Middle East

US, Israeli views on Iran nukes grow closer as patience wears thin

Israel and the US sounded more in sync on the Iranian threat this week at the trilateral meeting of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in Washington, than at any time since US President Joe Biden entered office nine months ago.

The relationship began with Jerusalem’s position moving closer to Washington’s, but now it is the Biden administration making moves in Israel’s direction.

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When Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid came into office in June, they decided to overturn former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of refusing to engage with the Biden administration on its aim to return to the Iran nuclear deal. It didn’t work when Netanyahu did that in 2015, so they figured they ought to try something else.

From very early on, part of that engagement was trying to get a sense of Washington’s plan B. If negotiations don’t put Iran “back in the box,” as Blinken has put it, what does the US intend to do to ensure Iran does not attain a nuclear weapon with which to threaten Israel and the whole world?

More than four months have passed since Iran stepped away from the negotiations table in Vienna, saying that it would return, but not saying when, and the Islamic Republic has used that time to continue to advance its uranium enrichment and spin more centrifuges.

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

During this period, Israel has continued to ask the US what its alternative is to negotiations – while independently working on its own plans – and what the Americans’ deadline is for Iran to return to talks. Those questions came up in Lapid’s meetings with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Blinken and they discussed answers that Israelis had not heard before.

With the prospects of talks dimming, Israel still views – as it did during Netanyahu’s tenure – heavy sanctions on Iran as the best way to pressure it to abandon its nuclear program, while keeping a credible military option on the table and undertaking covert operations against Iran’s nuclear program.

The Americans still want to give negotiations a shot, but statements Blinken and US Special Envoy to Iran Rob Malley made on Wednesday showed they are coming close to the realization that a change of plans is needed.

While maintaining that diplomacy is still the best way to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Blinken said at a news conference with Lapid and bin Zayed that “what we are seeing – or more accurately, not seeing – from Tehran suggests that they’re not” willing to take that route.

“Time is running short because, as we’ve also had the opportunity to discuss, we are getting closer to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not recapture the benefits of the JCPOA, because Iran is using this time to advance its program…. With every day of refusal to engage in good faith, the runway gets shorter,” he said.

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BLINKEN AND MALLEY said separately that the US and Israel are united in opposition to Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

Malley said the US “will be prepared to adjust to a different reality in which we have to deal with all options to address Iran’s nuclear program if it’s not prepared to come back into the constraints” of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In that situation, the US will consider “all options,” implying a military threat, Malley said at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event.

Lapid similarly said in the news conference that “other options will be on the table” if diplomacy between world powers and Iran fails.

“When we say other options, I think everyone understands here, in Israel, in the Emirates, and in Tehran, what it means,” Lapid added, and said he brought up those options with Sullivan as well.

“Israel reserves the right to act at any given moment, in any way,” said Lapid. “That is not only our right, it is also our responsibility. Iran has publicly stated it wants to wipe us out. We have no intention of letting that happen.”

The foreign minister warned that Iran is on the way to becoming a nuclear threshold state while the world waits for the Islamic Republic to negotiate again.

“Secretary of State Blinken and I are sons of Holocaust survivors,” apid said. “We know there are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil. If a terror regime is going to acquire a nuclear weapon, we must act. We must make clear that the civilized world won’t allow it.”

The similar messaging between Lapid and Blinken could be a result of good coordination by them and their teams, but it’s noteworthy that they – and Malley, perhaps the administration’s biggest supporter of engagement with Iran – are saying such similar things, that time is running out, and that the “other,” aka military, option still exists.

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