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Israel plays spoiler in Biden’s Iran gambit

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An apparent incident of sabotage provoked an angry response. Iranian officials allege Israel was behind a Sunday attack at the key Natanz nuclear facility, which, according to reports, led to a fire and blackout that damaged centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the breach was an act of “terrorist stupidity” that would only “strengthen” Iran’s hand in ongoing indirect talks in Vienna with the United States and its European partners on restoring both Iranian and American commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal.

On cue, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, said the country had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of plans to start 60 percent uranium enrichment — yet another escalation of its enrichment activities that came after President Donald Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on the Islamic Republic and thereby renege on U.S. commitments to the nuclear deal. “The announcement puts Iran closer to weapons-grade levels of more than 90 percent enrichment and exceeds its current top level of 20 percent,” noted my colleagues Kareem Fahim and Loveday Morris.

It also punctuates a fraught diplomatic moment, with E.U.-mediated discussions set to resume this week in the Austrian capital. Before the weekend, participants said they were making real, albeit fitful, progress toward an agreement that could see the Iranians and Americans eventually return to the deal. But now the focus returns to a long-running shadow war between Israel and Iran that has flared in recent weeks, from mine attacks in the Red Sea to missile strikes in Syria to the latest episode at Natanz.

Israel has not publicly commented on the incident. But its deliberate ambiguity — neither confirming nor denying its role in such a sabotage operation — is part of a lengthy history of secretly targeting Iranian assets in the region and within Iranian territory, including the assassination of leading Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in December. It’s widely believed the United States and Israel collaborated in cyberattacks that damaged the Natanz facility more than a decade ago. This time, though, the Biden administration insisted it had no advance knowledge of the attack and no role in its execution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, of course, a staunch opponent of the nuclear deal and does not want to see the Biden administration return to what Trump abandoned. Analysts suggest he would be happy to play spoiler on Iran while President Biden and his lieutenants grapple with an ambitious and wide-ranging set of foreign policy priorities, from climate action and the pandemic to reckoning with China and Russia and pushing for sweeping reforms of global corporate governance.

“In the Middle East, there is no threat that is more serious, more dangerous, more pressing than that posed by the fanatical regime in Iran,” Netanyahu said during a Monday news conference, where he happened to be accompanied by visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The latter stayed silent on the attack but said he hoped to “reaffirm the administration’s commitment to Israel and the Israeli people.”

“These attacks are counterproductive from so many perspectives,” a European diplomat familiar with the progress of the talks told my colleagues. They empower Iranian hard-liners, who were always skeptical of the deal, and by feeding the narrative that the United States is subservient to Israeli interests, “this is also not helpful for the U.S.,” the diplomat said.

Netanyahu’s possible desire to antagonize the Iranians and disrupt negotiations is only one wrinkle in the tangled politics surrounding the nuclear talks. Upcoming elections in Iran may soon sweep what’s known as the “pragmatist” camp led by President Hassan Rouhani out of office in favor of hard-liners more opposed to making concessions or attempting rapprochement with the West. Zarif and his allies have been adamant that they aren’t interested in follow-on negotiations that go beyond the enrichment curbs and inspections regime imposed by the 2015 deal.

But that’s a key part of Biden’s pitch to the deal’s critics in Washington, many of whom believe a continuation of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign could bring Iran to heel. Meanwhile, to Biden’s left, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are advocating a “compliance for compliance” approach that would see both countries quickly abide by their previous commitments before possibly initiating a new diplomatic phase involving not just the signatories of 2015 deal but also Iran’s regional adversaries, including Israel.

The reality now is that Iran is closer to amassing the necessary stockpile of uranium enriched at levels required for a nuclear weapon than it ever was before Trump reneged on the deal. Tehran’s adventurism through proxy forces in the Middle East has hardly been deterred. And the apparent Israeli strike on Natanz may only embolden those in Tehran who believe the country has weathered the worst of U.S. sanctions and will gain more leverage in the coming months as enrichment operations continue.

“The Natanz attack has not only afforded Tehran a legitimate excuse to install more effective centrifuges for uranium enrichment without much political cost, but it can also tie Moscow’s as well as Beijing’s hands in terms of pressuring Iran into compromise during negotiations in Vienna,” wrote Maysam Behravesh in Foreign Policy.

“Every attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure provides hardliners the fuel needed to denigrate the Hassan Rouhani administration for negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, which they vehemently opposed from the beginning,” wrote the Atlantic Council’s Iran Source blog. “It also galvanizes hardliners to double their efforts to push for expanding the country’s nuclear program.”

The threat of covert Israeli strikes on Iran shadowed the original Obama-era talks that led to the forging of the nuclear deal. “Fear of Israeli military action can be and has been a motivator for people to make diplomacy work,” Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told NPR’s Daniel Estrin.

But now it seems a clear impediment. “The past week has underlined a sharp divergence in U.S. and Israeli interests,” noted a Washington Post editorial. “For Israel, permanent conflict with Iran is a given, no detente is conceivable and military attacks that set back the nuclear program for a few months are the best that can be hoped for. The United States, in contrast, succeeded in striking a deal with Tehran that effectively removed the threat that it would produce nuclear weapons for at least a decade.”

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