What the growing US-Israel rift means for Iran’s nuclear ambitions

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Negotiators at the discussions to revive the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, which restarted on Nov. 29, appear no closer to finding a solution to the impasse. (AFP)
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This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies, taken on May 31, 2021, shows a close-up view of the alleged Sanjarian nuclear facility, east of Iran's capital Tehran. (AFP)
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Iranian protesters raise a dummy of US President Joe Biden during a rally outside the former US embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2021, to mark the 42nd anniversary of the start of the Iran hostage crisis. (AFP photo)
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A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on Oct. 8, 2021 shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi visiting the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. (AFP)
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Updated 16 December 2021

What the growing US-Israel rift means for Iran’s nuclear ambitions

  • As nuclear talks appear to falter, gap between US and Israeli positions widens
  • Iran watchers want the Biden administration to take Israel’s security concerns more seriously 

WASHINGTON: Talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which could see stringent sanctions on Tehran lifted in exchange for guarantees to halt its uranium enrichment program, resumed in Vienna at the end of last month.

However, delays and obstructions by the hard-line government of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, and increasingly combative rhetoric from Tel Aviv have collectively cast doubt on the success of the renewed dialogue. 

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, told a parliamentary committee on Dec. 7 that he fears the Iranians are playing for time in an attempt to water down the terms of the deal. 

“We have the feeling the Iranians want to make it last and the longer the talks last, the more they go back on their commitments and get closer to capacity to get a nuclear weapon,” Le Drian was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying. 

Soon after the talks resumed, the head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, David Barnea, vowed that Israel will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, indicating that the Naftali Bennett government is losing patience with diplomatic efforts and is increasingly willing to use force.

Indeed, on Dec. 7, Israel launched a rare airstrike against Syria’s main port of Latakia. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based conflict monitor, the strike destroyed an Iranian weapons shipment. Israel’s military is yet to comment on the attack.

“Iran will not have nuclear weapons — not in the coming years, not ever,” Barnea said at an agency awards ceremony in early December. “This is my personal commitment: This is the Mossad’s commitment.”

“Our eyes are open, we are alert, and together with our colleagues in the defense establishment, we will do whatever it takes to keep that threat away from the state of Israel and to thwart it in every way.” 

Barnea and Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, made a rare joint trip to Washington last week where they reportedly pressed senior White House officials on the need to seriously consider joint strikes on key Iranian military and nuclear targets.  

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on Oct. 8, 2021 shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi visiting the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. (AFP) 

Iran has accelerated enrichment since the US withdrew from the accord in 2018, with then-president Donald Trump claiming the deal did not go far enough in curtailing Tehran’s atomic ambitions. Iran has long insisted its program is purely for civilian energy purposes. 

US President Joe Biden, who helped negotiate the original deal in 2015 as Barack Obama’s vice president, wants to rejoin a strengthened nuclear agreement, which co-signatories Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the EU have fought hard to salvage. 

However, Israel is not convinced that reviving the 2015 deal will curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities and its ballistic missile program, to say nothing of its destabilizing influence across the Middle East. Instead, the Israelis want a more forceful deterrent on the table. 

The window for reaching a nonmilitary resolution to Iran’s nuclear program is closing fast. Israeli intelligence indicates Iranian nuclear scientists are preparing to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, bringing Tehran closer than ever to building a bomb. 

Unless further enrichment is prevented, Iran could stockpile enough weapons-grade uranium in the coming months to produce a viable nuclear weapon with little warning.

Israel’s frustration with the Biden administration’s stance has been steadily building in recent weeks. In a video published on his YouTube channel, Naftali Bennett called on fellow world leaders to not allow Iran to get away with what he called “nuclear blackmail.” 

Israeli officials are concerned Biden’s negotiating team will roll back sanctions on Iran, both nuclear and terrorism-related, thereby releasing billions of dollars that the regime desperately needs, in exchange for only minimal guarantees on curtailing its nuclear program.

Furthermore, Bennett has hinted that Israel is prepared to take matters into its own hands if the US accepts a “less for less” interim deal with Iran that would potentially give the regime sufficient latitude to achieve nuclear weapons breakout in the near future.

Such an incremental deal could end up further emboldening Iran’s regional transnational terror network by providing Shiite proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and beyond with funding previously denied to them under harsh sanctions. 

