While indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran are taking place in Vienna and time is running out to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), Israel is doing everything it can to keep the negotiations from succeeding.
Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the director of Israel’s spy agency, David Barnea, traveled to Washington to persuade the Biden administration to tighten sanctions and consider military actions against Iran rather than work towards a diplomatic solution.
Israel isn’t just making verbal appeals; they’re preparing militarily. They’ve allocated $1.5 billion for a potential strike against Iran and they held large-scale military exercises in preparation throughout October and November. This spring, they plan to hold one of their largest strike simulation drills ever, using dozens of aircraft, including Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet.
And Israel wants the U.S. to join them. They have been urging the U.S. to take military action, either by striking Iran directly or by hitting an Iranian base in Yemen. It was reported that during Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s meeting with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week, the two discussed possible joint military drills that would simulate the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Saying no to Israel has never been the U.S.’ strong suit. While both Democratic and Republican administrations continuously ask Israel to halt its settlement construction, conditioning the $3.8 billion the US gives Israel annually in military aid is considered out of the question.
This same kind of acquiescence seems to be playing out now regarding Israel’s position on Iran. According to the New York Times, in order to appease Israel, President Biden asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to review the Pentagon’s plan to take military action against Iran if the Vienna negotiations collapsed. The U.S.’ top commander in the Middle East, General Kenneth McKenzie, announced last month that his forces were on standby for potential military actions.
Israel has long been carrying out covert military sabotage actions against Iran’s nuclear facilities over the past few years. A July 2020 fire at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site was attributed to Israel. In November 2020, Israel assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientist and in April 2021, Israel’s spy agency was said to be behind a blackout at Natanz. In June 2021, after consultation with the U.S., Israel attempted an attack on an Iranian facility that manufactures nuclear centrifuges.
Tehran seemed to quickly get their facilities back online after each of Israel’s sabotage actions, and even install newer, more efficient equipment to enrich uranium more rapidly.
That’s why former Israeli security officials have criticized Israel’s opposition to the 2015 deal. U.S. officials have warned their Israeli counterparts that their sabotage attacks are counterproductive. Israel, however, says it has no intention of backing off. The Bennett administration wants a guarantee that even if the JCPOA is re-signed, the Biden administration will not try to restrain its sabotage actions.
The stakes are high for the Vienna talks. The damage already inflicted on the Iranian people from U.S. sanctions — runaway inflation, skyrocketing food, rent, and medicine prices, and a crippled healthcare sector — has been enormous. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these sanctions were preventing Iran from importing necessary medicines to treat such illnesses as leukemia and epilepsy. In January 2021, the United Nations released a report stating that U.S. sanctions on Iran were contributing to an "inadequate and opaque" response to COVID-19. With more than 130,000 officially registered deaths so far, Iran has the highest number of recorded coronavirus deaths in the Middle East, and officials say the real numbers are likely even higher.
Pulling out of the JCPOA has resulted in Iran furthering its uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity (compared with 3.67% under the deal), steadily moving closer to the 90 percent needed for a nuclear weapon. On top of this, If the U.S. and Iran are not able to reach an agreement, the worst-case scenario will be a new U.S. war in the Middle East. Reflecting on the abject failures and destruction wrecked by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a war with Iran would be catastrophic.
Indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran resumed last week in Vienna. Let’s hope Biden has the courage to tell Israel to get out of the way so that his efforts at diplomacy can succeed.
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Ariel Gold - is the national co-director and Senior Middle East Policy Analyst with CODEPINK for Peace.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History of the Islamic Republic of Iran.