What the growing US-Israel rift means for Iran’s nuclear ambitions

Special Negotiators at the discussions to revive the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, which restarted on Nov. 29, appear no closer to finding a solution to the impasse. (AFP)
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Negotiators at the discussions to revive the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, which restarted on Nov. 29, appear no closer to finding a solution to the impasse. (AFP)
Special This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies, taken on May 31, 2021, shows a close-up view of the alleged Sanjarian nuclear facility, east of Iran's capital Tehran. (AFP)
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This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies, taken on May 31, 2021, shows a close-up view of the alleged Sanjarian nuclear facility, east of Iran's capital Tehran. (AFP)
Special Iranian protesters raise a dummy of US President Joe Biden during a rally outside the former US embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2021, to mark the 42nd anniversary of the start of the Iran hostage crisis. (AFP photo)
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Iranian protesters raise a dummy of US President Joe Biden during a rally outside the former US embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2021, to mark the 42nd anniversary of the start of the Iran hostage crisis. (AFP photo)
Special A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on Oct. 8, 2021 shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi visiting the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. (AFP)
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A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on Oct. 8, 2021 shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi visiting the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. (AFP)
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Updated 16 December 2021

What the growing US-Israel rift means for Iran’s nuclear ambitions

What the growing US-Israel rift means for Iran’s nuclear ambitions
  • As nuclear talks appear to falter, gap between US and Israeli positions widens
  • Iran watchers want the Biden administration to take Israel’s security concerns more seriously 

WASHINGTON: Talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which could see stringent sanctions on Tehran lifted in exchange for guarantees to halt its uranium enrichment program, resumed in Vienna at the end of last month.

However, delays and obstructions by the hard-line government of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, and increasingly combative rhetoric from Tel Aviv have collectively cast doubt on the success of the renewed dialogue. 

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, told a parliamentary committee on Dec. 7 that he fears the Iranians are playing for time in an attempt to water down the terms of the deal. 

“We have the feeling the Iranians want to make it last and the longer the talks last, the more they go back on their commitments and get closer to capacity to get a nuclear weapon,” Le Drian was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying. 

Soon after the talks resumed, the head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, David Barnea, vowed that Israel will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, indicating that the Naftali Bennett government is losing patience with diplomatic efforts and is increasingly willing to use force.

Indeed, on Dec. 7, Israel launched a rare airstrike against Syria’s main port of Latakia. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based conflict monitor, the strike destroyed an Iranian weapons shipment. Israel’s military is yet to comment on the attack.

“Iran will not have nuclear weapons — not in the coming years, not ever,” Barnea said at an agency awards ceremony in early December. “This is my personal commitment: This is the Mossad’s commitment.”

“Our eyes are open, we are alert, and together with our colleagues in the defense establishment, we will do whatever it takes to keep that threat away from the state of Israel and to thwart it in every way.” 

Barnea and Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, made a rare joint trip to Washington last week where they reportedly pressed senior White House officials on the need to seriously consider joint strikes on key Iranian military and nuclear targets.  




A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on Oct. 8, 2021 shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi visiting the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. (AFP) 

Iran has accelerated enrichment since the US withdrew from the accord in 2018, with then-president Donald Trump claiming the deal did not go far enough in curtailing Tehran’s atomic ambitions. Iran has long insisted its program is purely for civilian energy purposes. 

US President Joe Biden, who helped negotiate the original deal in 2015 as Barack Obama’s vice president, wants to rejoin a strengthened nuclear agreement, which co-signatories Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the EU have fought hard to salvage. 

However, Israel is not convinced that reviving the 2015 deal will curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities and its ballistic missile program, to say nothing of its destabilizing influence across the Middle East. Instead, the Israelis want a more forceful deterrent on the table. 

The window for reaching a nonmilitary resolution to Iran’s nuclear program is closing fast. Israeli intelligence indicates Iranian nuclear scientists are preparing to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, bringing Tehran closer than ever to building a bomb. 

Unless further enrichment is prevented, Iran could stockpile enough weapons-grade uranium in the coming months to produce a viable nuclear weapon with little warning.

Israel’s frustration with the Biden administration’s stance has been steadily building in recent weeks. In a video published on his YouTube channel, Naftali Bennett called on fellow world leaders to not allow Iran to get away with what he called “nuclear blackmail.” 

