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Israel believes Iran deal unlikely before November
“If there's no deal now, then the admin is in no rush & they will prefer to revive dialogue after midterm elections,” source. Meantime, Mossad chief has canceled plans to brief Senate Intel panel.
After Iran’s latest response, Israeli officials assess that a revival of the Iran nuclear deal is now unlikely to happen before the US midterm elections in November, if then, according to interviews and other media reports.
“In my estimation, it’s not going to happen in the very near future, not in the next few weeks,” one source, speaking not for attribution, said Sept. 6. “I think we’ll see continuation of a dialogue, very low key, until after the midterm elections.”
The assessment comes as the head of Mossad was the latest senior Israeli official to arrive for consultations in Washington this week.
However, Mossad director David Barnea has canceled earlier plans to brief the Senate Intelligence committee on Israeli objections to the Iran deal, sources said, and a committee spokesperson confirmed. Barnea is now expected to meet this week with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and US intelligence community counterparts, sources said.
The Israeli side cited “scheduling issues on their side” in canceling Barnea’s meeting with the committee, Rachel Cohen, a spokesperson for Senate Select Committee on Intelligence co-chair Mark Warner, told me Tuesday. It had initially been put on the committee’s schedule on August 30th, but was taken off on August 31st, she said.
Notably, also on August 31, US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid held a phone call, a central topic of which was Iran.
Whether the U.S. administration had privately raised objections to the potential appearance of the Israeli government going behind its back to lobby Congress against the deal, the sources would not say, attributing the change of plans to scheduling issues.
Since August, the U.S. and Iran have been trading responses to a supposedly “final” text on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that was tabled by the EU coordinator on August 8.
Then US President Trump quit the deal in 2018, and imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran, even though Iran had been observing the deal’s strict nuclear limits for over two years. Iran since 2019 has been progressively exceeding the deal’s nuclear limits to protest the lack of sanctions relief it was receiving. The latest reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released today, show that if it chose to, Iran could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon in a few weeks. Under the nuclear deal, Iran’s so-called breakout time was over one year. Under a revived nuclear deal, the U.S. assesses it would be six months—still a vast improvement over the current situation.
“I fear we are in a bad place”
But while some gaps had closed in recent weeks, the response that the Iranians sent on Sept. 1 was discouraging to US and European negotiators, after it had seemed they might finally be getting close.
“I fear we are in a pretty bad place,” a European official involved in the negotiations told me today (Sept. 7). “A return at this point seems to be unlikely.”
The “Iranian answer is the contrary of constructive,” he said.
“Iran has moved us very far back — at a time when, thanks to the EU coordinator’s perseverance, and everyone’s flexibility, we were almost there,” an E3 official (with one of the three European parties to the Iran nuclear deal) told me Sept. 2.
“It’s very difficult to know whether this is fixable,” he continued. “In any case, Iran has given a clear signal it is not interested in a deal now.”
Iran’s latest response has mooted any previous hopes—(or, in the Israeli case, concerns) – of realistic prospects for rapidly finalizing the deal, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group.
“My sense is, because of Iran’s response, a rapid breakthrough is no longer possible, even if we were not close to the midterms,” Vaez said. “Because, even in the best case scenario, a few additional rounds of back and forth are required at this stage—and, of course, there’s no guarantee that it would resolve [and reach] mutual understanding. …In any case, it’s going to be too close to comfort for a lot of Democrats.”
The Europeans “are much more frustrated,” Vaez said. “But at the same time, I really don’t think even the option of pulling the plug is available to them at this stage, because for them, Ukraine is as much of a major crisis as it is for the Biden administration, and I think neither of them really want to be dealing with two crises at the same time.”
“That’s why…most likely there is not going to be a censure resolution next week” at the IAEA board of governors meeting, he said. “Because everybody would prefer at this point in time to keep an eye on the situation until the Europeans are able to…make sure they can meet their energy needs this winter.”
US midterms Nov. 8, Israeli elections Nov. 1
The source describing the Israeli sense of where the US administration is on the Iran deal negotiations expressed the view that the administration believed a deal, had one been reached, would survive Congressional review, but the debate could be bruising. But given that there are still gaps in the text in early September, it might prefer to send a possibly revived understanding on restoring the deal to Congress after the mid-terms, which are due to be held on Nov. 8. Israel also holds elections on Nov. 1.
“My understanding is that the administration has no desire for debate [on a revived Iran nuclear deal] in Congress before the midterm elections,” the source said. “It’s not that they would not pass it; they will pass it. But in the process, there would be a lot of criticism.”
“Frankly, I’m not convinced that the Iranians want a deal now,” the source continued, noting speculation and Iranian hardline media reports that suggest the Iranians may believe because the West is pressed for energy with Russia’s war on Ukraine, that come the winter, they might get a better deal. “I don't know if it's the way they think,” the source said.
“But in any case, my sense is, and what I understand, is that if there's no deal now, then the [U.S.] administration is in no rush and they will prefer to revive dialogue after midterm elections.”
“But then anything can happen,” he added. “I don't know what's going to happen…We'll see.”
U.S.: Gaps remain
American officials have called Iran’s latest response not constructive. But their statements have seemed to leave room for further negotiation to possibly close remaining gaps.
“Iran’s response did not put us in a position to close the deal,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told journalists at the State Department press briefing on Tuesday (Sept. 6). “We’ve consistently said that gaps remain, and it’s clear from Iran’s response that these gaps still remain.”
“We're still in the process here of trying to drive towards a reimplementation of the JCPOA,” NSC strategic communications advisor John Kirby told journalists in a virtual gaggle Tuesday. “Like all negotiations, … this one has…back and forth.”
“We gave our response back to the EU,” Kirby said. “The Iranians responded to that. And…suffice it to say, there's still gaps, and we're just not there yet. That doesn't mean that we're less committed to a deal. It doesn't mean that we don't still want to see…if we can get there. We do. But there's still there's still quite a bit of work for our diplomats to do.”
“A new nuclear deal between Iran and world powers is off the table and will not be signed in the foreseeable future,” the Times of Israel reported today its Hebrew sister site has learned. “This is the message that was conveyed to Prime Minister Yair Lapid in his recent conversations with US president Joe Biden and other administration officials.”
“As Lapid became convinced in recent days that a deal was becoming increasingly unlikely, he re-prioritized national security challenges to focus on escalating violence in the West Bank, the fight against terrorism and the urgent need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority as it increasingly loses clout,” the paper said.
That shift in focus may also reflect Israeli domestic political considerations as Israel heads to elections November 1.
Both Lapid as well as Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz today blasted comments this week from US spokespeople suggesting Israel might consider modifying Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) rules of engagement, after an Israeli military investigation concluded this week that one of its soldiers was highly likely to have fired the shots that killed Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May. The Israeli officials portrayed the comments as unwelcome external interference in their domestic affairs.
“I hear the demands to prosecute IDF soldiers following the death of Shirin Abu Akleh,” Lapid tweeted in Hebrew today. “I will not allow them to prosecute an IDF fighter who defended his life from the shooting of terrorists just so that we will receive applause abroad.”
“There is no ‘crisis’ between Israel and the Biden administration,’ Israeli journalist Barak Ravid wrote on Twitter. “The State Department call for reviewing IDF rules of engagement and the ‘angry’ response by Lapid and Gantz are 100% domestic politics on both sides.”