuclear sites proved to be “inconclusive,” which is diplomatic speak for failed.
He also confirmed that various Iranian centrifuges are producing 5%, 20%, and 60% enriched uranium in violation of the 2015 agreement, under which Iran had agreed to produce and stockpile only a limited quantity of 3.67% enriched uranium for research and medical purposes.
But Grossi said he has not given up on his hopes to reach a deal with the Iranians. “If they invite me, I will go in a minute. I saw public messages from [Iran’s Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian] saying that he believes [that the problem] is a matter of a couple of words. If that is the case, I can go very, very fast, and we can have a quick agreement… I believe a deal is always possible, provided the political will is there.”
But the IAEA director’s hope that it is still possible to revive the original 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is not widely shared by other nuclear weapons experts.
IRAN CAN MAKE ITS FIRST ATOMIC BOMB IN JUST 3 WEEKS
The Institute for Science and International Security was founded in 1993 by David Albright, a physicist, former IAEA inspector, and author of several books on the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
A detailed analysis of the November IAEA report published by the institute and written by Albright, institute co-researcher Sarah Burkhard, and Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, finds that right now, “Iran has enough enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) … to produce enough weapon-grade uranium (WGU)… for a single nuclear weapon in as little as three weeks … Iran could continue producing more weapon-grade uranium … [so that] in just over two months… [it] could have produced … a second weapon. After about 3.5 months, it would have enough for a third weapon.”
In addition, the analysis says, “the IAEA has a significantly reduced ability to monitor Iran’s complex and growing nuclear program… The IAEA’s ability to detect diversion of nuclear materials, equipment, and other capabilities to undeclared facilities has greatly diminished.”
As a result, Albright and his coauthors conclude that, “even if Iran continues to permit the IAEA to service agency [monitoring] equipment [at Iranian nuclear sites], the verification process may now face such serious gaps that it is impossible to restore the IAEA’s continuity of knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities, which is so vital to verification.”
In other words, in the opinion of Albright and his two coauthors, the IAEA has lost the ability to determine whether Iran has been complying with its original obligations under the original 2015 nuclear deal, rendering the agreement worthless.
In response to the revelations in the IAEA report, Israeli Prime Minister Naftoli Bennett called on Secretary of State Blinken to call off the talks in Vienna immediately. Bennett also accused Iran of using “nuclear blackmail” as a negotiating technique.
“I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” Bennett told his cabinet on Sunday. “Iran must begin to pay a price for its violations.”
Bennett’s office also released the following statement: “Today, Iran will be arriving at negotiations in Vienna with a clear goal: To end sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. Iran won’t just keep its nuclear program; from today, they’ll be getting paid for it.
“Iran doesn’t hide its intentions. Just a couple of days ago, the senior command of Iran’s armed forces declared, and I quote, ‘We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, not even one millimeter…’ There are those who think they deserve to have their sanctions removed and hundreds of billions of dollars poured right into their rotten regime. They’re wrong. Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals, and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality. I call upon our allies around the world: Do not give in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail,” the Israeli prime minister pleaded.
EUROPEAN DIPLOMATS ALSO UPSET BY IRAN’S MOVE
Senior diplomats from Britain, France, and Germany involved in the Vienna talks also expressed “disappointment and concern after thoroughly and carefully analyzing Iranian proposed changes to the text negotiated during the previous six rounds.” They complained that Iran had “fast-forwarded its nuclear program” and “backtracked on diplomatic progress. [That made it] unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic timeframe on the basis of Iranian drafts.”
One warned that, “It would seriously imperil the process” if Iran did something “as provocative as going to 90% [uranium] enrichment.”
Another diplomat said, “You cannot enrich to weapons grade and say that you are seeking a return to an agreement whose goal is to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.”
Speaking during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, French President Emmanuel Macron said that the possibility “should not be excluded” that this round of talks “does not reopen swiftly.”
The concern is that Iran’s latest demands are just a stalling tactic enabling it to complete its preparations for quickly making its own nuclear weapons, and rendering useless any further attempts to revive the 2015 agreement.
A Biden administration official said, “I think we’re seeing very clearly that countries around the world are now more and more aware of the fact that Iran is taking a position which is inconsistent with their stated goal of a return to the JCPOA, and their accelerated nuclear program is exhibit A in that.”
