The increasingly warm relations between Iran and a number of moderate states in the region are causing worry in Israel. Frustration is rising in Jerusalem over what is being termed the “passive” U.S. policy on Iran’s nuclear program.
Since Ebrahim Raisi was elected president of Iran, the country has been investing considerable effort in rebuilding its ties with other Middle East nations, including ones considered moderate. The most notable of these is Saudi Arabia, after years of a break between Iran and the Saudis, it is becoming increasingly likely that they might renew diplomatic relations, and even open consulates. Meanwhile, Iranian-Qatari relations are also strengthening, and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has held a surprising first conversation with his Jordanian counterpart.
Israel is following these developments with concern. They signify not only growing Iranian confidence in the regional and international arenas, but also the Iranians’ realization that the U.S. exit from the region has left a vacuum which they can fill. Among other things, the Iranians can work to counterbalance the Abraham Accords, which Iran sees as a huge threat to its own interests in the region.
In the past few weeks, the issue has been raised a few times in contacts between high-ranking Israeli and American officials. The Israelis made it clear that American influence and support were needed to balance the Iranians’ efforts. However, the prevailing belief in Jerusalem is that while Washington will try to help Israel and its other regional allies, it may in turn demand progress on the Palestinian issue.
Iran’s regional activity is taking place as it maneuvers to postpone rejoining the negotiations for a new nuclear deal. In recent weeks, Iran has increased its uranium enrichment, although the assessment in Israel and the west is that the enrichment activity is not designated to achieve nuclear “breakout,” but rather to secure additional assets to use as bargaining chips to reach an improved deal with the Americans.
In talks with the United States, Israeli officials received the impression that the two sides were closer than in the past when it came to Iran’s nuclear project and its various components. However, considerable distance remains between Jerusalem and Washington when it comes to what conclusions should be drawn and what steps should be taken in future.
Israel would like to see the United States set a deadline, one that would carry a clear threat of heavy sanctions and possibly a military operation, to force the Iranians to stop playing for time. The Americans, however, have made it clear that the second option is not currently on the table, and until a few days ago it appeared that Washington would only resort to sanctions as a last possible measure.
This led to considerable frustration in Israel. Off the record, senior government officials called the Americans “naïve,” and expressed worry that Washington’s “passive policy,” as they called it, is being exploited to the hilt by Iran so it can make progress on its nuclear plans. Still, recent days have seen new messages conveyed to Israel, indicating that Washington’s patience with Iran’s delaying tactics is about to run out, and that if no progress toward a deal is made soon, the Americans will adopt a series of new diplomatic and economic steps against Iran, the Iranian regime and its interests.
On Monday, a senior Israeli official said he thought that the Iranians would try to “drag it out for a few more weeks” before returning to the negotiating table. The working assumption is that Iran will not sign an agreement different from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement, despite the Israeli demand for significant changes to the deal, most of which have to do with its end date and other matters pertaining to oversight. Still, it’s doubtful the U.S. administration will insist on changes to the deal, as they have already said they will try to improve it “on the way.”
The Israeli effort to reach maximal cooperation with the United States is due to, among other factors, the fact that Israel has very few options left. The Netanyahu government’s pressure—which led to the United States withdrawing from the 2015 deal—was based on the assumption that, facing collapse due to heavy economic sanctions, Iran would sign a better deal, or if not, that the United States would attack it, or at least threaten to do so.
These assumptions (along with the hope that former President Trump would be reelected) turned out to be incorrect, and thus Israel now realizes that a return to the original deal is the only way to buy time Israel can use to make a diplomatic effort and step up military preparations to keep Iran away from a nuclear bomb, now and in the future.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.