Gilad Erdan, a former Likud Knesset member and Israeli government minister, has served as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations since July 2020. Appointed by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he stayed on to work in New York through the subsequent premierships of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, though Erdan stepped down from his dual post as ambassador to the United States following Netanyahu’s electoral loss in June 2021.

Erdan was elected as a vice president of the upcoming session of the U.N. General Assembly and has a number of noted accomplishments, including the passage of an Israeli-sponsored General Assembly resolution combating Holocaust denial and distortion.

His main fight at the world body, however, has been seeking to draw the hyper-focus of some member states away from the minutiae of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and towards Iran. With Washington and Tehran continuing their seemingly endless negotiations on a revived nuclear accord after the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018three years after the deal was put into placeJNS sat down with Erdan to speak about efforts to contain the Islamic Republic.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Ambassador Erdan, thank you so much for taking the time to join us here. We have heard from U.S. and European officials of late, who say that Iran’s latest response to the nuclear negotiations is a step backwards—that they’re actually moving away from a deal. Where is Israel’s positioning right now on this constant foot-dragging by Iran on a revived nuclear deal?

A: Our position hasn’t changed. We opposed the JCPOA back in 2015, and we continue to strongly oppose this potential deal with Iran to revive, basically, the old JCPOA. And why we oppose it so strongly is because this potential nuclear deal doesn’t do even the one thing that it was aimed to domeaning to stop a nuclear Iran. For Israel, a nuclear Iran is an existential threat. We are in a very unique situation, you know, as the regime run by Ayatollah [Ali Khamenei] openly and publicly threatens Israel with annihilation. Even the most moderate so-called leader that they had, President [Akbar Hasemi] Rafsanjani, used to call Israel a one-bomb state. So for us, it’s an existential threat. 

And this deal basically includes sunset clauses, which means that in two to seven years from now, most, if not all, of the restrictions will be lifted, and Iran will be able to enrich uranium without any limitations; they’ll be able to use advanced centrifuges, so it’s going to legitimize Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. So that is why we oppose it so strongly. 

I think that beyond Israel’s interests, it’s going to undermine and endanger the whole region. Why? Because this deal does not address any of the threats that Iran poses. It does not address the malign activities of Iran in our regionthe fact that they continue to support Hezbollah and Hamas, which are firing thousands of missiles against Israel. It continues to support the Houthis in Yemen, which attacks the United Arab Emirates with drones or attacks oil fields in Saudi Arabia. 

But it’s not only the region. I mean, this deal might endanger the security of the whole world because Iran is still testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and last time I checked, Israel and Iran are on the same continent. So, it means that Iran has a dangerous vision to export the Shi’ite [Islamic] Revolution and wants to be able to threaten every city around the world: Paris, New York, London. This deal will enable them to get these weapons that will enable them to threaten all of us.

Q: Obviously, there have been never-ending talks between Washington and Tehran with Brussels acting as a mediator. In terms of your role here in New York at the United Nations, what have you been able to do in this regard, and who have you been speaking with? What do you feel your role is here at the United Nations in trying to stop this deal or at least make sure that it takes Israel’s interest into consideration?

A: It’s a very important question because I think all of us have a role to try and influence the mindset of decision-makers to understand the danger of a rogue state like Iran for the future of all of us. Clearly, as you described, negotiations are taking place in Vienna between the American administration and the Iranian regime through the European mediators. But you know, the U.N. Security Council is hoping that many discussions take place regarding the security of the Middle East. And this is my role to try and influence the mindset of the members of the Security Council. All the signatories are members of the Security Council. And I am opening every speech that I deliver here by telling them about the Iranian regime and describing their malign activities in our region. I already brought here senior Israeli high-ranking officials to brief and share intelligence with member states. Whatever we can do here in order to influence the opinions, specifically of the signatories of this dangerous deal, that’s what we’re doing. All of my diplomats are committed to continuing to hold these activities every day here, and I think we are starting to see a different understanding when it comes to Iran and the need to isolate Iran diplomatically.

Q: The United Nations obviously played an important role in the original JCPOA, effecting it through a U.N. resolution. A few years ago during the Trump administration, they tried to implement the so-called “snapback” sanctions, and the reply from the Security Council was that the United States withdrew from the deal, so it’s no longer a party and can’t implement such a response. To your understanding, will snapback sanctions be a part of a new JCPOA if, in fact, a new deal actually happens, and if so, do you feel that the United States and other Security Council members are willing to actually implement it if Iran breaks the deal?

A: As we said many times, the only formula that can stop Iran from continuing its advancement towards becoming a nuclear power is a combination of diplomatic isolationcrippling sanctions that will be imposed on Iran. We’re dealing with a ruthless regime that doesn’t even care if its own people have water, like in Isfahan. They use all the money—all the dividends that they got from the sanctions relief to strengthen their terrorist proxies. We need a credible military threat to present the Iranian regime with a credible military threat that would force them to decide between their own survival as a regime and their crazy, dangerous nuclear ambitions.

So, once a deal is reached and signed, as I told you, Israel is not going to be bound by any international deal that is jeopardizing our future. We will have to do whatever we have to do. We will continue to build our military capabilities in order to defend our future. But as I explained, if a deal isn’t signed, definitely the snapback mechanism that imposes international sanctions on Irannot like today, when only American sanctions are in placeis a crucial component of the formula to stop Iran. If a deal is not signed, we will campaign here to relaunch and retrigger the snapback mechanism. There was one effort during the Trump administration that failed. But now, if one of the signatories understands that Iran is continuing to simultaneously drag its feet negotiating and negotiating, but still continuing to advance its nuclear capabilities and continuing with the violations of all of their nuclear commitments, definitely we hope and we would like to see the triggering of the snapback mechanism against Iran.