Iranian protesters raise a dummy of US President Joe Biden during a rally outside the former US embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2021, to mark the 42nd anniversary of the start of the Iran hostage crisis. (AFP photo)

“To chase the terrorist du jour sent by the Quds Force does not pay off anymore,” Bennet said in a televised conference hosted by Reichman University on Nov. 23. “We must go for the dispatcher.”

The US and Israel have traditionally acted in lockstep on the issue of containing Iran, so the recent divergence of opinion and the growing prospect of unilateral Israeli action is raising concerns in Washington. 

“Naftali Bennett’s government tried hard to cooperate with the Biden team when they came into office to present a joint front on Iran policy because they genuinely thought it could get the US to listen to them more,” said Gabriel Noronha, executive director of the Forum for American Leadership and previously the State Department’s special adviser for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Iran Action Group.

“They’ve increasingly realized they were naive on this point and have begun speaking out in the press more and more with their complaints, while at the same time US officials are leaking details of Israeli military operations to the press. 

“Both Israeli officials and the US military leadership believe there is a need to have a credible military threat to deter Iran’s nuclear program. However, they are at odds with Biden’s political appointees at the State Department, National Security Council, and Colin Kahl — the number three official at the Pentagon — who remain under the delusion that appeasement toward Iran is the best path forward.”

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visit the Natanz nuclear research center in Isfahan Province, Iran, Jan. 20, 2014. (AFP file photo)

Noronha warned against downplaying Israel’s complaints in the quest to revive the nuclear deal, arguing that taking the country’s security concerns seriously might actually enhance US leverage over Iran. 

“The US needs to change its approach and recognize that Israel is its best partner against the Iranian threat because its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against the regime gives the US more leverage in negotiations,” he told Arab News. 

“Many Israeli officials are incredibly frustrated by Washington’s antagonism toward Israeli policy, which is just trying to ensure its basic security needs are met. Israel can help the US — and its negotiations — by continuing to take covert action against Iran’s oil exports and its nuclear program. 

“The US would be wise to share more intelligence with Israel to advance and support its operations, as well as accelerate its military cooperation on a potential airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

One area in which the Biden administration sharply differs from Bennett’s outlook is its willingness to accept a “threshold state” when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. 

Indeed, it would appear the Biden White House is prepared to tolerate a status quo in which Iran holds the components for “nuclear breakout,” including the requisite knowledge, military hardware and enrichment capacity, without actually building a nuclear weapon. 

By contrast, the Israelis believe such a threshold state is just as serious as Iran actually developing a nuclear weapon. 

Ellie Cohanim, who was deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism at the State Department under the Trump administration, is concerned the Biden administration is not listening to Israeli concerns. 

Iran atomic energy chief Mohammad Eslami (L) and Kazem Gharib Abadi (C), Iran's governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), depart after attending an IAEA meeting in Vienna, Austria on Sept. 20, 2021. (AFP)

“It seems that, behind the scenes, the differences between the Biden administration and its Iran negotiating team with the Israeli government are growing,” Cohanim told Arab News, adding that the Biden team has failed to replicate the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

“Israeli PM Bennett has stated on the record that the US and world powers need to wake up to the fact that the Iranian regime is seeking nuclear weapons, and so it would appear there is a sense of frustration that the Israelis have with the current US administration,” she told Arab News.

“President Donald Trump stated clearly that he would never allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb on his watch, and it is time for US President Joe Biden to go on the record stating the same. 

“The Israelis have demonstrated time and again their premier intelligence capability, especially in relation to Iran. The Biden administration would be well advised to rely on Israeli intelligence data and take any necessary military actions to end Iran’s nuclear weapons activity should Israel ever assess that the Iranians had crossed the line when no further alternatives exist to kinetic activity.”

Where this line is drawn remains a point of contention between Biden and Bennett’s national security teams. Failure to reach a common position could result in unilateral Israeli action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. And, yet, the rift seems wider than ever. 

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House on August 27, 2021 in Washington, DC, during talks focused on Iran. (AFP photo)

“Ever since Prime Minister Bennett’s visit to Washington to meet President Biden, senior Israeli officials have been publicly talking about their displeasure with Biden’s plan to move full steam ahead with diplomacy with the Islamic Republic,” Bryan Leib, executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, told Arab News.

“Just a week ago, Biden’s US special envoy to Iran was in Israel meeting with several senior Israeli officials, but it was reported that PM Bennett chose not to meet with him. 

“For the last 40 years, the Iranian regime has been censoring, oppressing and murdering its own citzens, while its leaders publicly call for the destruction of the US and the world’s only Jewish nation, Israel,” Leib said. 