WHERE DOES RUSSIA STAND?
The senior US official also claimed that Russia and China, who have previously taken Iran’s side in the negotiations over its nuclear program, had also been “taken aback by the degree to which Iran had walked back its own compromises and then doubled down on the requests they made of us and our partners.
“I think they do share a sense of disappointment, to put it diplomatically, at what Iran has chosen to do with the last several months of preparation for the talks… [It was evident to Russia and China that Iran had] not adopted the posture of a country that was seriously thinking a rapid return to mutual compliance with the deal.”
But Russia’s chief negotiator in the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, wrote on Twitter that “disappointment” in the talks “seems to be premature… In multilateral diplomacy there is the rule: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So changes are possible as a matter of principle.”
Ulyanov also suggested that the current break in the Vienna talks was “an opportunity for each participant, including Iran and the US, to think how to proceed further, taking into account the positions of other counterparts.”
CAN NON-MILITARY “TOOLS” PRESSURE IRAN?
While it has not excluded military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as a last resort, the Biden administration has emphasized that it, along with its partners in Europe, still has a number of “tools” they can deploy if Iran refuses to come back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement. These include additional US sanctions, as well as the reimposition of the international sanctions lifted as part of the 2015 deal.
If Iran does not soon comply with its obligations to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities under the 2015 agreement, US officials said they would call for an emergency board meeting of the IAEA before the end of this month, which would be indicate just how much international support Iran has lost because of its bad faith in the Vienna negotiations.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian ignored the complaints from America and its European allies, and declared that the Vienna talks were “proceeding with seriousness, and sanctions removal as a fundamental priority.”
IRAN’S NEW DEMANDS
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani said that Iran had delivered two draft proposals to the parties in Vienna, one on sanctions removal and the other on nuclear limitations.
Iran also promised to provide a third draft proposal on the “mechanism and time of verification and issues related to receiving guarantees to prevent the re-withdrawal of the US from the nuclear deal,” including new Iranian demands for reparations for the economic damage caused by Trump’s sanctions.
“Any sanctions in violation and not consistent with the [deal] should be removed immediately,” Bagheri Kani told Al Jazeera. “All the sanctions which have been imposed or re-imposed under the so-called maximum pressure campaign of the United States should be removed immediately.”
Kani wrote in the Financial Times op-ed that a deal will only be possible if the US is willing to “pay a price” for Trump’s withdrawal by guaranteeing that the withdrawal won’t be repeated, and by removing all sanctions imposed on Iran since 2015.
An Iranian spokesman tried to turn the tables on American officials by blaming them for waging a “futile blame game” against Iran and by declaring that, “if other parties have good will… an agreement [in Vienna] is within reach. Other parties should provide proper response or present new proposals and clear ideas in writing … Then, ways will be opened for the conclusion of a deal and settlement of differences.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian warned that the US and its European allies “must understand that this opportunity is not a window that could remain open forever.”
ISRAELI LEADERS OFFER THEIR ADVICE
Meanwhile, Israeli leaders have been trying to convince the White House that diplomacy has failed and that it is time to “use a different toolkit” against Iran’s nuclear program. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad security service, flew to DC to meet with senior Biden administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Blinken.
Barnea was reportedly carrying a message from Israeli leaders calling on Biden to intensify sanctions on Iran and put a serious military threat on the table.
According to Channel 12, Barnea was to suggest that the target of the first US military attack would be an Iranian base in Yemen, rather than one of Iran’s more heavily defended nuclear facilities. He also was to remind the White House that, if all else fails, Israel retains the right to launch its own efforts to put an end to Iran’s nuclear threat
Defense Minister Gantz said that Israel had “intelligence which points to Iran’s continued race toward a nuclear weapon while violating the 2015 agreement.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also visited London and Paris two weeks ago to review the Vienna talks with senior European officials. After meeting with British Foreign Minister Liz Truss in London, Lapid said there was indisputable intelligence that Iran was determined to secretly continue its nuclear program, even if it reached an agreement in the Vienna talks to end it.