Israeli officials are concerned Biden’s negotiating team will roll back sanctions on Iran, both nuclear and terrorism-related, thereby releasing billions of dollars that the regime desperately needs, in exchange for only minimal guarantees on curtailing its nuclear program.

Furthermore, Bennett has hinted that Israel is prepared to take matters into its own hands if the US accepts a “less for less” interim deal with Iran that would potentially give the regime sufficient latitude to achieve nuclear weapons breakout in the near future.

Such an incremental deal could end up further emboldening Iran’s regional transnational terror network by providing Shiite proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and beyond with funding previously denied to them under harsh sanctions. 




Iranian protesters raise a dummy of US President Joe Biden during a rally outside the former US embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2021, to mark the 42nd anniversary of the start of the Iran hostage crisis. (AFP photo)

“To chase the terrorist du jour sent by the Quds Force does not pay off anymore,” Bennet said in a televised conference hosted by Reichman University on Nov. 23. “We must go for the dispatcher.”

The US and Israel have traditionally acted in lockstep on the issue of containing Iran, so the recent divergence of opinion and the growing prospect of unilateral Israeli action is raising concerns in Washington. 

“Naftali Bennett’s government tried hard to cooperate with the Biden team when they came into office to present a joint front on Iran policy because they genuinely thought it could get the US to listen to them more,” said Gabriel Noronha, executive director of the Forum for American Leadership and previously the State Department’s special adviser for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Iran Action Group.

“They’ve increasingly realized they were naive on this point and have begun speaking out in the press more and more with their complaints, while at the same time US officials are leaking details of Israeli military operations to the press. 

“Both Israeli officials and the US military leadership believe there is a need to have a credible military threat to deter Iran’s nuclear program. However, they are at odds with Biden’s political appointees at the State Department, National Security Council, and Colin Kahl — the number three official at the Pentagon — who remain under the delusion that appeasement toward Iran is the best path forward.”




International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visit the Natanz nuclear research center in Isfahan Province, Iran, Jan. 20, 2014. (AFP file photo)

Noronha warned against downplaying Israel’s complaints in the quest to revive the nuclear deal, arguing that taking the country’s security concerns seriously might actually enhance US leverage over Iran. 

“The US needs to change its approach and recognize that Israel is its best partner against the Iranian threat because its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against the regime gives the US more leverage in negotiations,” he told Arab News. 

“Many Israeli officials are incredibly frustrated by Washington’s antagonism toward Israeli policy, which is just trying to ensure its basic security needs are met. Israel can help the US — and its negotiations — by continuing to take covert action against Iran’s oil exports and its nuclear program. 

“The US would be wise to share more intelligence with Israel to advance and support its operations, as well as accelerate its military cooperation on a potential airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

One area in which the Biden administration sharply differs from Bennett’s outlook is its willingness to accept a “threshold state” when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. 

Indeed, it would appear the Biden White House is prepared to tolerate a status quo in which Iran holds the components for “nuclear breakout,” including the requisite knowledge, military hardware and enrichment capacity, without actually building a nuclear weapon. 

By contrast, the Israelis believe such a threshold state is just as serious as Iran actually developing a nuclear weapon. 

Ellie Cohanim, who was deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism at the State Department under the Trump administration, is concerned the Biden administration is not listening to Israeli concerns. 




Iran atomic energy chief Mohammad Eslami (L) and Kazem Gharib Abadi (C), Iran's governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), depart after attending an IAEA meeting in Vienna, Austria on Sept. 20, 2021. (AFP)

“It seems that, behind the scenes, the differences between the Biden administration and its Iran negotiating team with the Israeli government are growing,” Cohanim told Arab News, adding that the Biden team has failed to replicate the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

“Israeli PM Bennett has stated on the record that the US and world powers need to wake up to the fact that the Iranian regime is seeking nuclear weapons, and so it would appear there is a sense of frustration that the Israelis have with the current US administration,” she told Arab News.

“President Donald Trump stated clearly that he would never allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb on his watch, and it is time for US President Joe Biden to go on the record stating the same. 