“Diplomacy with the Islamic Republic will fail once again because they are not rational actors that truly seek peace and a brighter future for their people.”


Twitter: @OS26

Palestinian PM blasts ‘racism’ of Israeli minister

Updated 7 min 15 sec ago

Palestinian PM blasts ‘racism’ of Israeli minister

  • Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich: ‘There are no Palestinians, because there are no Palestinian people’

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Monday blasted as “inflammatory” remarks made by far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich that Palestinians do not exist.
“There are no Palestinians, because there are no Palestinian people,” Smotrich said Sunday, quoting French-Israeli Zionist activist Jacques Kupfer, speaking at an event in Paris according to a video circulating on social media.
“After 2,000 years of exile, the prophecies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah are beginning to come true and God is gathering his people, the people of Israel are returning home,” Smotrich said.
“There are Arabs around who don’t like it, so what do they do? They invent a fictitious people and claim fictitious rights to the land of Israel, only to fight the Zionist movement,” he added.
Smotrich last year became a minister in the cabinet of Israel’s veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu, which analysts have called the most right-wing government in the country’s history.
“It is the historical truth, it is the biblical truth... the Arabs in Israel must hear it, as well as certain Jews who are confused in Israel, this truth must be heard here at the Elysee Palace (in Paris), and at the White House in Washington, and everyone must hear this truth,” Smotrich continued.
Shtayyeh, speaking before a cabinet meeting of the Palestinian Authority on Monday, said the “inflammatory statements are consistent with the first Zionist sayings of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’.”
He said the comments were “conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology... of the current Israeli government.”
Smotrich and his Religious Zionism group have a history of making incendiary remarks about Palestinians.
In February, Smotrich called for the Palestinian town of Hawara in the occupied West Bank to be “wiped out” after two Israelis were shot dead by an alleged Hamas militant.
Hundreds of rampaging Israeli settlers later torched Palestinian homes and cars in the West Bank town.

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Iraq to hold provincial elections on November 6

Updated 20 March 2023

Iraq to hold provincial elections on November 6

  • Elections for the councils, the first in a decade, will take place in 15 of 18 Iraqi provinces

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s parliament has set November 6 as the date for elections for provincial councils, powerful bodies that were dissolved amid anti-government protests in 2019.
“Provincial elections will take place on November 6, 2023,” a statement from parliament said Monday, after lawmakers agreed on the date overnight.
The elections for the councils, the first in a decade, will take place in 15 of 18 Iraqi provinces, excluding the three provinces in the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
The provincial councils, created by the 2005 constitution following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, carry relatively significant power in federal Iraq, including allocating the budgets for health, transport and education.
The last provincial elections took place in 2013, when loyalists of then prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki came out on top.
The next provincial elections should have taken place in 2018, but were postponed.
A year later, amid vast anti-government rallies, protesters demanded and obtained the dissolution of the provincial councils, in part because critics accused them of being rife with corruption.
Alaa Al-Rikabi, an independent MP who emerged in the aftermath of the October 2019 protest movement, condemned the return of the councils.
“We refuse to allow them to be reinstated,” he said, adding that they “open the door wide to corruption.”

Iraq PM to hold Turkiye talks on water, Kurdish rebels

Updated 20 March 2023

Iraq PM to hold Turkiye talks on water, Kurdish rebels

  • Shia Al-Sudani to meet Turkiye’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his first visit to Iraq’s northern neighbor since he came to power in October
BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani will visit Turkiye on Tuesday for talks including on scarce water resources and the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a government source said.
Sudani is set to meet Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his first visit to Iraq’s northern neighbor since he came to power in October, an adviser to the head of the Iraqi government said, speaking anonymously.
“The two main issues are water and the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq,” he added, referring to the rebel group that has been fighting the Turkish army for decades.
War-scarred Iraq is now digging ever deeper for water as a frenzy of dam-building, mainly in Turkiye, sucks water out of the region’s two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.
The Tigris and the Euphrates both have their sources in Turkiye, and Baghdad has long accused Ankara of withholding water in dams that choke the rivers, dramatically reducing flows into Iraq.
According to official Iraqi statistics from last year, the level of the Tigris entering Iraq has dropped to just 35 percent of its average over the past century.
Declining river flows have been made worse by a dire lack of rainfall in recent years, coupled with poor irrigation practices in Iraq that see excessive exploitation of water from the rivers.
Amid criticism, Turkiye’s ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Guney, ruffled feathers last July when he said, “water is largely wasted in Iraq” and called on people to “use the available water more efficiently.”
Sudani will also discuss with Erdogan the presence of rear bases of Kurdish fighters from the Turkish PKK rebels in northern Iraq, which Ankara has repeatedly sought to root out in air and ground operations.
The rebels have kept up a deadly insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in southeastern Turkiye since 1984.
Turkiye has dozens of military facilities in northern Iraq for use in its war against the PKK, which Ankara and its Western allies blacklist as a “terrorist” group.
In July 2022, Iraq blamed Turkiye for artillery strikes on a park in Iraqi Kurdistan that killed nine civilians, including women and children.
Turkiye denied its troops were responsible and accused the PKK.

