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Israel Keeping Close Eye on Vienna Nuclear Talks Between Iran and World Powers, Experts Say

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Sept. 27, 2017. Photo: Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi / TIMA via Reuters.

As Iran and the US embarked on a round of indirect talks in Vienna over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, experts in Israel say the country will be watching closely whether the developments reinforce perceptions of an existential threat from the Islamic republic.

US and Iranian officials arrived in the Austrian capital — where the pact to limit Iran’s nuclear program, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was originally reached in 2015 — to hold talks on Tuesday, with another round expected on Friday. Officials from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, which remain parties to the deal, have acted as intermediaries between the two countries.

US President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, abandoned the accord in 2018 and imposed heavy sanctions. Since then Iran has repeatedly breached several of the pact’s restrictions, including by enriching uranium beyond the agreed limits and producing uranium metal, used in the building of nuclear weapons.

“The Biden administration should be prepared for a long and tedious debate with the Iranians. They are experts in negotiations and a lot of patience and determination will be needed,” former Israeli Atomic Energy Commission Director General Uzi Eilam told The Algemeiner. “I really hope that the Biden administration will be strong and patient to first come to a compromise on the basic 2015 agreement and most importantly that it will not give up on negotiating to expand this deal and include the issue of long-range missiles and the support of the Shiite policy in the Middle East.”

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Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi called the Tuesday meetings “constructive” in remarks to Iranian state television, a word echoed by US State Department spokesman Ned Price.

“It is a welcome step, it is a constructive step, it is a potentially useful step as we seek to determine what it is that the Iranians are prepared to do to return to compliance … and, as a result, what we might need to do to return to compliance ourselves,” he said during a Tuesday briefing.

From Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who supported the 2018 Trump withdrawal— cautioned against a revival of the deal.

“To our best friends, I say: an agreement with Iran that paves the way for nuclear weapons will not obligate us in any way. There is only one thing that will oblige us: to prevent anyone who seeks to destroy us from carrying out his plot,” Netanyahu said, while speaking at a Yom Hashoah ceremony Wednesday.

Two working groups were reportedly established during the talks: one focused on American sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, and a second on bringing Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA’s limits on its nuclear program.

“At the time, [Netanyahu] was not convinced that the nuclear pact was good enough and supported Trump to pull out of the agreement, which was a wrong, if not to say a stupid decision,” argued Eilam. “There is a place for Israel to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the threat of destroying Israel.”

Shimon Stein, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on arms control, said that the “maximum pressure” policy of stepped-up US sanctions and other tough actions since the withdrawal from the nuclear pact had failed to yield the results sought by the Trump administration, with data showing that “the Iranian economy will experience growth in the coming year.”

“Israel is not better off following the withdrawal. The situation has deteriorated and the main question is how long is it to the breaking point for Iran to assemble a nuclear device,” commented Stein, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany. “For the Biden administration this [Vienna meeting] is the beginning of a process to deal with the nuclear issue, which needs to be addressed and be put back into a box. There is recognition by the US that the original nuclear deal can’t be the end of the process and needs to be broadened.”

Stein, who also served in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, argued that Israel should find ways to iron out its differences with the Biden administration so it can feed the US process and have an input.

Against this, Prof. Efraim Inbar — President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security — raised serious doubts that any renewed nuclear pact would be “satisfactory” to meet the demands of Israel’s security situation.

“Israel has stated its clear position against returning to the 2015 nuclear deal in its original form. It is a bad deal as it legitimizes the Iranian nuclear program and the US previously took the right decision to pull out of it,” Inbar told The Algemeiner. “Today’s Iranian nuclear program is not the same program that existed when the deal was signed in 2015. For the Iranian leadership, the nuclear program is an insurance policy. The Biden administration lives in la-la-land if it believes that the Iranians will agree on a better deal, which would include giving up on their uranium enrichment program, with no sunset clause and thorough supervision and inspection.”

In a March interview with Israel Hayom in late March, Israeli Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman — who heads the Israel Defense Force’s Iran Directorate — said that Israel has the ability to militarily thwart Iran’s nuclear plan, if needed. “If we succeed in getting the international community on board for a longer and stronger nuclear deal, we’ll be in a very positive situation,” Kalman said.

US Iran envoy Robert Malley, who is leading the American delegation in Vienna, suggested in advance of the talks that wringing further concessions from Iran — including an extended timeline for nuclear limitations, or on other issues such as the country’s ballistic missile program — would be the province of a “follow-on” agreement, only after the 2015 accord is revived.

“I believe the US will go for a renewed deal as this is in their DNA and as there is no appetite for military confrontation with Iran. This will leave Israel with little choice but to decide whether it needs to use force to destroy Iran’s nuclear operations,” JISS’ Inbar cautioned to The Algemeiner. “I am afraid that what is happening now may put Israel on collision course with the Americans.”

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