Decision Time on Iran

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Jewish politics and power

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1. Mapping the differences on the nuclear deal

Israel is dispatching its top military officials to Washington this week for a last-minute push on Iran. David Barnea, head of the Mossad, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz will hold high-level meetings in an effort to convince the Biden administration that the diplomatic route has reached a dead end.

Here’s Israel’s pitch: Talks on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) are going nowhere, and in the meantime, Iran is ramping up its uranium enrichment operation and limiting international inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites. Therefore, Israel believes, now is the time to move on to Plan B.

Where do the positions differ?

Diplomacy: The U.S. believes there’s still a slight chance of saving the deal, and therefore there’s a need to keep talking; Israel thinks the talks are futile.

JCPOA: Biden and his negotiators would be perfectly happy if Iran goes back to the same 2015 deal that was abandoned by the Trump administration; Israel still believes it was a bad deal and would like to see an improved agreement (or no agreement at all).

Timeline: America sees room for negotiations (though not unlimited time, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top officials have indicated), but Israel, on the other hand, feels that time has run out and that engaging in further negotiations will only allow Iran to exploit the lull to further advance its nuclear program.

Military power: This is the big one. Gantz and Barnea are coming to Washington with a pretty bold ask of their American counterparts. According to Israeli sources, they would like to see America use its military force to signal to Iran that things are getting serious. This doesn’t have to be a full-scale strike on a nuclear facility. Even a symbolic attack aimed at an Iranian force or an Iranian asset in the region could send the right message. The Biden administration will likely turn down this request. The use of military force is viewed as a last resort, especially when unprovoked.

Gantz and Barnea are coming to Washington with a pretty bold ask of their American counterparts. According to Israeli sources, they would like to see America use its military force to signal to Iran that things are getting serious.

Intelligence: The U.S. values Israel’s intelligence reports on Iran and views them as reliable and useful. America fully agrees with the Israeli assessment that Iran is rapidly ramping up its enrichment activity and that it is either weeks or months away from achieving enough fissile material to become a “threshold state,” meaning a nation on the verge of achieving military nuclear capabilities. This, however, does not mean that both countries agree on the interpretation of this intelligence data. Is Iran racing to the bomb in order to actually become a nuclear power, as Israel believes and fears, or is it using enrichment as a means of pressuring the U.S.?

2. The ‘I told you so’ moment

Briefing reporters Saturday on the status of the nuclear negotiations, a senior State Department official noted what he described as “soul searching or interesting reflections in Israel by former senior officials about the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and what it has meant.” The senior official explained that former top Israelis who were involved in the drive to convince Donald Trump to shred the nuclear deal are now seeing how it “has opened the door for an unconstrained, uncontrolled Iranian nuclear program, which obviously was not the case while the U.S. and Iran were both in compliance with the deal.”

In a very subtle and diplomatic way, the Biden administration is basically telling Israelis: This one is on you. Former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s campaign to withdraw from the deal has led to the dangerous situation the world is now facing, and Israelis should keep in mind “the lessons of the preceding three years,” as the senior official put it, when approaching the issue now.

There may be a tiny bit of gloating here, but more importantly, it is a clear warning to the Bennett government in Israel to learn from what America views as Netanyahu’s mistakes.

It also highlights the fact that Israel now has a credibility problem when it comes to Iran. The current administration believes that Israel led America astray when it convinced Trump to withdraw from the nuclear deal. This will inevitably make the U.S. a tad more skeptical when faced with Israeli advice this time around.

3. A variety of really bad options

So, what happens next? How does this crossroads play out?

Here are some of the options. Unfortunately, none of them are good:

Nuclear talks continue: The talks, being held in Vienna, could go on for several more rounds. Given their current state, these talks will not yield an agreement on returning to the nuclear deal, Iran will keep advancing its nuclear program, and Israel, growing impatient, will become bolder and perhaps more irresponsible in its clandestine attacks against Iran.

An agreement is reached: In this unlikely scenario, a deal is struck. Iran returns to compliance and the U.S. lifts sanctions relating to Iran’s nuclear activity. This may satisfy decision makers in Washington and Tehran, but not in Jerusalem. Israel, after all, never liked the nuclear deal, so expect to see continued sabotage attempts, which will increase friction and could lead to a military flareup.

The U.S. moves to increase pressure: This could be the most plausible outcome. Frustrated from the lack of progress, America will declare that talks are over and will move to tighten sanctions and increase pressure on Iran. Tehran responds by speeding up its nuclear activity even more, and very soon—way too soon—an inevitable conflict erupts.

Israel takes action: Under either of these scenarios, Israel might choose to take matters into its own hands and launch some kind of overt attack on Iranian facilities. If so, Iran will likely respond through its proxies in the region (likely Hezbollah in Lebanon) leading Israel to a state of war, and—possibly—drawing the U.S. into the conflict.

America takes action: It’s highly unlikely, but the Biden administration could, somewhere down the road, decide to launch a limited attack on Iranian facilities or assets. In this case too, Iran will likely respond through its proxies, against Israel.

4. Political Hanukkah is back

Hanukkah is the official holiday of political Jewish schmoozing. But with the pandemic raging, there weren’t many options in the last two years to rub elbows while standing in line for greasy latkes.

Now political Hanukkah is back, or at least starting to make a modest comeback.

The White House hosted on Wednesday a smaller-than-usual Hanukkah candle lighting event. There were only about 150 participants, all seated in the East Room, no sign of the fancy kosher buffet that has had Jewish machers’ mouths watering for months in previous years, not even a serving of latkes. A sad reminder that COVID-19 is still shaping our lives. 

But it was an opportunity for Biden to make sure that the White House Hanukkah tradition stays alive, to showcase the most prominent Jewish member of his administration—Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff—and to signal to all Jewish Democrats, including those left off the very-limited list this time, that their prayers for “next year in the White House” had been answered.

5. Jamaal Bowman update

In the last installment of Jewish Politics & Power, we discussed Jamaal Bowman’s ordeal after visiting Israel on a J Street delegation. To recap: The progressive New York Democrat was faced with harsh criticism from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and other left-wing activists, who accused him of not adhering to their boycott on Israel.

Well, apparently Bowman survived the challenge.

DSA announced last week that it will not expel Bowman, though the group still stands behind its condemnation of his trip to Israel.

This is good news for those in the progressive camp who believe there is space for left-wing Democrats who are critical of Israel but do not support BDS and therefore can engage with centrist Dems.

It also won Bowman a really weird new bedfellow: The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) which issued a statement denouncing attacks against Bowman from the pro-BDS left. Why weird? Because this is the same DMFI that spent millions against Bowman last year, when he first ran for Congress.

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