Iran moves closer to a diplomatic breakthrough that may upset Israel

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A diplomatic deal with Iran is increasingly likely. Running in parallel, a diplomatic row with Israel is taking shape. Whether the Middle East will be more stable is a matter of debate.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the Biden administration has indicated that it is open to easing sanctions on Iran’s economy, including oil and finance. That is a major change from the policy of the Trump White House, which was to impose “maximum pressure” on Iran. In diplomatic terms, the White House will be able to argue that it is switching from trying to win a confrontation to managing an issue.

The Journal also reported that difficult negotiations over the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lie ahead. But the Russian negotiator at the talks in Vienna was quoted as saying a deal could be achieved by late May.

That doesn’t sound like an arrangement that would appeal to Israel, which simply doesn’t believe that Iran isn’t pursuing a nuclear weapon and is also concerned by Iran’s support for Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, Shia militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. The list is long, as are the ranges of the missiles and drones that Tehran has been supplying to its allies and proxies. The Syrian missile fired overnight in the direction of Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona is an example of the palette of options Iran has created.

Hence the significance of the Israeli officials due to turn up in the U.S. next week: the national security adviser, the chief of staff of the army, the head of military intelligence, and the director of the Mossad spy agency. They will be wanting to clarify what U.S. negotiator Rob Malley and his team is discussing with the Iranians, supposedly only via intermediaries. Both Washington and Jerusalem no doubt will spin these talks as positively as possible.

So what happened, apart from a change of administration, which seems to have defined itself as being the anti-Trump and contains many people who helped negotiate the 2015 accord and saw it as a major foreign policy success for former President Obama? One strong possibility, to put it simply, is that Saudi Arabia blinked. De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is coming to terms with the realization that the Biden administration has to be handled differently from the informal WhatsApp relationship he had with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

The Financial Times broke the news that Tehran and Riyadh have been in diplomatic contact via the good offices of the Iraqi government, even if formal relations remain broken. This almost certainly doesn’t mean that MbS, as the crown prince is known, distrusts the Iranians less, but for him it is a small price to pay for becoming less socially unacceptable in the Washington of 2021, where his name is still synonymous with murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Democratic circles. Besides, Riyadh still retains its own nascent nuclear infrastructure, supposedly peaceful, in its back pocket.

The surprise to many is that some of these diplomatic moves are not an obvious result of pressure on Iran, which has been squeezed economically by the U.S.-led sanctions. On the nuclear front, Iran claims to have recovered from the setback of a major electric power outage, credited to Israel, at the Natanz enrichment plant. Whether true to not, its subsequent announcement that it was going to increase enrichment to the hitherto unprecedented and significant level of 60 percent caught the world’s attention. Using centrifuge types supposedly restricted to research only, in the terms of the JCPOA, heightened the tension. But the use of a centrifuge building unprotected from air attack gave a veneer of respectability to the claim that the fresh enrichment was for peaceful purposes, rather than a sudden rush for “the bomb.”

Public discussion of Iran’s nuclear capabilities is all too frequently confused by claims that however close Tehran is to a critical mass of Uranium-235, it is still a couple of years from actually being able to make a bomb. For some people, though, the more relevant game-changer is when Iran can carry out a test explosion, which may well be possible within a few weeks or months of amassing the fissile material. In 1998, when India and Pakistan carried out nuclear tests, I was told by a senior British official that both countries would need to carry out more tests before they each had a nuclear strike capability. Well, guess what? Neither country has carried out any more tests, yet no one doubts that both have plenty of operational nuclear-tipped missiles.

Perhaps the only note of optimism, albeit a dismal one, is that the advent of comparatively cheap and accurate drones and missiles may be making nuclear weapons redundant. But as the attacks on Saudi oil installations and cities show, this is not making the Middle East a safer place. 

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Donald Trump Israel Jared Kushner Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Middle East Nuclear program of Iran Sanctions against Iran

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