“The Israelis have demonstrated time and again their premier intelligence capability, especially in relation to Iran. The Biden administration would be well advised to rely on Israeli intelligence data and take any necessary military actions to end Iran’s nuclear weapons activity should Israel ever assess that the Iranians had crossed the line when no further alternatives exist to kinetic activity.”

Where this line is drawn remains a point of contention between Biden and Bennett’s national security teams. Failure to reach a common position could result in unilateral Israeli action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. And, yet, the rift seems wider than ever. 




US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House on August 27, 2021 in Washington, DC, during talks focused on Iran. (AFP photo)

“Ever since Prime Minister Bennett’s visit to Washington to meet President Biden, senior Israeli officials have been publicly talking about their displeasure with Biden’s plan to move full steam ahead with diplomacy with the Islamic Republic,” Bryan Leib, executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, told Arab News.

“Just a week ago, Biden’s US special envoy to Iran was in Israel meeting with several senior Israeli officials, but it was reported that PM Bennett chose not to meet with him. 

“For the last 40 years, the Iranian regime has been censoring, oppressing and murdering its own citzens, while its leaders publicly call for the destruction of the US and the world’s only Jewish nation, Israel,” Leib said. 

“Diplomacy with the Islamic Republic will fail once again because they are not rational actors that truly seek peace and a brighter future for their people.”

____________

Twitter: @OS26


Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process
Updated 02 July 2022

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process
  • Arab League representatives also discussed the Ukrainian war, food and energy
  • The meeting will prepare for the Arab summit to be held in Algeria in October

BEIRUT: Arab foreign ministers on Saturday pledged their support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process, following an Arab League meeting held in Beirut.

They said their presence in Lebanon amid its “significantly difficult” economic and political circumstances signaled that Arab countries supported stability and stood by the country’s negotiations with the IMF and the reform process.

Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit said: “We came to say that there’s a problem and you must seek to resolve it.”

He told a press conference that the meeting had discussed the preparations, timing, and attendees of the upcoming Arab League summit.

“We just held some discussions and exchanged views to be decided upon in the appropriate place. We also went over the Ukrainian war, food, energy, and the topic of Somalia, where millions of Somalis might be at risk of starvation.

“We also discussed the Palestinian cause amid the American-Israeli moves and how we react to these events. We did not agree on anything because they are mere discussions that we will not reveal.

“Everyone supports ending the pressure of Syrian refugees. The Lebanese state provides them with care but, when decisions similar to agreeing on their return to their country are taken, some specific circumstances should be present.”

He said there was a civil war going on in Syria and “huge” destruction.

“At least $500 million is needed to rehabilitate the Syrian infrastructure,” he added. “These are very complex issues that cannot be resolved with a simple decision. But the international community has the will to end the Syrian war and is still exerting pressure when it comes to the matter of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries.”

Lebanon, which was represented by caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, chaired the ministerial meeting.

Algeria will host the Arab League summit in early November after it was postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Saturday’s meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, the Comoro Islands, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, the deputy foreign minister of Egypt, and the league’s permanent representatives from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Djibouti, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, Libya, a representative from Mauritania, and the Bahraini ambassador to Syria.

The Arab ministerial delegation met Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who expressed the importance of regional relations in the “critical circumstances the Arab world is going through, the challenges it is facing, and that requires the utmost consultation and cooperation.”

He talked about the crises facing Lebanon and the burden of Syrian refugees in the country which, he said, was “no longer capable of handling this reality.”

“We seek to reach an agreement with the IMF. There’s an American mediation to demarcate the southern maritime borders of Lebanon,” he said, adding that Lebanon retained its water, oil, and gas resources.

Responding to media questions about revoking the suspension of Syria’s Arab League membership, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said: “We didn’t support its membership suspension because Syria is a founding member of the league. The Syrian foreign minister will visit Algeria and we will go over this point with a high sense of responsibility.”

The Arab ministerial delegation also met Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who said Lebanon was now requesting that its “Arab brothers come and get to the core of its suffering.”

He told his guests that the indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, with US mediation, to demarcate the maritime borders in preparation for gas extraction were advancing.

Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati met the delegations on Friday night.

He reiterated Lebanon’s commitment to implementing all the resolutions from the UN Security Council and the Arab League in a way that reinforced the dissociation policy toward any Arab dispute, extending the state’s sovereignty over all its territory, and preventing offense to any Arab state and threats to its security.

