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Israel acknowledges inability to thwart a US-Iran 'mini agreement'

On the backdrop of strained relations with the US, Israel realizes it has limited influence only over the Biden administration’s policy on Iran.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are seen at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, June 15, 2023.

TEL AVIV — Statements by Israeli officials indicate that Israel's government seems to have accepted the emerging deal between the Biden administration and Iran being hammered out in indirect negotiations facilitated by Oman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed the emerging deal a “mini agreement” in closed-door remarks this week to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to Israeli media. 

Since taking office, other than a few low-key mentions, Netanyahu has steered away from explicitly addressing the backchannel Washington-Tehran talks. Gone is the firebrand that waged an unprecedented global campaign almost a decade ago against the emerging agreement between world powers and Iran on curbing Tehran’s nuclear program. His relentless efforts at the time failed to block the 2015 agreement, although it did result in a US pullout from the deal in 2018.

According to Israel’s current assessment, the United States and Iran will agree on a formula of “less for less” (less US pressure/sanctions on Iran, in exchange for limited Iranian concessions) or “freeze for freeze” (freezing US sanctions in exchange of Iran freezing some of its nuke activities). Washington and Tehran may perhaps not even anchor them in a formal written and signed document. Instead, they would implement them as goodwill gestures, allowing President Joe Biden to bypass the need for congressional approval and at the same time curb Iran’s rush toward nuclear weaponization. 

Specifically, according to Israel’s assessment, the deal would entail an immediate halt to Iran’s military-grade uranium enrichment and curb it at a 60% level; one version has the level even set at 20%. Iran would also freeze its advanced development of ballistic missiles, as well as the transfer of attack drones to Russia, cooperate with international inspections of its uranium stockpiles and release three Americans it is holding on what the United States describes as bogus espionage charges. 

The United States, for its part, would unfreeze some $20 billion in Iranian assets held in various foreign banks, commit to allowing unfettered passage of Iranian fuel tankers in international waters and avoid advancing anti-Iran resolutions at the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Agreements of this magnitude can be reached relatively quickly," a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "This is a quick, initial deal, a kind of promotion for more intensive contacts in the future. It allows Biden to pour cold water on the Iranian fire, ease tensions, freeze the Iranian nuclear race and pay a relatively reasonable price. On the eve of the start of a presidential campaign, it's a win-win formula."

The relative equanimity with which Israel is treating these developments stems first and foremost from Netanyahu’s precarious political position. He is being buffeted by storms on almost every front: hard-line partners demanding he pushes through the judicial overhaul his government is advancing, a revolt within his own Likud party against what is viewed as his procrastination on the reform, declining popularity, mass pro-democracy protests, a determined Knesset opposition and his ongoing trial on charges of corruption. He desperately needs the Biden administration’s persistently withheld approval, and continues to pin his hopes on a coveted normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. 

A senior source close to the prime minister told Al-Monitor that Netanyahu may be willing to turn a blind eye to the Washington-Tehran deal in return for Biden’s determined push to achieve Saudi normalization with Israel. Still, he said, chances of such a development are slim.

"The Americans are more than likely toying with Netanyahu on the Saudi issue, creating expectations and illusions in order to appease him on the Iranian issue. After the agreement with Iran is reached, it will be too late to regret it. It is not certain that the administration will be able to deliver the goods in the Saudi arena," the source said. Netanyahu would then find himself the victim of the tactics he uses vis-a-vis his opponents — paying the price but failing to get the goods.

Israel’s restraint regarding the understanding with Iran also stems from a sober assessment of its very limited influence over the administration’s policy on Iran, less than it had even during its acrimonious relationship with the Obama administration almost a decade ago. Moreover, quite a few senior defense officials believe that any agreement with the Iranians is bad, but the alternative is much worse.

"Right now, no one can prevent Iran’s continued enrichment and weaponization efforts," a very senior former Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “That only leaves the option of some kind of limited agreement."

Israel could actually benefit from such an unwritten agreement because it would not be binding on Netanyahu's government.

"A written agreement between the US and Iran clearly severely harms Israel's freedom of action in Iran, if and when it reaches the decision that a military attack is inevitable," the former senior military source said. “For an Israeli prime minister to order a military attack on a country that has signed an agreement with the United States is an inconceivable scenario. On the other hand, if the understandings are not signed and anchored in an official agreement, Israel will feel much freer."

The strategic balance between Israel and Iran has shifted in recent months, to Israel’s detriment. The alliance between Iran and Russia, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, has greatly improved Iran's access to advanced military technologies and enriched Iran's treasury. At the same time, the severe crisis in relations between Israel and the United States under Netanyahu's sixth government, China’s increasing foothold in the region that has led to reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, its Gulf neighbors and Tehran have all boosted Iran’s standing at Israel’s expense.

These accelerated developments, as well as the continued anti-government protests in Israel that are destabilizing society, the economy and the security establishment, have resulted in an astonishing reversal between Israel and Iran within just a few short months. Given this state of affairs, Israel cannot afford to embark on another international campaign against a deal with Tehran and is therefore lying low. Instead, it is trying to outflank the rapprochement between the United States and Iran by means of an Israeli rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Whether this strategy is successful or blows up in its face remains to be seen.

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