Israel gets tough with Iran as Biden signals shift from Trump

Israel is standing firm in its opposition to President Biden’s vow to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that former President Trump withdrew from in 2018. 

U.S. and Iranian officials are holding indirect talks for the second week in Vienna to establish a roadmap of “mutual compliance” for both parties to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the nuclear agreement negotiated under former President Obama.

But back-to-back mysterious attacks on an Iranian nuclear facility and a critical military ship in the Red Sea are raising concern that Israel is already undertaking a kinetic campaign of sabotage against Tehran. 

Jerusalem has neither confirmed nor denied its role in any attack, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated stark warnings that his country would not hesitate to eliminate Iranian threats.

“I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel,” Netanyahu said Monday, ahead of a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem. “And Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism.”

Netanyahu’s government has opposed the deal from the outset, warning the U.S. against reentering an agreement that he and Trump both criticized as weak and dangerous. Opponents say the deal minimally delays Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb and fails to address Tehran’s other problematic actions in the region. 

But Biden, who served as vice president in the administration that negotiated the deal, has said he views returning the U.S. to the agreement as the only way to limit Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon.

Administration officials are working with JCPOA signatories — the British, Europeans, Chinese and Russians — to find a pathway to lift nuclear-related sanctions imposed by Trump and verify Iran’s return to compliance with the deal’s restraints on its nuclear activities. Talks are expected to resume in Vienna on Tuesday.

At the same time, the Biden team has said they will work closely with Israel and Gulf partners to rectify criticisms that the former Obama administration alienated regional allies most at risk from Iranian threats in the original crafting of the 2015 deal.

In a warning shot to the U.S., Netanyahu has said that Jerusalem would not hesitate in “preventing those who seek to destroy us from carrying out their plan.” 

“Even to our best friends I say: Make no mistake; an agreement with Iran that will pave their way to a nuclear weapon — a weapon that threatens to destroy us — any such agreement will not bind us one iota,” he said in a speech last week marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

That speech seemed to preview the Sunday attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, with Israeli media widely reporting that Israel’s Mossad spy agency targeted the facility with a cyberattack, citing unnamed sources. Israel is one of the most advanced nations in the world in terms of cybersecurity capabilities.

The incident, which damaged centrifuges at the Natanz underground nuclear facility, came a day after Iran unveiled new, advanced centrifuges installed after a similarly mysterious fire at the facility last year that was also suspected to have been caused by Israel.

It also came as Austin was arriving in Israel for his first visit since becoming Defense secretary, raising questions about what, if anything, the United States knew about the plan ahead of time. Austin demurred Monday, telling reporters he was aware of reports but had nothing to add.

“In terms of our efforts to engage Iran in diplomacy on the JCPOA, those efforts will continue, and I’m very obviously supportive of the president’s efforts to negotiate a way ahead there,” Austin said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted Monday the United States was “was not involved in any manner” in the attack, saying she had “nothing to add on speculation about the causes or the impacts.”

Iran is blaming Israel, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif saying “the Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions.”

“But we will take our revenge against the Zionists,” added Zarif, who also said Iran “will not allow this act of sabotage to affect the nuclear talks.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed concern the incident could throw off the negotiations. “All of what we are hearing from Tehran is not a positive contribution to this,” he told reporters Monday.

Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy with the Arms Control Association, warned that the Natanz attack was a strike at international diplomacy. 

“This act of sabotage damaged not only Natanz but also the Biden administration’s plan to return to compliance with the nuclear deal,” she said in a statement. “Restoring the 2015 agreement and building on is the best way to address the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. The United States and Iran mustn’t let this attack derail the progress being made in Vienna.”

The attack came one week after an Iranian ship stationed in the Red Sea suffered damage from a mine placed on its hull. The New York Times reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps assigned blame to Israel for the attack, and an American official told the paper that Israel had warned the U.S. it carried out the operation.

Ali Vaez, the Iran project director with the International Crisis Group, said that the alleged Israeli attacks seem aimed at provoking Iran into retaliatory action against Israel or in the region that would harm diplomacy but that Tehran is unlikely to take the bait. 

“I doubt Iran will fall into this trap. But undoubtedly, such operations render compromise at the negotiating table more costly for the Iranians,” he said. 

“The real risk emerges when Iran decides to retaliate. That would be a difficult balance to strike as Iran has to respond in a way that deters Israel from conducting such operations on Iranian soil without provoking it to do even more to undermine Iran.”

Iran is intent on getting the Biden administration to lift sanctions imposed by the former Trump administration, saying all of the 1,500 punitive measures be eliminated. This would include sanctions for terrorism, human rights abuses and Tehran’s ballistic missile programs.

A senior State Department official, in a briefing with reporters last week, dismissed this demand but said the U.S. aim is to lift sanctions that are “inconsistent with the JCPOA and inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA.”

Maggie Miller contributed to this report. 

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Iran Iran nuclear deal Israel Jen Psaki Joe Biden Lloyd Austin
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