Israeli influence to prevent Washington from returning to the Iran nuclear deal has been limited due to its complicated government structure and the Biden administration’s desire to revitalise the deal.
Israel and Iran have been archenemies since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the rise of a semi-theocratic government that defined Tel Aviv as the Little Satan. Alternatively, Iran’s revolutionary state dubbed the US the Great Satan.
Since then, Tel Aviv has sought every means possible to oppose Tehran. Iran, meanwhile, created the Resistance Front, which included Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Shia proxies, and aimed to dismantle Israel, a close US ally in the Middle East.
From Israel’s perspective, the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran compromised Tel Aviv’s security in a volatile region. Civil wars and political instability have been widespread here since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following WWII.
While former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, the new Democratic government in Washington has been indirectly negotiating with Iran in Vienna to revitalise the nuclear agreement, which has heightened fears in Israel.
“There is no doubt that Israel is sceptical of the 2015 nuclear deal when it was first negotiated. But the [Israel's Naftali] Bennett administration seems to be pursuing its opposition to the deal in a fundamentally different way,” says Ali Vaez, the Iran project director of International Crisis Group, a US think-tank.
“It’s not as engaged in a public fight with the Biden administration as Netanyahu was with the Obama administration. It’s not going to take action, especially in the covert ground, that could derail the nuclear diplomacy without prior warning to Washington,” Vaez tells TRT World.
“Israel is not the most important factor in the fate of these negotiations as Iran’s own attitude and negotiation strategy is,” Ali says. Also Russia and China, the nuclear deal’s other key participants, whose relations have deteriorated with the West compared to during the Obama period, can play a more prominent role than Israel to revitalise the deal, according to Vaez.
The nuclear deal triangle
The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers like the EU, Russia and China was the complex result of well-crafted diplomacy. Israel, under the former Benjamin Netanyahu government, had furiously opposed the deal, even raising tensions with the Obama administration.
Despite Israel's opposition to Iran's having nuclear capabilities, Tel Aviv has secretly developed nuclear weapons, which have not been produced under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an international agreement regulating the rules of the world’s nuclear inventory.
But Netanyahu’s opposition did not prevent the deal from going through. This has showed that the objections of a single ally during negotiations likely won’t be good enough to block the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.
Even after the former Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, the JCPOA still managed to survive due to the steadfastness of other partners like Iran, the EU, Russia and China.
In late November, when negotiations restarted, the political conditions were starkly different from 2018. The whole structure of the nuclear triangle has changed across the board.
Now all three countries - Israel, the US, and Iran - have completely different governments. While Israel enjoys a fragile coalition after replacing the Netanyahu government, the hardline government of Iran is now suspicious of the deal. This is despite the fact that US President Joe Biden has expressed his desire to return to the deal.
“Today the situation is totally different. I think the government in Israel itself is very complicated structurally. It consists of political parties that span Israel’s entire political spectrum from far-right to far-left. Netanyahu is not on the scene anymore,” says Matthew Bryza, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan.
“I don’t think we will see this Israeli government trying to pressure the Biden administration in the way the Netanyahu government tried to field pressure on the Obama administration and made so vocal its support for the Trump administration’s leaving of the JCPOA,” Bryza tells TRT World.
“Iranian nuclear issue is of so much inherent importance to the Biden administration that it transcends any possible lobbying by Israel,” Bryza says. As a result, Israel’s influence over the US approach to negotiations is “clearly limited”, according to Bryza. This means the two parts of the nuclear triangle appear to favour revitalising the deal.
Israel lacks an alternative
Israel has more problems than just its fragile government and the Biden administration’s desire to return to the nuclear deal. It also has a lack of political vision regarding the deal. Tel Aviv opposes the deal without providing any viable alternative to it.
“One of the biggest shortcomings in Israeli approach toward the JCPOA is that it has rarely offered credible alternatives to the deal. It wants basically a continuation of the maximum pressure strategy that has brought about the worst of all worlds,” sees Vaez, the Iranian-American political analyst.
The Obama administration offered a political solution to prevent Iran from developing an atomic bomb. As a result, the Shia-majority country’s approach to Washington softened a little under the moderate Hassan Rouhani government.
But under Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, which imposed wide sanctions over Tehran, Iran has become more aggressive both internally and externally, enriching its uranium to levels close to making a nuclear weapon.
Under the hardline government of President Ebrahim Raisi, it's unlikely that without any sanctions relief, Iran will reach an agreement with the US.
“Iran is on the verge of nuclear weaponization and much more aggressive in the region and regressive at home. That’s why Israel’s approach is unlikely to pay off and prevent the Biden administration from pursuing the restoration of the JCPOA,” Vaez says.
However, if the deal is not restored, then the US might turn to Israel. Washington could use the country against Tehran in terms of Plan B options that could range from diplomatic isolation to doubling down economic pressure against Iran, or even delaying Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons through covert and cyber operations against Iran, according to Vaez.