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Israel weighs options, timing of possible military strike on Iran

Despite deadlock in Vienna, expert/technical talks may have a faint pulse.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani.

The parties to the now-fractured accord on Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the United States (which withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in May 2018), are unlikely to reach an agreement this week on piecing a deal back together.

Veteran US diplomat Aaron David Miller writes at CNN this week that “having spent a couple decades in and around failing Arab-Israeli negotiations, I know a negotiation that's in serious trouble when I see one.” 

Israel, meanwhile, has been on a diplomatic blitz to scuttle the talks while pitching and prepping for a military option as the best means, at the appropriate time, to thwart a possible Iranian nuclear weapon.

While the basic outlines of a deal are clear — sanctions relief in return for Iran re-committing to nuclear enrichment levels outlined in the JCPOA — the details and the choreography of who goes first are slow going.

After the seventh round of seeming inconclusive nuclear negotiations in Vienna, here’s what we’re watching:

US: Not much optimism, but ‘not too late’ …

-US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Dec. 2 that although “recent moves, recent rhetoric [by Iran] don’t give us a lot of cause for optimism … it is not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage meaningfully in an effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.”

-For the United States and the other parties to the JCPOA, Iran’s return to “compliance” means cutting back on its highly enriched uranium (HEU) production. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on Wednesday that Iran is now enriching uranium with more advanced centrifuges at the Fordow Iranian nuclear facility. An IAEA report in August noted that Iran was enriching uranium at 60%, well above the 3.67% cap in the JCPOA (HEU at 90% purity is required for nuclear weapons development).

-Key to the US diplomatic strategy has been a united front, not just with the EU parties to the deal but also with Russia and China, in order to block any off-ramp for Iran in the nuclear talks, as we wrote last month. Blinken said that he had a “good conversation” with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, about this, and “Russia shares our basic perspective on this.”

Iran: still looking for goodwill …

  • Iran’s take on “compliance” is that the United States should lift all sanctions on Iran imposed since US President Donald Trump exited the deal in May 2018. This doesn’t even require negotiations, in Iran’s view. And then Tehran will do what's needed to get back in the good graces of the IAEA.
  • Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told his Japanese counterpart in a phone call on Dec. 2 that he was “not optimistic about the intentions and the will of the United States and the three European countries (E3) [to reach a deal].”
  • But there is some give. Amir-Abdollahian tweeted on Dec. 1 that “Vienna Talks proceeding with seriousness and sanctions removal as fundamental priority. Good deal within reach if the West shows good will. We seek rational, sober & result-oriented dialogue. This is nothing new." Amir-Abdollahian has said on several occasions that a “goodwill gesture” of the United States releasing approximately $10 billion on frozen Iranian assets would be well received, as we reported here last month.
  • As for hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, it is worth recalling that at his swearing-in before the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the parliament, or "majlis") on Aug. 5, he said, "Sanctions against Iran must be lifted, and we will support any diplomatic plan that achieves this goal."

Israel: running interference to avoid an agreement

  • Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Blinken on Dec. 2 to warn the United States against giving in to “nuclear blackmail” by Iran and advising an “immediate cessation“ to the nuclear talks.
  • Israel has been on a diplomatic blitz to shut down the Vienna talks and talk up the need for a military option. Israel Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made the case starkly on Nov. 30 after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson the day before in London. “Sanctions should not be removed. They should be tightened,” Lapid said, as Rina Bassist reports. Lapid added that “a real military threat must be put before Iran” and is “the only way to stop its race to become a nuclear power.”
  • Israel considers the continuation of the talks, which it labels “treading water,” as a worst-case scenario, Ben Caspit reports, “allowing the Iranians to continue their enrichment while the talks drag on.”
  • Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz will travel to Washington next week to appeal to the Biden administration why and when “there may be a point when we will have no choice but to act.”

What’s next? Watch the experts, and Israel …

  • The hedge here is that even if the envoys head home, as is likely, the talks toward eventual agreement on the choreography for a return to mutual compliance — some sanctions relief in return for Iran’s reducing enrichment — could continue at the expert/technical level. This all seems to be in the works, per the scoop from Amwaj here, but it’s a heavy and slow slog. Technical papers have been exchanged, but Iran is ceding little ground.
  • Israel’s bid to end the nuclear talks is no sideshow, and its threats of a military option are not bluster. It does not want another round of negotiations. If the talks go on, the sense in Jerusalem is that Iran will continue to make steady progress toward a bomb. If the talks break down, the option for a Plan B is on the table — and Israel is making a bid that it can be that Plan B — perhaps even without the direct blessing of the United States.
  • Ben Caspit writes that Israel is not necessarily “readying for a slam-bang operation to destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, but rather that it is considering a 'war of attrition.' In other words, every time the Iranians restore what has been destroyed and move ahead, Israel might strike again. One thing is certain, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli air force (IAF) are preparing speedily."
  • “The military option must always be on the table,” Gantz said this week. “It is, of course, the last thing we want to use, but we do not have the right to not prepare that option for ourselves,” adding that while he believed the United States would back an Israeli strike on Iran, “Israel is not obligated to coordinate its defense with anyone.”
  • Lilach Shoval’s take is that “despite the declared Israeli approach of opposing the nuclear deal, Israel hopes that if the United States has already decided to sign the deal, it’s best if this happens quickly — the sooner the better. This is because an agreement would at least temporarily halt Iran’s rush toward nuclear capability at this point in time and would cause it to stop enrichment at high purity levels and stop gaining the knowledge that would allow for a quick nuclear breakthrough. In such a case, Israel hopes, the Israeli defense establishment could “buy time” to complete its preparations to mount a good and reliable military option that could address the Iranian nuclear plan.”