Truss called the Vienna talks “the last opportunity for the Iranians to come to the table” and agree to return to the 2015 accord. “We will look at all options if that doesn’t happen,” she added.
The Israeli leaders reportedly told both the Americans and the Europeans that Iran is now preparing to enrich uranium to 90% weapons-grade purity, and that it had instructed its proxy militias in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq to launch more attacks against US targets in the region.
But IAEA Director Grossi denied that Israel had shared intelligence that Iran was about to produce weapons-grade uranium. “We don’t have this information. One has to remember that the only on-site presence [in Iran] is our presence. There’s no 90% enrichment at the moment,” Grossi insisted.
Last week, during a public ceremony at Israel’s presidential residence to honor exceptional Mossad agents. Barnea said that “it’s clear that there’s no need for Iran to enrich uranium to 60% for civilian purposes. There’s no need for three enrichment sites. There’s no need for thousands of active uranium centrifuges — unless Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons.”
“A bad deal [at Vienna], which I hope will not be made, is intolerable to us. Iran is striving for regional hegemony, it sponsors acts of terrorism that we are blocking every day around the world, and it is continuously threatening stability in the Middle East. Our eyes are open, we are prepared, and we will work with our partners in the security establishment to do everything that is necessary to alleviate the threat against Israel and thwart it by any means.
“Iran will not have nuclear weapons,” Barnea declared. “Not in the coming years, not ever. That is my promise, that is Mossad’s promise.”
THE GREATEST CHALLENGE
During a reception in honor of Tom Nides, the newly arrived US ambassador, Israeli President Yitzchok Herzog called the nuclear threat from Iran “the greatest challenge” that Israel and the United States face. “We are closely following the international community’s recent negotiations with Iran,” he said. “Israel will welcome a comprehensive, diplomatic solution which permanently solves the Iranian nuclear threat.”
But, Herzog warned, “in the case of a failure to achieve such a solution, Israel is keeping all options on the table, and it must be said that if the international community does not take a vigorous stance on this issue — Israel will do so. Israel will protect itself.”
Nides responded by declaring that the US is committed to ensuring that Iran “never develops a nuclear weapon.”
Nides also promised to “work tirelessly to further strengthen Israel’s longstanding peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, as well as to build on the great work” of the Abraham Accords. “President Biden and Secretary Blinken have been unequivocal in their support for these groundbreaking agreements,” he said.
But Biden’s ambassador also said that the Abraham Accords are no substitute for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “Instead, we seek to harness existing and future agreements to improve the lives of Palestinians with a view to preserving the vision of a negotiated two-state solution.”
US AND ISRAEL STILL COOPERATING
Despite Israel’s fundamental disagreement with the Biden administration’s desire to revive the 2015 deal, a senior US State Department official told Haaretz that US-Israel coordination regarding Iran remains strong, compared to the often-bitter personal disagreements between then-President Barack Obama and former prime minister Bibi Netanyahu over the issue.
“I think we may have some differences — well, that’s natural, and we understand that we are situated differently, we have different ways sometimes of approaching it,” the US official said. “But our goal remains the same, and our goal is absolutely resolute that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that is something where we are fully aligned with Israel.
The State Department official also said, “We don’t view our job as trying to calm Israel down … our job is not to stop them, our job is to work together toward our common objective” and to “align our policies as much as possible. But at the end of the day, Israel has its national interests that it will defend.”
Israeli officials still try to make the case to their American counterparts that reviving the 2015 agreement and eliminating the current sanctions would destroy one of the international community’s most effective means of leverage to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
The Israeli argument was bolstered last week when American officials were caught off guard by Iran’s new demands for the immediate lifting of all US sanctions, and a guarantee that no new sanctions would be imposed in the future, combined with Iran’s rejection of all the compromises it had agreed to during the previous rounds of talks.
WAS TRUMP’S IRAN STRATEGY A MISTAKE?
Biden administration officials still insist that President Trump made a serious strategic error when he walked away from the 2015 nuclear deal three years ago. They argue that by doing so, Trump gave the Iranians a plausible excuse to violate the terms of deal by accelerating its nuclear program. This led to the current difficult situation in which Iran is now on the threshold of a nuclear breakout, with little incentive to come back into compliance with the deal.
