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Israeli Iran strikes hinder Biden’s efforts to rejoin nuclear deal

Apr 13,2021 - Last updated at Apr 13,2021

Whether it was a cyberattack or a deliberately planned explosion that caused a serious power blackout at Iran’s underground Natanz uranium enrichment plant on Sunday, it was most likely carried out by Israel. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed Israel for the sabotage and vowed to “take revenge on the Zionists” and to replace damaged centrifuges at the site with even better ones. Iran has described the attack as “nuclear terrorism”.

The explosion had dealt a severe blow to the country’s ability to enrich uranium and could take at least nine months to restore, according to intelligence sources cited by The New York Times on Monday. Israel had targeted Iran’s nuclear program on a number of occasions, the most recent was the bold assassination operation that killed the country’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last November.

The timing of this latest attack is intriguing. It took place as US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin landed in Israel in the first visit by a senior member of the Joe Biden administration. While the declared objective of the visit was to discuss ways to strengthen the strategic relationship between the two countries, regional issues and US arms supplies to Israel, analysts believe Austin wanted to convey a message from the Biden White House to Israeli officials regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, which Israel vehemently opposes. Indirect talks between Iran and the US, sponsored by the EU, took place last week in Vienna and are expected to resume this week. A senior State Department officials was quoted as saying that talks “met expectations” but did not assuage US doubts about Iran’s willingness to negotiate in good faith over the 2015 nuclear deal.

The attack took place one day after Iran launched what was described as advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium at Natanz plant as it marked its National Nuclear Technology Day. President Hassan Rouhani said in a message that “all our nuclear activities are peaceful and for non-military purposes”.

Despite the strategic ties between Washington and Tel Aviv, Israel, under Benyamin Netanyahu, has stood firm in its rejection of the 2015 nuclear deal and supported President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from it. Netanyahu went as far as to snub then president Barack Obama by accepting an invitation to address US Congress in March 2015 in which he attacked the nuclear deal with Iran which the White House strongly supported. 

Speaking to top military brass on Sunday Netanyahu bragged that “the fight against Iran and its proxies... is a massive task. The way things are now doesn’t mean they will stay that way later on. It’s very hard to explain what we’ve done here in Israel, moving from total helplessness... to a global power”. Israeli military sources talked about upcoming exercises that would mimic an attack on Iran. Israel is not the only country in the region that is worried about Iran’s nuclear activities and its regional behaviour. Those concerns are shared by a number of Gulf countries as well.

This is a problem for the Biden administration — and its European allies — which is eager to bring Iran back to the nuclear deal but not without forcing Tehran to make concessions. Iran wants the US to lift all economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration before it recommits. The US, as far as we know, is ready to start partial lifting of sanctions directly linked to Iran’s nuclear programme. Other sanctions are related to its regional activities, human rights record and its ballistic programme.

The Americans and their European partners want to reach a deal before Iran holds its presidential elections in less than 100 days. Perceived as a pragmatist, Rouhani warned last month that hard-line opponents are obstructing efforts to lift biting US sanctions. The view from the west is that Rouhani may be replaced by a hardliner who is handpicked by Ali Khameini; the country’s supreme leader.

The Israelis argue that their sabotage efforts are working to delay and hinder Iran’s nuclear programme, but offer no realistic view of what could happen next. Iran and Israel have been engaged in a maritime drone war. In the midst of the Vienna talks last week Iran accused Israel of attacking an Iranian tanker in the Red Sea. Israel has pointed the finger at Iran for a missile strike that hit an Israeli cargo ship in the Arabian Sea last month.

Israel has been carrying almost weekly strikes against Iranian military targets in Syria and Netanyahu has vowed to contain Iranian military presence in that country.

Biden, who served as vice president to Obama, will have a tough time reining in Israel as his team negotiates with Iran. The damage that Israel is doing goes far beyond delaying Iran’s nuclear programme. The attacks will force Iran to take its programme further underground and out of any form of international inspection. Even as Netanyahu fights his rivals to form a government, he knows that when it comes to the Iranian threat all his opponents are in line with him. Even more he knows that Republicans in the US continue to support Trump’s policy on Iran.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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