Israeli leaders take credit for blocking Iran nuclear deal
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took credit for the current deadlock in talks between Iran and world powers.
Former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett arrives to attend the first cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 3, 2022, days after lawmakers dissolved parliament. – GIL COHEN-MAGEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
December 22, 2022
One sentence uttered by US President Joe Biden to a protester generated great excitement in Israel this week. According to a newly surfaced video of the brief Nov. 3 encounter, the demonstrator urged Biden to declare the Iran nuclear deal dead. “It is dead, but we are not going to announce it,” he answered, essentially burying the lengthy, convoluted negotiations between Iran and world powers on reconstituting the agreement, which have troubled Israel greatly since the Democrats came to power almost two years ago.
Israel’s former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was quick to take credit for the demise of the deal. “Quietly and wisely, through a series of diplomatic and other actions, we managed to stop the return to the nuclear agreement without creating a rift with the US,” Bennett tweeted.
Bennett, who served in office during the Biden administration’s initial months, said that his government’s policy had not only thwarted the nuclear agreement but also undermined Iranian-sponsored terrorism by striking at its architects on Iranian soil. “I hope the new government persists on this course,” he continued, in an acerbic reference to the confrontations by his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu with the Obama administration over the original 2015 Iran agreement, clashes that damaged US-Israel relations but failed to achieve their objective.
Biden’s comment runs counter to the assessments by Israel’s intelligence agencies, which informed decision-makers in no uncertain terms just a few months ago that the completion of an agreement with Iran was only a matter of time because both sides were determined to see it through. Mossad Director David Barnea, who led a highly unusual public campaign against such an outcome — earning a reprimand by Bennet’s successor, Yair Lapid — even embarked on a series of high-level meetings in Washington in September, in what was described as a last-minute bid to reverse a seemingly imminent deal.
Looking back, Barnea and other top officials stand by their gloomy assessment of the time, insisting that the agreement with Tehran was a done deal until the very last minute. “The papers were ready to be printed for signing,” a senior Mossad official told Al-Monitor recently, on condition of anonymity. “It was clear to both sides that this was going to happen. No one was in any doubt and this was how they behaved.”
What, then, derailed the deal after both Iran and the United States adopted strategic decisions to move ahead? According to Israeli intelligence officials, three factors shaped in this outcome.
The first was the outbreak of rioting in Iran over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini in September. “Once photos, rumors and reports began to emerge of the vicious crackdown on anti-government protesters, the Democratic administration, a stickler for human rights, found it very hard to make a deal with Tehran,” one diplomatic official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. Israel is convinced that the more these protests intensified, with executions of protesters and deadly clashes, the prospects of completing the nuclear deal declined. A deal would have been construed as a sell-out of Democratic values and deeply damaging to Democratic prospects in the November mid-terms.
The unexpected military cooperation of recent months between Moscow and Tehran was also a major contributor (the second factor) to sinking the nuclear deal. Israel takes credit for revealing that Iran is supplying Russia with armed drones to attack Ukraine. “Biden could simply not afford to cooperate with this,” said a senior Israeli intelligence source speaking on condition of anonymity. “When the eyes of the world are on the war in Ukraine, and the entire West is mobilized in an effort to block the Russian aggression, you cannot sign agreements with those who have become suppliers of the weapons killing civilians in Kyiv and Cherson.”
As of now, Israel’s concern about the cooperation between Tehran and Moscow is not limited to the nuclear issue. This new and surprising axis could present Israel with difficult and unexpected problems. Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gadi Eizenkot, former Israell Defense Forces chief and current Knesset member of the National Unity alliance, told Al-Monitor this week that the tightening Moscow-Tehran cooperation could also have an impact on the front vis-a-vis Israel, on Iran’s self-confidence, on its military capabilities and the array of weapons in its arsenals. “This is a worrisome development,” he said. “We have to be cognizant of its various implications.”
The third factor to which Israel attributes the demise of the nuclear agreement is Iran’s continued terrorist activity. The plot exposed by the Mossad earlier this year, when it issued a recording of an interrogation it conducted on Iranian soil of a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official who revealed plans to attack diplomats in Europe and especially an American general, generated shocked reaction in Western capitals and in particular Washington. “This critical mass — including efforts to quell ongoing domestic protests by killing demonstrators, among them women and children — helped [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s continued killing of Ukrainian civilians, and Iran’s continued engagement in global terrorism made the signing of the agreement impossible,” said the senior Israeli intelligence source.
During the crucial weeks when negotiations with Iran seemed headed for conclusion, Barnea was frank in telling US officials that he knew they had already made up their minds to sign, but that new information had come to light in the interim. Even as the Americans, according to Israeli sources, listened and deliberated, they witnessed the above-mentioned developments taking place in front of their eyes. The deal was dead in the water, and unlikely to resurface any time soon.
Nonetheless, this is hardly a victory for Israel. Citing Israeli sources, Haaretz reported today that Iran could employ the same technology it uses for the missiles in its space program to make ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads and significantly expand the range of its conventional missiles. At the same time, Iran’s uranium enrichment is now at its most advanced stage ever. The incoming Netanyahu government is shaping up as the most extreme in Israeli history and risks losing a significant measure of international legitimacy. In the United States, meanwhile, Democrats are looking ahead to the 2024 presidential elections. These developments do not augur well for Israel, and especially not for Netanyahu, who has turned the Iran issue into a mainstay of his agenda. Absent an agreement with world powers, Iran is realizing its ambitions to become a nuclear power.