Sudan factions agree to form transitional government April 11: Spokesperson

A man waves a Sudanese national flag while taking part in a protest march. (File/AFP)
Updated 20 March 2023

Sudan factions agree to form transitional government April 11: Spokesperson

  • The parties have agreed on a committee for drafting a new constitution that will include 9 members of the civilian groups, one from army and another from RSF

CAIRO: Sudan’s political factions have agreed to form a new transitional government on April 11, Khalid Omar Yousif, the spokesperson for the signatories to the political settlement, said on Sunday.
Sudan’s military leaders who took over in a coup in late 2021 have been negotiating a deal with the civilian political parties previously in power aimed at restoring a civilian government.
The parties have agreed on a committee for drafting a new constitution that will include nine members of the civilian groups, one from the army and another from the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, Yousif said.
They will sign the transitional framework for the agreement early next month and a constitutional declaration on April 6.
The formation of a new government following the October 2021 coup is a result of Western, Gulf, and UN-sponsored talks, and it could revive flows of badly needed economic assistance to Sudan.


As economy worsens, Lebanese juggle dizzying rates for devalued pound

Updated 19 March 2023

As economy worsens, Lebanese juggle dizzying rates for devalued pound

  • Country moving toward a cash-based, dollarized economy given spiralling inflation and restrictions by banks on transactions

BEIRUT: When Caroline Sadaka buys groceries in the Lebanese capital Beirut, she keeps her phone in hand – not to check her shopping list but to calculate the spiralling costs of goods now priced at volatile exchange rates that vary by store and sector.
As Lebanon’s economy continues to collapse, an array of exchange rates for the local pound has emerged, complicating personal accounting and dimming hopes of fulfilling a reform requirement set out by the International Monetary Fund.
The government’s official exchange rate was set at 15,000 pounds to the US dollar in February, a nearly 90 percent devaluation from the longtime peg of 1507.5.
But the Central Bank is selling dollars at a rate of 79,000 to the greenback while the finance minister intends to calculate tariffs for imported goods at 45,000 pounds.
The parallel market rate is meanwhile hovering around 107,000 pounds and changing daily. Supermarkets and fuel stations are required to post signs with the value they’ve adopted for the day, but the rate is changing so fast that many are pricing in the relatively stable USdollar instead.
Examining a can of tuna, Sadaka illustrated the daily quandary faced by shoppers. “This doesn’t have a (logical) price. If you look, it’s in Lebanese pounds, so is this the price? Or is this an old price, and there’s now a price in dollars?,” she wondered.
She quit her job as a school teacher which paid her in local currency, the value of which has decreased by more than 98 percent against the dollar on the parallel market since 2019.
That’s when the economy began unraveling after decades of unsound financial policies and alleged corruption.
To solve the exchange rate confusion, the government needs to implement one unified rate. This is among pre-conditions set by the International Monetary Fund nearly a year ago for Lebanon to get a $3 billion bailout.
But the lender of last resort says reforms have been too slow. They have met resistance from politicians who are shielding vested interests and dodging accountability.
In the meantime, the country has been moving toward a cash-based and dollarized economy given spiralling inflation and restrictions by banks on transactions.
Shop owner Mahmoud Chaar told Reuters the exchange rate was changing so fast that his business was losing money overnight.
Like many business owners, Chaar has to pay in US dollars to import goods but sells in Lebanese pounds. One day, he had sold all his goods based on one rate but woke up the next to find it had jumped nearly 10,000 pounds per US dollar.
“Basically, we lost in the exchange rate difference what we had made in profit,” Chaar told Reuters.
Economist Samir Nasr said the varying rates across sectors were making personal accounting “messy” for Lebanese and unifying them was more urgent than ever.
“What is required is a full group of reforms and steps that will allow for the economic situation to stabilize in general — and would then allow the exchange rate to be unified,” he said.