Israeli leaks seen as trying to derail U.S. effort to avoid Iran nuclear escalation
While recent media reports citing Israeli officials seem intended to derail U.S. effort to avoid escalation with Iran, former Israel DM Benny Gantz said it would be worth considering.
But there are reasons to think that the reports are misleading, and on the Israeli side, are meant to try to scuttle any far more limited understanding to head off a crisis in the absence of conditions for a major new diplomatic resolution on Iran.
For one, Washington’s closest European partners in the old deal have not been briefed, including on any recent (Israeli-rumored) US Iran contacts, multiple sources tell me.
For Biden administration officials, the leaking, and spinning, by Israeli officials, has got to be a source of extreme irritation. All the more so because they seem to distort and weaponize information the U.S. has briefed to the Israelis, to keep them in the loop and try to reassure them of the seemingly quite limited nature of the effort being pursued.
“Any return to a nuclear deal with Iran would not halt the Iranian nuclear program, and any accord with Iran would not be binding on Israel, which will do anything required for self-defence,” Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a phone call today (June 8), according to an Israeli readout of the call. The statement might seem to misleadingly imply that the U.S. is considering a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which then-US president Trump quit in 2018, with Netanyahu’s encouragement, when that does not appear to remotely be the case.
“We will not respond to purported leaks of diplomatic conversations or rumors or detail our diplomatic efforts at this time,” a State Department spokesperson said May 31. He was responding to questions about an Axios report citing three senior Israeli officials that NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk had met with Omani officials on May 8 to discuss “whether the Iranians are open to taking steps that would put some limits on their nuclear program and de-escalate the regional situation.”
As another Washington hand conveyed to me this week, the Israelis don’t like any diplomacy or diplomatic efforts that they believe could lessen perceived pressure on the Iranian regime. Even when the presumed ask of Iran – refraining from further nuclear advances that would escalate the situation, such as 90% enrichment—is one that Israel shares and considers a top priority; and the presumed relief being considered is minimal.
“Iran should take actions that build international confidence and deescalate tensions, not continue to undermine essential assurances, ” US Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Laura Holgate said at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna on June 6.
Former Israel DM: Understanding that would set back Iran nuclear threat is worth considering
Former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, now a member of the Israeli opposition in the Knesset, this week offered qualified support for a hypothetical U.S./Iran understanding that would push back the Iran nuclear threat.
“If something can push away the threat—seriously push away the threat – then it’s something to consider,” Gantz said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) on June 6, when asked about reports of a possible U.S. Iran interim-type deal.
“So all questions of -- how credible this agreement is, how much can you push it back, how can you verify it -- I think that's the main issue,” Gantz said.
“Hype and exaggeration”
With the U.S. administration keeping mostly mum, the task of reality checking and combating perceived hype and distortions in the media reports is often left to experts like Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, who stays in close contact with the U.S. negotiators as well as European and Iranian parties.
Vaez sees hype and distortions coming from both recent Israeli and some Iranian media reporting, for different reasons. The Iranians, Vaez suggested, in order to hint that an economic windfall is on the horizon and therefore attempt to boost their markets and prop up their currency. The Israelis, to try to scuttle a very modest, still hypothetical US/Iran understanding that the Israelis are seemingly more ambivalent about than outright oppose, but evidently fear could be the gateway to further US/Iran diplomacy.
“The Israelis…are worried that it will become a gateway that will result in more understanding between Iran and the U.S. and the kind of nuclear deal that they don't like to see, like an interim agreement or ‘less for less’ deal,” Vaez said. “They're trying to get Congress …to nip it in the bud, if there’s any possibility of any kind of understanding between Iran and the U.S., and so that's the reason for exaggeration.”
Contacts don’t mean negotiations
It is precisely because the U.S. doesn’t see an opportunity now to have a diplomatic breakthrough to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that it would be logical for the U.S. to try to have contacts with Iran, to convey with clarity warnings in order to avoid the situation spinning out of control, explained another person who has worked in diplomacy, who did not wish to be quoted directly. It’s dangerous to have a situation where both sides are second-guessing each other’s intentions. It would be better that the other side knows exactly what to expect if it proceeds with certain steps or actions.
The existence of contacts doesn't mean negotiations, the person added. Sometimes in diplomacy, when there is not a path to resolve the situation, then the goal is to contain the situation, to make sure you do not reach a point of no return.
Israel doesn’t want its hands tied
To what end almost knee-jerk Israeli opposition to an understanding that might, for instance, result in Iran refraining from more advanced nuclear work that Israel also wants Iran to refrain from?
“Israel is concerned that it has lost the ability to impact understandings being formulated between the United States and Iran regarding Tehran’s nuclear program, as levers that were used in the past are no longer relevant,” Haaretz’s Amir Tibon wrote in an analysis today.
The Washington Institute’s David Makovsky, who co-moderated the Institute’s June 6 panel with Gantz, explained that, from Israel’s perspective, they might be concerned about an agreement or less formal understanding “that would be interpreted that it ties Israel’s hands,” and that would make Israeli agitation for more pressure and military action on Iran “the skunk at the garden party.”
But Makovky noted that Gantz seemed open to such an understanding, and to think it might be a good thing.
The prospect that Israel might feel it needs to take future military action on Iran “is an option, that should not be the first option,” Gantz said. “It’s closer than before. … And if there is a solution for it without a war, I would be the first one to be happy.”
“Restraint for restraint”
Vaez described what the U.S. might be seeking as a limited understanding that might occur in parallel to a deal to secure the release of American hostages being held in Iran.
“The sense I have of it is that potentially what could occur, in parallel to a detainee deal, is an understanding that neither side would engage in the kind of activities that would destabilize the situation. Whether it’s Iran significantly ratcheting up its nuclear program or ratcheting down transparency; or whether it is the U.S. or the West snapping back UN sanctions or engaging in the kind of action that from Iran’s perspective would amount to rocking the boat,” he said.
“That's why I call it ‘restraint for restraint,’ because I think it's really not even a ‘gesture for gesture,’ or ‘less for less’ [deal], because all of those…would require a degree of freeze and rollback on the Iranian side, and a significant degree of sanctions relief on the U.S. side, and that is not what’s going to happen,” he said.
So why would the Israelis oppose it?
Because, if an understanding were to be reached, “this would be the first…agreement between Iran and the Biden administration,” Vaez said. “And they’re worried it would open the door to exactly the kind of understanding that they don’t like to see.”
“The problem with their approach is that, they don’t have a viable alternative,” Vaez said. “They’re against restoring the JCPOA. They’re against a new deal. They’re against an interim deal. They’re against less for less. They’re against gesture for gesture. And, they’re against no deal at all. It is also the no-deal situation that is uncomfortable for them. So it’s not clear really what they want.”
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