If a deal is signed, it’s still important, of course, that it will include the snapback mechanism. But we don’t have too many hopes because we believe that if a deal is signed, Iran has all the incentives to comply with the deal. They only need to wait. That’s the main problem of this deal. If it’s signed, after two to seven years, it will be legitimate for Iran to advance its nuclear capabilities. And its breakout time to a bomb will be shrunk to almost zero. So why would they violate such a great deal for them? We are not very hopeful regarding the snapback mechanism if a deal is signed.

Q: The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is independent but under the watch of the United Nations, has been coming under a lot of political pressure of late to close its investigation into Iran’s undeclared nuclear sites as part of a revived JCPOA. Do you feel that the IAEA can retain its independence and keep that investigation open?

A: I hope so. And we have to understand what we are saying. We are listening to the audacity of the president of Iran demandinghow crazy is it?demanding that the international watchdog, such an important organization, will close; he doesn’t even explain what are the reasons … will close the probe against Iran for the three undeclared nuclear sites that the inspections of the IAEA have found. I think it’s quite clear that Iran only wants to continue with its nuclear deception. And if this happens, if the IAEA is going to close without any explanation of this probe, I think it is going to totally lose its credibility. And it won’t be able to function in the future because no one is going to trust whatever this watchdog is going to say.

Q: When U.S. President Joe Biden entered the White House, his administration mentioned nonstop that they wanted a longer and stronger deal with Iran encompassing terrorism, encompassing ballistic missiles, encompassing everything outside of the nuclear accord. That message of longer and stronger slowly, but surely, dissipated from the language they have been using. It’s obvious at this point that it’s not going to happen. So how do you replaceIsrael and your allieshow do you replace what would have been encompassed in a longer and stronger deal through other actions at this point?

A: That’s another reason why we oppose the reviving of the old deal. And that’s the only thing that we have right now on the table. When I served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, we were promised that they would reach a longer and stronger deal. What does it mean? We have to deeply understand this. It means that even the current administration understands that the JCPOA does not address the threats that Iran poses. That’s what they said. We need a longer, stronger deal because the current deal is not sufficient. When we asked them how are you going to reach a longer stronger deal, the understanding was that by rejoining it, they will have the ability to unite the international community to put pressure on Iran to negotiate a longer and stronger deal. Right now, it doesn’t seem realistic that Russia or China would help to put pressure on Iran. Once Iran will be allowed to be back on track of the JCPOA and in seven years, it will be legitimate for them to acquire almost all the nuclear capabilities needed to break out a bomb, why would he run agree to negotiate a deal that is worse for them? That is why we’re so deeply concerned.

Q: You have been screaming from the rooftops here at the United Nations for some time about the attention that needs to be paid towards not only Iran but its proxies, which do immense damage throughout the region. And you’ve laid blame on the Security Council for not being more attentive. At the Security Council just this past week, the mandate for UNIFILthe U.N. peacekeeping mission on the Israel-Lebanese borderwas renewed. As part of that, some Security Council members called for stronger language against the Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Do you feel some measure of accomplishment in that, and do you feel that the Security Council at large is starting to pay more attention to the damage the proxies are causing throughout the region?

A: Absolutely, yes. It’s a positive step taken by the Security Council, and when we analyze the renewed mandate of UNIFIL, it can be more effective. But obviously, the test is how UNIFIL is going to implement its mandate on the ground. We did many things in order to influence the mindset of the Security Council members. I’m leading U.N. ambassador delegations to Israel, and I insist on taking them to our northern border where they are being briefed by our officers. I’m taking them down into the terror tunnels that were dug by Hezbollah, and they can internalize and understand that if Hezbollah continues to violate Security Council resolutions, it might wreak havoc on the future of Lebanon. It will bring destruction to Lebanon. And that’s what we’re telling them. We share intelligence with them. We keep showing them the containers that were deployed on our bordersa grave violation by Hezbollah of Resolution 1701. That, I think, is what led to the last resolution. But as I said, it’s only the first step. It’s not going to happen overnight. The fact that even Hezbollah’s name is not mentioned still means a lot because there are member states who oppose designating it as a terrorist organization. But we will continue to campaign in order to convey the message that UNIFIL must implement and enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Q: Obviously, this is a global interest in making sure that the Iranian nuclear program and its other malign activities are neutralized. What outside of the scope of the JCPOA still needs to be covered, not just for Israel’s interests but for the global interest?

A: We are saying that this deal is going to jeopardize and undermine global security. It’s not only about Israel; it’s not only about the region. We saw in the past that we want to defend countries from their neighbors. It happened with North Korea. Now, people are mentioning the fact that it’s more problematic to help Ukraine because when you deal with nuclear powers, the approach is different. So, the world is about to tie its own hands when dealing with the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, Iran. It’s hard to understand doing such a thing that will undermine and jeopardize global security. In addition, we all know that Iran has been threatening it. No, sorry. We all know that Iran has been strengthening its alliances with the main adversaries of the United States. So it’s really hard to understand how it is going to serve American interests once Iran will be exempt from all these sanctions and they will be able to help other adversaries of the United States to subvert or bypass any sanctions that have been imposed on them. And let me emphasize one more thing: If a deal is signed, it conveys a clear message to all the terrorist organizations around the world that there are no consequences whatsoever to the malign activities of Iran. Not only have they been supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas that are firing indiscriminately, thousands of missiles against Israel or helping the Houthis to attack the UAE or Saudi Arabia. Just recently they plotted to kill former American officials on American soil. What is the message that will be conveyed to this rogue state once the world will surrender to its demands?

JNS

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