U.S., disowning suspected Israeli op at Iran’s Natanz, says focused on diplomacy

‘The U.S. was not involved in any manner,’ White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said. ‘Our focus is…on the diplomatic path forward.’

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, speaks to Iranian media from his hospital bed on April 12, 2021, after being injured inspecting the damage at Natanz, via Twitter.

In a terse statement distancing itself from suspected Israeli action and doubling down on pursuing a diplomatic path, the Biden administration on Monday indicated that it had “no involvement” in a reported power disruption at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility on Sunday that Iran condemned as an act of “sabotage,” likely conducted by Israel.

“We have seen reports of an incident at the Natanz enrichment facility in Iran,” a senior U.S. administration official said in a statement to journalists on Monday. “The United States had no involvement, and we have nothing to add to speculation about the causes.”

“The U.S. was not involved in any manner,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki subsequently told journalists at the White House press briefing on Monday. “We have nothing to add on speculation about the causes.”

Psaki expressed hopes that international talks on how the US and Iran might return to full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resume as planned this week in Vienna. The newly revived diplomatic track, involving indirect talks between Washington and Tehran, as well as Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union, got underway in Vienna last week.

“We are focused on the discussions that we expect to proceed this Wednesday in Vienna,” Psaki said.

“We have not been given any indication about a change in participation for these discussions,” Psaki said, referring obliquely to the concern that Iran could quit the talks to protest the alleged sabotage at its main uranium enrichment site, which is monitored by the UN atomic watchdog agency.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also linked the suspected Israeli action at Natanz to the revived nuclear diplomacy, suggesting it was intended to try to derail efforts to reach an understanding under which Iran could receive U.S. sanctions relief.

Iran since 2019 has been steadily exceeding the pact’s nuclear limits to protest crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States after then President Trump quit the deal in 2018. President Biden has said he would return the United States to the accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Iran agrees to return to the deal’s limits.

“By launching an attack on Natanz, Israel seeks to ‘take revenge for [Iran's] successes on the way toward removing oppressive sanctions,’” Zarif told an Iranian parliamentary committee on Monday, Amwaj.media reported.

While Iran will refrain from making a final judgment about who conducted the Natanz attack until it completes an investigation, Zarif wrote in a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday, “it must however be borne in mind that since the beginning of the negotiations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2013, the Israeli regime has missed no opportunity to torpedo the negotiations and…has made every effort…to prevent its successful implementation and restoration after the recent US election.”

“If the United States wants to avert the drastic consequences,” Zarif’s letter continued, “it must…remove all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or relabeled since the adoption of the JCPOA. Iran will, after timely verification of the aforementioned, respond by stopping all remedial measures, which will now take a significant upward leap following this latest terrorist sabotage.”

A senior American diplomat, speaking to journalists after returning from the first round of consultations in Vienna late last week, urged Iran to back off what he characterized as an overly maximal position on its demand for sanctions relief to speed up progress on a mutual return to the deal.

“If Iran sticks to the position that every sanction that has been imposed since 2017 has to be lifted or there will be no deal, then we're heading towards an impasse,” the senior State Department official told journalists in a background call on April 9.

The suspected sabotage at Natanz will probably not spur Iran to quit the Vienna talks, but is likely to harden Tehran’s negotiating position, at least in the short term, said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

“Honestly, I don’t think it will derail the diplomatic track in Vienna,” Vaez told me today. “But it will make it more difficult for the Iranian negotiators to compromise, and reduce their maneuvering space in the short run.”

Potentially, it could also possibly help “convince the Iranian leadership, that if the restoration of the nuclear deal is such a big concern for Israel, then it should not be that bad for Iran,” Vaez said.

A Middle East regional expert said that while he does not expect Washington to point the finger at Israel for the suspected sabotage, the fact that Washington has publicly disassociated itself is in and of itself important.

“The more the P5+1 sheds light on this issue, the more difficult it would become for Israel to continue to conduct these operations,” the expert said, referring to  the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

A recent seeming uptick in Israeli covert operations against Iran is “indicative of the fact that Israel is starting to get really concerned about the restoration of the JCPOA,” as the diplomatic track gains momentum, he said.

Just how much awkwardness or chill the suspected Israeli action might cause in relations with the new Biden administration is still to be determined.

Notably, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, making the first visit of a Biden administration cabinet chief to Israel, made no mention of Iran at all in his public remarks after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, the Jerusalem Post reported

On Tuesday, Israeli security chiefs are due to hold a virtual strategic dialogue with their Biden administration counterparts, co-chaired by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, Axios’ Barak Ravid reported: “It’s unclear how much coordination the Israelis did with Washington before…the apparent attack at the Natanz nuclear site,” Ravid wrote.

And on Wednesday—a day after the strategic dialogue with the Israelis—the Biden administration plans to resume Iran nuclear talks with the other parties in Vienna, the White House’s Psaki pointedly noted.

Asked late into the briefing how concerned are the White House and the President that the actions of an ally could potentially derail efforts to get Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal, Psaki declined again to speak about who might be responsible for the alleged incident at Natanz, but indicated the United States was doubling down on diplomacy.

“Our focus is, of course, on the diplomatic path forward,” Psaki said. “So that’s where our focus is.”