The American officials also point to Haaretz reports that several of Netanyahu’s top national security advisors have recently called Trump’s decision to walk away from the 2015 nuclear deal a blunder, although none them were willing to say so publicly at the time.
They now argue that both Netanyahu and Trump should have foreseen that the Iranians would resist the sanctions and accelerate their nuclear program, which might not have happened if the United States had remained in the agreement.
But veteran Bloomberg national security reporter Eli Lake disagrees. He points out that Biden administration officials have always recognized the inherent weaknesses in the original deal, particularly the “sunset clauses” for the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programs, which prompted Biden’s public calls to renegotiate the agreement to make it “longer and stronger.”
Lake also points out that after the sanctions on Iran were lifted by the original 2015 nuclear deal, President Obama’s expectations that Iran’s leaders would become less aggressive proved to be dead wrong. Instead, the ayatollahs ruling Iran used the economic windfall from the deal, including the unfreezing of Iran’s frozen foreign assets, the freedom to sell its oil at full price on the international market, and a planeload of $1.7 billion in cash, to finance further development of its missile program, as well as its terrorist war against Israel and the destabilizing of other pro-US countries throughout the Middle East.
WILL BIDEN HOLD FIRM?
So far, the Biden administration has kept to its original demands for a renegotiated agreement. But Israeli officials have been warning against a scenario in which the Biden administration would agree to a so-called “less for less” deal with Iran, agreeing to lift the Trump-era sanctions in exchange for an intermediate agreement under which Iran would initially consent to only a few of Biden’s demands.
The Iranians would then keep negotiating, changing the terms of the intermediate deal until it became a “more for less” agreement, like the original 2015 deal, in which the Iranians would wind up giving very few concessions, under terms allowing them to cheat, in return for the benefits of fully-lifted sanctions and restored international legitimacy.
It would allow Iran to rehabilitate its economy while continuing its support for terror, and also send a message to America’s other enemies that President Biden is weak, and doing business with Iran is once again worthwhile.
Iran’s current position in the Vienna talks is that the reluctance of the United States to lift all its sanctions is the main problem preventing the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.
“It is now clear that Washington’s reluctance to give up sanctions altogether is the main challenge to the progress of the talks,” an unnamed government official was quoted as saying by Iran’s Tasnim news agency. “We believe that a deal is within reach if the US government gives up its campaign of maximum pressure and the European parties show serious flexibility and political will in the talks.”
On Twitter, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry also accused Israel of “trumpeting lies to poison (the) Vienna talks.”
A tweet issued by Iran’s permanent mission to UN organizations in Vienna also downplayed the significance of the IAEA report that Iran had stepped up its uranium enrichment efforts, describing them as “an ordinary update in line with regular verification [requirements] in Iran.”
ISRAEL’S UNDECLARED WAR AGAINST IRAN
Meanwhile, over the weekend, there was a loud explosion heard by people living near Iran’s primary uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, accompanied by a light in the sky. An Iranian army commander told Iranian TV that it was a routine test of the nuclear site’s sophisticated surface-to-air missile defense system using a drone, and not an Israeli attack.
But there were other reports that the blast was accompanied by an electricity and internet outage in Natanz, suggesting that it might have been a third sabotage attempt on the nuclear facility, following an April attack which significantly delayed Iran’s centrifuge development program, and an explosion in July which destroyed most of an above-ground building at the site. In both cases, Iran initially tried to deny that the attacks had been carried out, but subsequent satellite photos of the damage forced the Iranians to admit the incidents, which they blamed on the Mossad.
Also, the London-based Jewish Chronicle recently reported that Mossad agents had recruited a team of up to 10 Iranian nuclear scientists to blow up the underground A1000 centrifuge hall at Natanz in April, though the scientists had been led to believe that they were working for an international Iranian dissident group.
According to the Chronicle, some of the explosives were dropped into the Natanz compound by a drone, and then quietly collected by the recruited scientists, while other explosives were smuggled into the high-security facility hidden in boxes of food on a catering truck. The ensuing destruction demolished 90% of the centrifuges at the nuclear plant, putting the key complex out of action for up to nine months.
