Middle East

Déjà vu, doubts from allies in runup to US, Iran return to talks

Remarks made about Iran this week on stages in Herzliya and Manama could give a person a feeling of déjà vu from 2015. Once again, US allies in the Middle East are looking warily at Washington’s intention to strike a deal with Tehran, as Israel talked tough.

The scenes come the week before the US is set to engage in indirect negotiations with Iran in to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

At the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Manama Dialogue, which took place in Bahrain’s capital last weekend, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared that “the United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue. But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure.”

Yet, when it came time to ask questions, it was clear that many of the experts and officials in attendance from across the Gulf doubted Washington’s commitment to that goal or even its interest in the Middle East at this time. The lack of an American military response to the recent drone attack on a US base in Syria was one factor contributing to that sense.

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White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk said that “if tested, we will protect our people, including through the use of military force when necessary, and if we need to use force, we are prepared to do so, decisively.”

A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran’s National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran April 10, 2021 (credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

But McGurk emphasized that diplomacy will come first, and that increased pressure on Iran is not going to make it “change [its] orientation or that the regime will collapse under sanctions.”

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, speaking on the same panel, disagreed: “Iran won’t make concessions only because we ask them nicely…Whoever says pressure doesn’t work needs to look at how pressure by both Republican and Democratic administrations made Iran change its policy.”

Two days later, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gave a major policy speech on Israel’s response to the Iranian threat, where he emphasized that “even if there is a return to an agreement [with Iran], Israel is not a party to it – is not obligated by it.”

This is a difficult situation, Bennett added, because there are disagreements between Israel and its greatest allies, but Israel will maintain its right to act independently in its defense.

It was a marked shift from Bennett’s previous statements that Israel was going to work with the US and keep disagreements behind closed doors.

It sounded a bit like a repeat of 2015, with just a different US president and Israeli prime minister. Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia share concerns about an Iran Deal that does not limit the Islamic Republic’s malign actions throughout the Middle East, including its missile program and – in a 2021 update – its armed UAVs, and whose nuclear restrictions are not robust or long-lasting enough. But Israel is being the loudest about it.

However, there are a lot of differences between 2015 and 2021.

Iran, for one, is bolder than it was then. It started advancing its uranium enrichment far beyond the point that has any civilian justification at the beginning of this year, reaching 60% enrichment and developed uranium metal.

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While the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately calls the shots, the fact that Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi is more brazen than his predecessor in his anti-American and anti-Western stance, and has a grislier past as someone who oversaw the execution of thousands of dissidents, is still a bad sign for anyone hoping to restrain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Raisi’s negotiators have said that the talks with the US are not about the nuclear issue; they’re only to lift sanctions. The US has heavy sanctions on Iran, placed by the Trump administration in what former president Donald Trump said was an attempt to pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table for a much tougher deal, but the Biden administration has openly said they believe were meant to trigger regime change. Regardless of intention, neither outcome has come to fruition. Iran is supposed to be back at the table on Monday, but they’re only willing to talk about less than the JCPOA, not more, and the regime is still intact.

Officials in Washington are very skeptical that anything will come of the Vienna talks, because Iran has taken such a hardline. But they have also shown willingness to significantly soften the US stance, with a “less for less” deal that would have Iran stop enrichment – without giving up on any of its already-enriched uranium – in exchange for lifting some sanctions. Israel views this as even worse than the JCPOA; it would be the US letting up pressure on Iran and getting something essentially worthless in return, because Iran could just continue its nuclear program where it left off.

Unlike in 2015, where the JCPOA put in an inspections regime – imperfect as it may have been – Iran has put one obstacle after another in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as its Director-General Rafael Grossi essentially admitted on Wednesday after a visit to Iran, saying: “We could not reach an agreement…We are close to the point where I would not be able to guarantee continuity of knowledge.”

On the positive side, Israel has more allies in the region now than ever before.

Going back to the Manama Dialogue, Hulata called for a united and determined front against Iran, including the US, UAE, Bahrain, Israel, and – notably – Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This was on the same stage from which, a year earlier, a Saudi official berated Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Director Dore Gold, a confidant of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; no such incidents were took place this year, and no public objections to the Saudis being called “friends” by Hulata were reported to have been raised.

Plus, on Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was in Rabat to sign an Israel-Morocco defense memorandum of understanding.

These allies are working with Israel and the US on joint military exercises meant to send a message to Tehran. 

However, as former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said at the same conference at Reichman University after Bennett’s speech, Israel’s independent preparation against Iran is not enough, because “only the US knows how” to really stop Iran.

And American allies in the region, from Israel to the Gulf, showed this week that they’re not sure the US is really committed to what it promised.

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