May 22, 2021 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel and Biden administration after Gaza

Israelis, while confronting the Hamas terror organization, are watching the talks in Vienna and the clash between left and right inside Israel that will determine the next leader of the Jewish state.
May 22, 2021 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel and Biden administration after Gaza

Israelis, while confronting the Hamas terror organization, are watching the talks in Vienna and the clash between left and right inside Israel that will determine the next leader of the Jewish state.

The United States is preparing to repeat its past mistakes as the Biden administration and Tehran negotiate a return to the flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Talks in Vienna are ongoing, but the end result looks clear: another victory for the clerical regime in Iran, and another bad deal for the United States, Israel, and other American allies. A tough road lies ahead for US-Israeli relations, but the two allies can and must work together to manage their differences.

Israelis, while confronting the Hamas terror organization, are watching the talks in Vienna and the clash between left and right inside Israel that will determine the next leader of the Jewish state. Regardless of who prevails, official Israel will have to work with a Democratic administration in the US that is hastening the arrival of an existential threat to Israel, a nuclear Iran. This will make it very hard for Jerusalem to focus on preserving strong relations with Washington, but their partnership is indispensable. So how can it be done?

The first step is to understand Washington’s mindset. In order to check the Iranian problem off its “to-do list,” the Biden administration continues to offer concessions to get Tehran to resume compliance with the JCPOA, the deal’s fatal flaws and Iran’s ongoing nuclear extortion notwithstanding.

Biden does not seem to understand how this empowers Tehran. Sensing they have the upper hand, the regime’s negotiators are playing hard to get, tacking on demand after demand. Tehran insists that Washington pay a premium for the “privilege” of lifting sanctions and re-entering an agreement that grants the clerical regime in Iran a patient pathway to atomic weapons.

By returning to the JCPOA, the regime can legally install advanced centrifuges, build up Iran’s enrichment capabilities, and wait for key restrictions to sunset over the next two to nine years. After 2030, there will be no prohibitions on the Islamic Republic’s ability to produce weapons-grade uranium, and Iran’s advanced centrifuges will enable it to do so faster and more covertly. Nor does the deal check Tehran’s weaponization activities. As a result, Iran’s “sneak out time”, the interval necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, will soon be almost zero.

All of America’s Middle Eastern allies, including Israel, are rightly concerned about the US policy. Beyond the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, Jerusalem does not relish the thought of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism fueling Lebanese Hezbollah, Gaga Hamas, Yemen Houthis and other terrorist proxies with billions of dollars in US sanctions relief.

This will make things very difficult for Israel. How can Israel act decisively against the Iranian nuclear program when that program has been legitimized by an agreement with United States? How will Washington react if Israel must take military action, covert or not, against Iran’s nuclear program, given Israel does not accept the US request for prior consultation?

First, US-Israeli diplomacy can help limit the damage. Several high-ranking Israeli officials visited Washington last month to reiterate Jerusalem’s concerns about the Biden administration’s Iran policy, while pursuing deeper military, intelligence, and technology development cooperation. On Iran, however, the meetings produced little more than an agreement to disagree.

The American goal was to drag the Israelis into the process, to create the impression the administration’s policy was acceptable to Jerusalem.

Some irresponsible Israelis even suggested cooperating with this American gambit, but that would have been a serious mistake. The Israeli delegations, led by NSA Ben-Shabbat and Mossad director Cohen, under strict orders from Jerusalem, declined to engage in substantive talks on a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran so long as a US return to the JCPOA is on the table. The Israelis understand that Tehran will have no incentive to return to the negotiating table after receiving sanctions relief. If Tehran proves them wrong and enters talks for a new deal, the Israelis would be willing to offer input on what that deal should include. But no one in Israel will be holding their breath.

Rightly, the Israeli delegation also sought to convey to its American allies that Israel will not be bound by any US-Iran agreement reached during the Vienna talks. Israel must retain freedom of action to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons by whatever means necessary. The White House’s post-meeting readout “underscored President Biden’s unwavering support for Israel’s right to defend itself,” indicating this goal was accomplished.

The other objective Israel should pursue is to persuade the Biden administration that the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) must complete its investigations of the Iranian nuclear program and publish its reports and findings, even if the United States returns to the JCPOA. As part of the conclusion of the 2015 nuclear deal, Washington prodded the IAEA to close its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, despite continued stonewalling by Tehran.

That was a serious mistake. The secret nuclear archive Israel’s Mossad spirited out of Iran, along with the IAEA’s discoveries from its subsequent visits to Iranian nuclear sites, demonstrated that the Islamic Republic was much closer to weaponization than was previously believed and has been hiding undisclosed nuclear materials. Under pressure from Tehran, IAEA until recently failed to submit reports outlining those findings. The JCPOA’s lack of an enforcement mechanism to compel Iranian transparency represented one of the deal’s biggest flaws.

During the current round of talks in Vienna, the Iranians are believed to have demanded that the IAEA close all current investigations and recant its previous findings. The IAEA deputy director general just returned from Teheran with zero answers to questions concerning Iran’s noncompliance, probably because the Iranians believe they will receive further US concessions.

Washington must not prove them right. Despite the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, the Israeli government should emphasize that this concession would be unacceptable. Failing to insist on full Iranian transparency with the IAEA for the sake of restoring the flawed JCPOA would jeopardize the IAEA’s continued efficacy and undermine the deal’s very purpose of preventing Tehran from achieving a nuclear weapon.

Despite disagreements over the JCPOA, the Biden administration should work to safeguard its alliance with Israel. American support for Israel has always been bipartisan and should remain so. The two allies should pursue opportunities to deepen military-technology and security cooperation, counter shared regional threats, and build on warming Israeli-Arab ties.

US-Israel relations are approaching a very challenging point. It will take a lot of hard work to get over the hill. It would help if the Biden administration realized the error of its ways dealing with Iran nuclear threat. Either way, the United States and Israel must find a way to maintain and strengthen their alliance.

Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty. He previously served as acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as head of the National Security Council. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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