JERUSALEM – The global response to Russia’s war against Ukraine has seized the administration of President Joe Biden, but another foreign policy crisis has erupted over Iran’s nuclear deal.
Negotiations to revive the agreement have now stalled for more than two weeks, but the parties are close to finalizing an agreement. With one exception, the administration has warned Iran is only weeks away from enough isolated material for a nuclear bomb.
But while the top U.S. partners in the Middle East are opposed to a renewed deal, Israel is concerned about the banner of the Abraham Accord among its new Arab partners, the Trump-era deal that established diplomatic and economic ties between Israel and several Arab countries. .
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken flew to the minefield this weekend, arriving in the region for a four-day meeting that includes a historic summit with three countries, Israel and the Abraham Accord – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – as well as Egypt.
In Jerusalem on Sunday, he will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior officials to try to reassure the United States of its commitment to Israel while allaying Israeli concerns about a renewed nuclear deal. However, Israeli Foreign Minister Yar’Adua Lapid warned on Sunday that Israel “needs to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear program.”
The 2015 agreement, signed by Iran, the United States and other world powers, imposed sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions. But former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018, re-imposing tougher US sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate a new deal.
During his tenure, this never happened, and instead, Iran took its own steps out of the deal – with more uranium enrichment, higher levels and more advanced centrifuges.
It is now enriching uranium to 60% purity, a short technical step from 90% weapons-grade, U.S. officials have warned for weeks that Iran is only a few weeks away from uranium rich enough to bomb. At the moment, Iran still has a number of complex, technical steps to take to build a nuclear warhead, but reaching that nuclear threshold would be deeply troubling.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran returned to “strict” agreement, saying he would then start follow-on talks on other issues.
But almost a year after talks began in Vienna, Iran’s nuclear program is expanding, while delegations have yet to reach an agreement. Iranian negotiators have not even agreed to meet with a US delegation led by US Special Envoy to Iran Rob Malley. Instead, the talks were conducted indirectly – the United States and Iran met separately with the remaining parties to the agreement: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China and Russia.
Although talks initially progressed last spring, they stalled in June ahead of Iran’s presidential election, where Ibrahim Raisi, a more radical cleric close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, took power. The month of Iran’s delay ended in November, but those talks resumed, at first with deep skepticism about reviving the deal.
In recent weeks, however, all sides have made it clear that they are close – storming Israeli activity to rally the opposition.
Last Monday, Bennett traveled to Egypt for a historic summit with Egypt’s powerful leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s de facto ruler. According to Israel, this was the first meeting between the leaders of the three countries – through talks on a joint defense strategy against Iran.
The State Department said the United States welcomed the meeting, and that Blanken would hold his own summit with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco on Monday – as well as a key meeting with Sheikh Mohammed in Morocco.
If there are any US concerns about the growing anti-Iranian alliance, it is not public – a rare Trump-era policy adopted entirely by Biden’s party, along with the Abraham Accord.
“When it comes to the most important element, we see with our own eyes. We are both committed, both determined that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken told Lapid at the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Sunday.
For his part, Bennett is keen to avoid a public spit between former President Barack Obama and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed a Republican-controlled congress in 2015 to lobby against the deal, angering the White House.
Instead, Bennett and Lapid, who are due to replace Bennett as prime minister in a power-sharing deal, insisted on their agreement with the Biden party. When Lapid and Blinken met in Munich last month, both men stressed their “shared goal” – to prevent Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon.
But that’s what makes Bennett and Lapid’s recent vocal antagonism so interesting in some parts of a possible deal. The two issued a statement a week ago condemning what could be part of the final deal, listing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
“Any attempt to remove the IRGC from the list as a terrorist organization would ignore the documented reality supported by the victims’ insults and unequivocal evidence,” the two men said. “We believe that the United States will not abandon its close allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists.”
During a joint news conference, Lapid reaffirmed Israel’s belief that the IRGC was a terrorist organization, while Blinken declined to say whether it considered it one: “The IRGC is probably the most designated organization in the world,” he said. .
But he argued that without a nuclear deal, an Iran would be a bigger threat to the region: “An Iran with a nuclear weapon – or the ability to build one at the slightest notice – would become more aggressive and believe it could be. With a false sense of impunity. Get to work. “
Biden administration officials say the follow-on talks will address issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for proxy forces such as Hezbollah, which threatens Israel from Syria and Lebanon, or the Houthis, which threaten Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from Yemen. Just Friday, a Houthi attack on the installation of Saudi oil giant Aramco set fire to two storage tanks in Jeddah, although no casualties were reported. Saudi Arabia launched a counter-attack on the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Saturday.
But analysts say the talks are increasingly unlikely, with Iran refusing to even include the United States in the nuclear talks. Either way, critics like Bennett say a revived deal would mean new funding for Iran to project energy across the region and threaten its opponents, with the exception of Israel.
“Trying to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and resolves their attacks on our key partners. But we need to consult with our partners and understand that Iran has not changed – and with the recent attacks in northern Iraq and Saudi Arabia, they We want an agreement that works for everyone, not just an agreement, “said Mick Mulroy, a former top Pentagon official and now ABC News national security analyst.
In recent days, however, Blinken and his team have changed their tune a bit, with the current two-week break in negotiations seemingly raising some concerns about the possibility of a deal.
“This agreement is not just around the corner and it is not inevitable,” Mali told the Doha Forum on Sunday.
Nevertheless, Blinken pressed the case with Lapid and others that without an agreement Iran would be more dangerous because it could run towards a nuclear weapon with little insight into its program.
Even as the United States says it is preparing for that world, Blinken will press Israel and its Arab partners for options to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands, if diplomacy fails.
State Department spokeswoman Ned Price said Tuesday that “we’ve had long discussions … with our partners in the region about alternatives,” adding that for obvious reasons we have not publicly elaborated on what this might look like, but not for lack of it. Planning on our behalf. “
But at some point, while Israel may take those options into its own hands, the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities continues to grow year after year of Israeli sabotage.
“Israel and the United States will continue to work together to prevent a nuclear Iran,” Lapid told Blinken on Sunday, but added, “At the same time, Israel will do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear program – whatever.”