Aboul Gheit received a political letter from the Sovereign Front for Lebanon opposing Hezbollah and Iran’s role in Lebanon.

The letter demanded “the activation of Lebanon’s right to be free from the Iranian dominance that uses Lebanon and its territories as a platform to conduct hostilities, putting the country in danger and exposing it to attacks from all sides.”   

It highlighted “the persistence of illegal weaponry represented by Hezbollah’s organized armed militia, which receives support, orders, and funding from Iran.”


Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz

Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz
Updated 02 July 2022

Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz

Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz
  • Last month on June 6, UN Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg proposed opening a main road linking Taiz with other provinces
  • The government previously insisted on a complete lifting of the siege

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen will not begin discussing other issues with the Houthis under a UN-brokered truce until the militia accepts a proposal to open roads in Taiz, a government official has told Arab News.
Last month on June 6, UN Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg proposed opening a main road linking Taiz with other provinces that would partially ease the Houthi siege on the city, with the aim of resolving stalled negotiations between the two sides.
The government previously insisted on a complete lifting of the siege but accepted the proposal as long as other roads opened during subsequent rounds of talks.
But the Houthis rejected Grundberg’s proposal, dealing a blow to the talks and the truce that has by and large been holding since April 2.
“We will not accept discussing other issues or offer more concessions before they agree to the UN envoy’s proposal,” the Yemeni government official said anonymously because he was not authorized to brief reporters. “We have not received any invitation (from the UN envoy) to take part in a new round of discussion on the Taiz file.”
The Houthis alternatively proposed opening an old, rough road connecting Taiz with the countryside.
Taiz residents and local government officials told Arab News that the proposed road was narrow, unpaved, and had been abandoned for over six decades.
The head of the Houthi delegation to the talks, Yahiya Abdullah Al-Razami, said on Friday that the movement would unilaterally open the old road, claiming it had not pledged to open main roads in Taiz when it signed the truce.
“This is not true. The Houthis signed the elements of the truce that include Sanaa airport, Hodeidah port, and opening roads in Taiz,” the government official said.
The Yemeni army has accused the Houthis of breaking the truce more than 100 times last week in Hodeidah, Taiz, Hajjah, Saada, Jouf, and Marib, and killing a soldier and wounding four more.
In Taiz, the army on Saturday said it had shot down a small explosives-rigged drone sent by the Houthis to government-controlled areas north of the city.
The Houthis have been laying siege to Taiz for the past seven years, having failed to take control of it due to resistance from government troops.
Yemeni and Western diplomats have criticized the Houthis for refusing to lift their siege and called on the movement to respond positively to peace efforts.
“The UN calls for access around Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz. The Houthis must find a way to compromise on the UN proposal so we can move forward to broader issues important to Yemenis,” US Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking told France 24 Arabic TV on Friday.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak warned that the Houthis’ unwillingness and delays in opening roads in Taiz would jeopardize the truce.
He said his government had accepted the UN proposal on Taiz as it was a test of the militia’s motivations for making peace and ending the war.
“Lifting the siege is one of the main elements of the truce. We affirm our keenness to respect the truce and treat it as a space of hope and a window for peace. But the continued intransigence of the Houthi militia threatens the truce very seriously,” he told Lebanon’s Annahar Al-Arabi news website.


UN condemns protesters’ storming of Libya’s parliament

UN condemns protesters’ storming of Libya’s parliament
Updated 02 July 2022

UN condemns protesters’ storming of Libya’s parliament

UN condemns protesters’ storming of Libya’s parliament
  • The UN’s top Libya envoy Stephanie Williams says ‘riots and acts of vandalism’ were ‘totally unacceptable’
  • Libyan protesters say they will keep demonstrating until all the ruling elites quit power