There was also a third attack, in June of this year, carried out by drone quadcopters on the Iran Centrifuge Technology Company, in the city of Karaj, 30 miles northwest of Tehran.
SENDING A MESSAGE TO PUTIN AND ASSAD
But in recent years, the vast majority of attacks by Israel have been the thousands of strikes on Iranian military infrastructure targets in Syria, as well as Iranian convoys transporting weapons to Hezbollah forces operating in Syria or based in Lebanon.
Israel launched this undeclared air war several years ago to enforce its “red lines” against forces and proxy militias trying to established bases in Syria, and to prevent Iran from using Syria as a transit hub for the transfer of all kinds of precision weapons and their components, including rocket guidance systems, cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial drones.
Israel officials initially followed a policy of publicly denying responsibility for such attacks. But since 2019, they have been quietly confirming that Israel was behind them, to send a clear warning message to the leaders of Iran and Russia, as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad, that Israel will not permit them to threaten the security of its northern border.
According to Jacob Nagel, a former national security advisor to Bibi Netanyahu, writing in Yisrael Hayom, Russia and the Syrians have stopped complaining about the Israeli attacks in Syria. Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Bennett both made strong efforts to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that as long as Iran maintains its military presence there, the Israeli attacks will continue, putting Russia’s huge military investment in Syria in jeopardy, as well as creating the constant danger of an accidental Israeli-Russian confrontation in Syrian airspace. Putin has apparently accepted the logic of this argument, which is why he has permitted the Israeli military to act freely in Syria.
Assad, who was heavily dependent upon Russian and Iranian support to win the Syrian civil war, recently joined Russia in tacitly accepting the Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets, because he understands that the Iranians have been exploiting Syria and violating its sovereignty. Assad also knows that until Iran is dislodged from Syria, he won’t be able to regain recognition as a legitimate Arab national leader.
Iran’s support for Hezbollah also poses a threat to Lebanon, which is already on the verge of economic and social collapse. If Iran keeps smuggling weapons into Lebanon, and enables Hezbollah to manufacture and modify them in factories on Lebanese soil, Israel will have no choice but to attack those factories, with devastating results for the already beleaguered country.
IRAN’S STRATEGIC ASSUMPTIONS
According to Nagel’s analysis, the current Iranian negotiating stance is based upon four assumptions: Even though the US has the ability to attack Iran to halt its nuclear program, Biden is too weak to do it; Israel won’t attack alone because it can’t do it successfully; Iran’s economy can withstand the US sanctions at their current level; and Iran’s leaders believe they will not be subjected to credible threat against the regime, the lives of its officials, or their personal assets.
Iran’s belief that the Biden will not attack it, regardless of any provocation, is based upon the following incident. On Oct. 20, in retaliation for an Israeli strike on an Iranian target in Syria, Iranian proxies attacked a US military outpost at Tanf in southern Syria. Fortunately, early warning by Israel prevented US casualties. But Israeli officials were dismayed by America’s lack of response to the attack, which confirms Iran’s assumption that it is less risky now to attack American rather than Israeli forces.
That is why Iran’s new hardline government has come back to Vienna with absurd demands, while continuing to accelerate its nuclear program, destabilize Syria, support terrorism, and mount attacks on US allies elsewhere in the region. At the same time, the Iranians are demanding total sanctions relief, assurances that future US presidents will abide by the new deal, as well as an end to all the open IAEA investigations into the covert aspects of Iran’s nuclear program.
The Iranians also refuse to even discuss US demands that they agree to new limits on their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs, end their support for terrorism, and stop attacking Israel and other US allies in the region.
BIDEN HAS THE NEXT MOVE
The White House understands Israel’s strategic need to suppress Iran’s effort to supply weapons to Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, which have been used to attack US troops in the region as well. That is why the White House has also ignored the ongoing Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria.
But the Biden administration has refused to approve any overt Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear program, for fear that it could easily escalate into a much wider regional war in which Israel would be forced, at least initially, to fight Iran virtually alone.
The next move is up to the White House. With Iran pulling back from its previous agreements in Vienna, the pressure is now building on President Joe Biden to decide whether to walk away, for now, or give in to the temptation to compromise to reach another bad agreement with Iran, at the ultimate expense of Israel and America’s other friends in the region.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.