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Playing Nuclear Chicken with Iran

Will Natanz sabotage derail Iran nuclear talks?

Was the mysterious sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility this Sunday the straw that will break the back of America’s renewed push for a deal with Tehran?

Only days after the Iranians proudly unveiled 164 advanced new centrifuges at Natanz — of a type prohibited under the nuclear deal — a power blackout struck the facility, putting it out of commission for at least nine months. The head of Iran’s atomic energy agency described the incident as nuclear terrorism, adding, “Iran reserves the right to respond.”

On Monday the New York Times attributed the sabotage to Israel. The incident’s timing was interesting — happening to coincide with American defense secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel. This raises a number of questions. First, were the Americans given a heads-up about the operation? Or did they learn about it in the press, like everyone else? Israel has clarified that it will continue to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, even if it is renewed. Was the operation intended to send a message to the Americans as well, and not just to Iran?

“Israel is sending its own clear message by targeting Iranian nuclear infrastructure and other regime assets,” Mark Dubowitz of Washington’s Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) told Mishpacha. “The Jewish state will do whatever is needed to stop Tehran’s patient pathways to atomic bombs and the arming of its proxies with deadly weapons.”

Whether or not the Americans were informed about the attack, there’s a special significance to the fact that it took place at the height of the current talks in Vienna to renew the deal. The Iranians came to the talks out of a position of strength, as they’ve continued developing their nuclear program since well before Trump withdrew from the deal. This created a sense of urgency in Biden’s team, which hoped that quickly rejoining the deal would prevent the Iranians from obtaining a bomb. But now the situation is different. If the facility at Natanz is out of action for nine months, the Iranians have lost their leverage.

It’s hard to predict how the attack will affect the dynamics of the negotiation. America could decide to take its time and toughen its demands, knowing that the Iranians’ cards are very weak. But the Americans also want a quick resolution, in the belief that they would have to start from scratch with a new Iranian president after the June elections.

The Iranians, for their part, are in a bind. On the one hand, they desperately need the sanctions to be lifted; on the other hand they don’t have the imminent threat of a bomb. But the maximum pressure strategy, as of now, hasn’t produced any concessions from Iran.

When Biden was running for president, he repeatedly expressed his desire to return to the Iranian nuclear deal. This was reflected in the first public statements by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As soon as he took office, he made clear that “the path to diplomacy with Iran is open,” adding that as soon as Iran returned to compliance with the terms of the deal, America would follow suit.

But the rest didn’t prove easy. The Iranians declared their determination to hold off on talks until the administration lifted all the sanctions imposed by the previous administration. A game of chicken developed. The Americans were anxious to avoid being seen as having given in to Iranian demands, and refused to make concessions without getting anything in return. The Iranians for their part continued to insist that since the Americans had been the first to withdraw from the deal, it was up to them to make the first move.

Weeks passed and the disconnect continued. One compromise idea that came up was of a joint return to the deal. Instead of squabbling over who should return to the deal first, both sides could do it at once. But the Iranians still didn’t hurry back to the negotiating table.

Iran has wielded its upcoming June presidential election to affect the dynamics of the negotiation, conveying the impression that if the talks aren’t completed by then, the entire process will have to be restarted from scratch. (In reality, since the Iranian constitution assigns control of foreign policy and the armed forces to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the process would likely continue from the same point.)

In the end, the two parties agreed on a compromise: a return to indirect talks, in which both sides go the same meeting place, but don’t sit in the same room. Instead, a third party moves between the two delegations and tries to bring both sides together. This might sound like an unusual solution, but in fact it’s quite common in cases where neither side wants direct contact with the other. That’s how Israel typically negotiates with Hamas, for example, with Egypt as the intermediary.

Last week, the parties started negotiating in Vienna. Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017, told Mishpacha that his impression is that the first week of negotiations went well and indicated that all parties have given positive evaluations of the seriousness of last week’s work.

“Iran, of course, would like to lock in a firm schedule for the lifting of as many sanctions as possible before agreeing to a firm schedule for reversing its own non-compliance,” he said. “The toughest part of the discussion will be finding a degree of sanctions-lifting that is politically acceptable to both sides.”

The FDD’s Mark Dubowitz says, “Iran is running its familiar playbook of nuclear extortion in the hope that nuclear escalation will lead the US to collapse at the negotiation table.

“That appears to be happening as the Biden administration hints at lifting terrorism and IRGC sanctions and flooding the regime with billions of dollars to finance its malign activities,” he added. “Iran envoy Rob Malley is ignoring Israeli reservations about the JCPOA. Israel’s consultation has not changed the US posture one iota.

“Tehran has the incentive to squeeze as many concessions from Washington as possible,” Dubowitz summed up. “If Iranian negotiators can do that before the election in June, the negotiations will conclude. If not, Khamenei will select a new president to continue until he has achieved all of the supreme leader’s deal objectives.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 856)


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