Déjà vu, doubts from allies in the run-up to the US and Iran return to talks

Comments made about Iran this week on stages in Herzliya and Manama that could give a person a feeling of déjà vu from 2015. Once again, America’s allies in the Middle East are cautiously watching Washington’s intention to reach a agreement with Tehran, while Israel spoke difficult.

The scenes take place the week before the United States enters into indirect negotiations with Iran to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

At the Manama Dialogue of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which took place in Bahrain’s capital last weekend, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that “The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic policy resulting from the nuclear issue. But if Iran is not willing to commit seriously, then we will analyze all the necessary options to maintain the security of the United States. “

Yet when it came time to ask questions, it became clear that many of the experts and officials present 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 a US military response to the recent drone attack on a US base in Syria was a contributing factor.

The White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Brett McGurk, said that “if it is put to the test, 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. “

Several new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran’s National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021 (credit: OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY OF IRAN / WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) / BROCHURE VIA REUTERS)

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

National security adviser Eyal Hulata, speaking on the same panel, disagreed: “Iran will not make concessions just because we ask nicely … Whoever says pressure doesn’t work must see how pressure from Republican administrations and Democrat Iran changes its policy. “

Two days later, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivered an important political speech on Israel’s response to the Iranian threat, emphasizing that “even if there is a return to an agreement [with Iran]Israel is not part of it, it is not bound by it. “

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

It was a marked departure from Bennett’s earlier statements that Israel would work with the United States and keep disagreements behind closed doors.

It sounded a bit like a rerun of 2015, with just one different American president and one different Israeli prime minister. Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia share concerns about a deal with Iran that does not limit the Islamic Republic’s evil actions throughout the Middle East, including its missile program and, in a 2021 update, its unmanned aerial vehicles. armed, and whose nuclear restrictions are not robust or durable enough. But Israel is being the loudest about it.

However, there are many differences between 2015 and 2021.

Iran, for example, is bolder than it was then. It started to advance its uranium enrichment well beyond the point that has any civil justification earlier this year, reaching 60% enrichment and developing metallic uranium.

While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately makes the decisions, 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 more gruesome past as someone who oversaw the execution of thousands of dissidents. , remains a bad sign for anyone wishing to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Raisi’s negotiators have said that the talks with the United States do not deal with the nuclear issue; they just have to lift the sanctions. The United States has strong sanctions on Iran, imposed 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 said openly that they believe they were meant to do so. trigger a regime change. Regardless of the intention, none of the results have materialized. Iran is supposed to return to the table on Monday, but they are only willing to talk less than the JCPOA, not more, and the regime remains intact.

Officials in Washington are highly skeptical that anything will come out of the Vienna talks, because Iran has taken a hard line. But they have also shown their willingness to significantly soften the US stance, with a “less for less” deal that would see Iran stop enrichment, without giving up any of its already enriched uranium, in exchange for lifting some sanctions. Israel sees this as even worse than the JCPOA; It would be for the United States to stop pressuring Iran and get something essentially worthless in return, because Iran could just continue its nuclear program where it left off.

Unlike 2015, where the JCPOA established an inspections regime, imperfect as it may have been, Iran has put one hurdle 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 it could not guarantee continuity of knowledge.”

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

Returning to the Manama Dialogue, Hulata called for a united and determined front against Iran, including the US, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel and, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This happened in the same setting in which, a year earlier, a Saudi official rebuked the director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dore Gold, a confidant of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; There were no such incidents this year, and no public objections were reported to Hulata calling the Saudis “friends.”

In addition, on Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was in Rabat to sign a defense memorandum of understanding between Israel and Morocco.

These allies are working with Israel and the United States on joint military exercises aimed at sending 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 United States knows how” to actually stop Iran. .

And American allies in the region, from Israel to the Gulf, showed this week that they are not sure that the United States is really committed to what it has promised.


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