Going into Thursday’s second round of nuclear talks with the new representatives of hardliner Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, probably the most interesting question is about a party that is not even part of the talks – Israel.
The positions of the parties to the talks, despite some European officials being surprised, are actually quite consistent with what all the parties have been saying for the last half-year.
And when you add up those positions, you get no new deal or, to be blunt, not even close to a new deal.
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Israel may be the one wild card that could shake things up.
Why is that?
Let’s run down the various countries’ positions.
Since Raisi took over Iran (on behalf of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who pulls all the strings behind the scenes) in June, he has unambiguously said that he would not return to nuclear limits until the US first removed sanctions. And even then, Iran would do so only if there was a mechanism to verify that sanctions relief filtered down into the Islamic Republic’s economy.
Oh, and Tehran is in no rush for a deal, no matter how bad its economy is, because it knows that as long as China and Russia keep it propped up, it can survive. Not to mention it was counting on the US and the EU to blink first since they have been openly desperate for a deal.
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The US has said it will not give Iran anything it wants beforehand, but will give it most of what it wants in a simultaneous reciprocal move.
The EU-3, including France, England and Germany, have been banking on Raisi being so grateful that he has Biden to deal with and not Trump that he would be rational and mature and agree to Biden’s mutual return of nuclear limits for lifting sanctions.
Also, they hoped that since they had 80% of a deal negotiated with the previous Iranian government of Hassan Rouhani, this would constrain Raisi’s ambitions.
Anyone who has paid attention can see that there is virtually no substantive overlap between the US-EU-3 and Iranian positions, and that one of Raisi’s main points was to toss Rouhani’s pragmatism to the wind as useless weakness.
But the US and the EU-3 were in denial until last week, when they were shocked to learn Raisi and his messengers were not kidding and meant what they had been saying out loud.
Now the US and the EU-3 are stuck because: Washington wants to think about a plan B, given that the talks are stuck, but it cannot decide what plan B should be, nor can it reconcile the consequences of where it would lead.
Germany, France and England all expressed their best European consternation at Iran, but do not even want to discuss a plan B, essentially leaving them as totally feckless players.
China actually could be a major variable which could force Raisi to toe the line and return to the 2015 deal with no new concessions. However, Beijing is too mad right now at the US about Taiwan, Hong Kong, trade wars, honor and perceived American condescension to want to help.
Russia might want to look like it wants to help, and President Vladimir Putin said so privately to Biden. But often Putin is happy for the US to be distracted by chaos, especially if it makes it easier for Moscow to retake more parts of Ukraine or get some other concessions for being gracious enough to refrain from invading.
In any event, you have not heard any full-throated criticism of Iran publicly from either China or Russia, despite extreme Iranian brinkmanship.
And the world is in fact very distracted by the situation in Taiwan, Ukraine, a new German premier, the UK’s Boris Johnson’s scandals, constant internal US political warfare – and, of course, the latest coronavirus waves.
So no one besides Israel is actually focused on Iran as a near-term threat or willing to take much risk – along with having the power to do something about the situation (the moderate Sunni states view Iran as a threat, but are too weak to act on their own).
THIS BRINGS us back to whether Israel can be the variable that could get Tehran to take a more reasonable position.
This question really comes down to whether Israel is overwhelmingly more powerful than Iran to the extent that it could dish out a long-term crippling blow to its nuclear program without being crippled itself by the Islamic Republic and its proxies.
Four former Mossad chiefs – Tamir Pardo, Efraim Halevy, Danny Yatom and Shabtai Shavit – think that Israel must show some humility in the face of a country of 85 million people, with dozens of nuclear sites spread out over an area the size of a subcontinent which could fit much of Europe inside it, and which has already mastered almost the entire nuclear uranium enrichment cycle.
Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen made it clear during his 2016-June 2021 term that he disagreed. Cohen felt strongly that Jerusalem has outgrown the earlier concept that Iran creates matchup problems for it for using force and that it must always wait for US approval to act.
His belief was that Israel had achieved its own regional superpower status and can use a mix of covert and overt force in Iran virtually at will, the same as it has started to do in recent years in Syria and Iraq – something it never would have done under the old security concept of being a humble regional power.
And yet the all-important question was which side current Mossad Director David Barnea would take.
Barnea was handpicked by Cohen and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but is serving Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who initially advocated not publicly banging heads with the US like his predecessor.
As the new Mossad chief, he also did not need to tie himself down to Cohen’s legacy. Given the rising criticism of the Netanyahu-Trump administrations trying to wreck the Iran deal without a clear plan B, many thought he might move in the direction of the majority of the former Mossad chiefs.
Barnea’s Hanukkah speech last week put that to rest.
He believes the Jewish state has the power to use force against Iran whenever it feels necessary and personally promised he would do so to block a nuclear weapon on his watch.
Although it might come as a surprise to some that there are apolitical top security officials in a post-Netanyahu era who are ready to act against Iran based on the presumption that Israel is overpoweringly stronger, it should not.
Barnea is not the first.
The real breakthrough in this department was a January speech by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi.
In that speech, he said a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, or a “slightly improved” deal, would be an operational and strategic mistake for the world.
Further, he said that if Iran’s advanced centrifuge progress and jumps in enriching uranium were not stopped, it could eventually bring it to be “only weeks” away from a nuclear bomb.
The IDF chief said that the US and others must maintain all sanctions and pressure now, as Tehran is at its weakest and closest to making real concessions.
Further, he said that he had ordered operational plans to strike Iran’s nuclear program to be ready if necessary, but that whether to use those plans and under what circumstances was a decision for the political echelon.
In addition, he said that Israel’s strikes in Syria and other undefined parts of the Middle East had created the greatest deterrence Israel has ever known against its enemies.
If prior IDF chiefs like Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot had wanted to water down Netanyahu’s attempts at saber-rattling so as not to prematurely commit them to an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear program, Kohavi seemed to be telling Netanyahu not to get in his way.
If many former defense and intelligence officials feared the destabilizing and uncertain backlash of attacking Iran, Kohavi seemed to suggest his IDF in 2021 could dominate the playing field.
ARE KOHAVI and Barnea right? Could Israel both set back Iran’s nuclear program long enough to be worth the risks of an attack and potential blowback in the form of Iranian ballistic missiles and rockets from Hezbollah and Gaza?
The question gets stronger taking into account how spread out Iran’s nuclear facilities are, how quickly it has recovered from three alleged Mossad covert sabotage operations of its facilities, and that one cannot bomb the knowledge its nuclear scientists have gained in 2020-2021.
Also, Gantz still sends out mixed signals on his position on the issue, and all of his major political and security decisions have shown an aversion to taking major risks.
There is another possible outcome of negotiations besides a deal or war that some are referring to as something along the lines of Iran “going to sleep on the threshold.”
This would be bad for Israel in terms of achieving a clear reduction in the threat, but it may be the least bad option for Washington and Tehran because it avoids a crisis and neither side needs to make concessions it does not want to make.
In fact, it basically freezes the substance of the current nuclear situation where Iran is close to the threshold without crossing it, and just asks both sides not to make too much noise.
At the end of the day, it is less relevant whether Kohavi and Barnea are right than whether Iran believes the threat and believes that Israel is a superpower that can substantially outmatch it.
Here, it is anyone’s guess.
The Iranians in recent years have alternated between expressing awe and fear of the Mossad and the IDF, and attempting audacious gambles against Israel which carried high risk.
But whether Tehran believes Jerusalem is a regional superpower ready to take it down may determine the outcome of the nuclear standoff.