CAIRO/TRIPOLI: A senior UN official for Libya on Saturday condemned the storming of the parliament’s headquarters by angry demonstrators as part of protests in several cities against the political class and deteriorating economic conditions.
Hundreds of protesters marched in the streets of the capital, Tripoli, and other Libyan cities on Friday, with many attacking and setting fire to government buildings, including the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk.
“The people’s right to peacefully protest should be respected and protected but riots and acts of vandalism such as the storming of the House of Representatives headquarters late yesterday in Tobruk are totally unacceptable,” said Stephanie Williams, the UN special adviser on Libya, on Twitter.
Libyans, many impoverished after a decade of turmoil and sweltering in the soaring summer heat, have been enduring power cuts of up to 18 hours a day, fuel shortages, and crumbling services and infrastructure, even as their country sits atop Africa’s largest proven oil reserves.
In both the main eastern city of Benghazi — the cradle of the 2011 uprising — and the capital Tripoli, thousands took to the streets to chants of “We want the lights to work.”
Friday’s protests came a day after the leaders of the parliament and another legislative chamber based in Tripoli failed to reach an agreement on elections during UN-mediated talks in Geneva. The dispute now centers on the eligibility requirements for candidates, according to the UN.
Libya failed to hold elections in December, following challenges such as legal disputes, controversial presidential hopefuls and the presence of rogue militias and foreign fighters in the country.
The failure to hold the vote was a major below to international efforts to bring peace to the Mediterranean nation. It has opened a new chapter in its long-running political impasse, with two rival governments now claiming power after tentative steps toward unity in the past year.
The protesters, frustrated from years of chaos and division, have called for the removal of the current political class and elections to be held. They also rallied against dire economic conditions in the oil-rich nation, where prices have risen for fuel and bread and power outages are a regular occurrence.
There were fears that militias across the country could quash the protests as they did in 2020 demonstrations when they opened fire on people protesting dire economic conditions.
Sabadell Jose, the European Union envoy in Libya, called on protesters to “avoid any type of violence.” He said Friday’s demonstrations demonstrated that people want “change through elections and their voices should be heard.”
Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The country was then for years split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.
Libya’s energy sector, which during the Qaddafi era financed a generous welfare state, has also fallen victim to political divisions, with a wave of forced closures of oil facilities since April.
Supporters of the eastern-based administration have shut off the oil taps as leverage in their efforts to secure a transfer of power to Bashagha, whose attempt to take up office in Tripoli in May ended in a swift withdrawal.
Libya’s National Oil Corporation has announced losses of more than $3.5 billion from the closures and a drop in gas output, which has a knock-on effect on the power grid.
(With AP and AFP)


Palestinians to hand bullet that killed journalist to US for examination

Palestinians to hand bullet that killed journalist to US for examination
Updated 02 July 2022

Palestinians to hand bullet that killed journalist to US for examination

Palestinians to hand bullet that killed journalist to US for examination

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian Authority will hand the bullet that killed prominent Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to US authorities for forensic examination, a Palestinian official said on Saturday.
Abu Akleh was killed on May 11 while was covering an Israeli military raid in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank.
After an investigation, the Palestinian Authority said she had been shot by an Israeli soldier in a “deliberate murder.”
Israel has denied the accusation and says it is continuing its own investigation. But it says it cannot determine whether she was shot accidentally by an Israeli soldier or by a Palestinian militant during an exchange of fire without examining the bullet to see if it matches an Israeli military gun.
“We agreed to transfer the bullet to the Americans for examination,” Akram Al-Khatib, General Prosecutor for the Palestinian Authority, told Reuters without providing further details.


UAE sends three planes of medical aid to Afghanistan

UAE sends three planes of medical aid to Afghanistan
Updated 02 July 2022

UAE sends three planes of medical aid to Afghanistan

UAE sends three planes of medical aid to Afghanistan
  • The dispatched field hospital includes 75 beds and two operating rooms

The UAE has sent three planes of medical supplies, including a 1,000 square-meter-field hospital, to aid the injured of Afghanistan's earthquake that killed over 1,000 people and wounded scores more, Emirates new agency (WAM) reported on Saturday.
The dispatched hospital includes 75 beds and two operating rooms equipped with medical supplies and devices, the WAM statement read.
The planes also carried 16 metric tonnes of equipment and a medical team to operate the hospital and provide urgent medical services.
The UAE earlier established an air bridge to transport aid in the wake of the disaster.
The relief efforts come as Afghan authorities reported a shortage of food, shelter and medical supplies for the victims of the country’s deadliest earthquake in decades.

Last week, the country dispatched a plane carrying 30 tons of urgent food supplies to Afghanistan as aid continued to pour in from different parts of the world.