Iran’s Nuclear Program Ignites New Tension Between U.S. and Israel

WASHINGTON – Long-running disagreements over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program have erupted into new tensions between the Biden administration and Israel, with two senior Israeli officials leaving Washington this week concerned that the Americans’ commitment to restoring the 2015 nuclear deal will lead to a flawed agreement that allows Tehran to accelerate its uranium enrichment program. .

Tensions have been evident all week, as the Biden administration has sought to bring the alliance with Israel to a united front on how to deal with Iran over the next year.

In an effort to bridge the gap, US officials announced this week that two months ago, Biden asked his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to review a revised Pentagon plan for military action if the diplomatic effort collapses. Administration officials also outlined new efforts to tighten, rather than ease, sanctions on Iran.

Administration officials said Biden’s focus on military options and sanctions was an attempt to signal to Tehran that the United States was running out of patience with Iran’s slowdown in nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken last week said Iran’s new government “doesn’t seem serious about doing what is necessary to return to compliance” with the 2015 nuclear deal.

But the tougher line was also meant to placate increasingly frustrated Israeli officials. Although they will not publicly criticize the US president the way former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did during the Obama administration, Israeli officials argue privately that the Iranians are advancing their nuclear program while betting that the United States, eager to scale back US commitments in the Middle East, will not give up Vienna talks for more robust action.

This article is based on discussions with more than a dozen US and Israeli officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues and classified intelligence assessments.

After a tense phone call with Mr. Blinken 10 days ago, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sent his defense minister, Benny Gantz, and the new head of the Mossad, David Barnea, to Washington this week armed with new intelligence on the Iranians. Enriching uranium and doing what Israel says is their weapons collection. Despite tougher American rhetoric, Israeli officials left worried about continued diplomatic engagement with Iran.

The row over Iran is just one of several issues blighting the Biden-Bennett relationship. The pair started on a solid footing: Mr. Biden spoke with Mr. Bennett within hours after the Israeli leader took office in June – a sign of support given that Mr. Biden took weeks after his inauguration to speak directly with Mr. Bennett. His predecessor, Mr. Netanyahu.

But since then the two governments have clashed over whether the United States should reopen the US Consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, which President Donald J. Trump has closed. Mr. Bennett says such a move would undermine Israel’s sovereignty in its capital.

There are also disagreements over Israeli plans to expand its settlements in the occupied West Bank, and over the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist two Israeli spy firms, NSO Group and Candiru, whose products the United States alleges have been used by authoritarian governments to hack. Phones of opponents and human rights activists.

But at the heart of the tensions between Israel and the United States lies a fundamental disagreement over how to stop the Iranian programme. It’s not a new argument: the two allies fought hard over the 2015 agreement, which Israel opposed and was signed by President Barack Obama.

More recently, they have differed over the wisdom of Israeli sabotage of Iranian facilities, which Mr. Bennett’s government believes set back the program, and which some in the United States argue encourages the Iranians to rebuild their nuclear enrichment facilities more efficiently. Modern equipment.

Israeli officials were pleased with the warm welcome the White House extended to Mr. Bennett. The Biden administration has praised his government for being much more transparent with it than Mr. Netanyahu has been. In fact, the Israelis consulted with the Americans before launching two secret attacks against Iran, one in September against a missile base and the other in June against an Iranian factory to build centrifuges, according to people familiar with the proceedings.

But the call between Mr. Bennett and Mr. Blinken last week was contentious, with the two sides harboring very different views on the value of a renewed agreement to check Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The call left officials in both countries frustrated, according to officials from both countries.

During the phone call, Bennett said Iran was trying to blackmail the United States by increasing its enrichment rate, according to an official familiar with the details of the call. Mr. Bennett added that no US or Israeli official would want to be the one declaring that Iran has reached nuclear enrichment, but concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran should not lead to capitulation to Iranian demands or signing a reckless agreement.

Some US officials believe these concerns about concessions are misplaced. Israeli officials have complained that the United States is considering offering a temporary agreement with Tehran that would remove some sanctions in return for freezing some of its nuclear activities. But US officials say such an offer is not being actively considered, at least for now, due to Iran’s unwillingness to participate.

Israeli officials were not reassured. They are increasingly concerned that the United States will eventually reach a deal with Tehran and then seek to prevent Israeli intelligence services from carrying out covert sabotage attacks. Israeli leaders say they want a guarantee from the Biden administration that Washington will not seek to rein in their sabotage campaign, even if a new nuclear deal is reached.

Disagreements over intelligence assessments about Iran’s nuclear stockpile and bomb-making know-how remain relatively small, mostly focused on how long it would take the Iranians to produce a weapon if they obtained sufficient nuclear fuel.

But the chasm over the meaning of those assessments is wide. US officials believe that as long as Iran has not moved to develop a bomb it has no military nuclear program, as it halted the current program after 2003. On the other hand, Israeli officials believe that Iran has continued clandestine efforts to build a bomb since 2003.

Some Israeli officials believe their sabotage campaign has strategic implications and could be one of the reasons why the Iranians, however temporary, pushed back to Vienna. A senior Israeli intelligence official said the sabotage had caused a state of paranoia in the Iranian government’s leadership. The official said the operations had prompted Tehran to rethink whether it should speed up its nuclear project.

But even American supporters of the Israeli approach say it is akin to “mowing the lawn,” a move necessary to keep Iran in check but not one that will completely halt Tehran’s nuclear research. These US officials believe that the only permanent way to prevent Iran from developing a weapon is to reach an agreement, such as the 2015 agreement, that requires Iran to ship its nuclear fuel out of the country. This will require significant sanctions relief in return.

In meetings this week, Israeli officials have tried to persuade Washington not to work toward a diplomatic deal and to tighten sanctions instead. But Israeli officials say they fear the United States will conduct secret back-channel contacts with Iran, and that a new round of talks in Vienna will eventually lead to the signing of an agreement.

A senior US official said the meetings came against the backdrop of a recent Iranian attack on US forces in Syria. The official said the Israelis had taken an aggressive stance on the Iranian threat, with regard to both the nuclear program and the threat of proliferation of missiles and other weapons.

But there is growing American concern that it is only a matter of time before a US service member is killed or injured in a drone attack by Mr. Biden’s Iran. With Iran making it clear that it will retaliate against US personnel in Syria or Iraq if Israel strikes Iran or its proxies, that complicates strike planning.

In an appearance in the CEO’s Board of The Wall Street Journal on Monday, Raised by William J. Burns, the director of the CIA, has concerns about Iran’s nuclear work. He said the Iranians are “slowing down” in the negotiations because they are “making steady progress on their nuclear program, especially enrichment up to 60 percent now as well.” This is the closest the Iranians have ever come to a bomb-making fuel, which is usually defined as 90 percent purity.

But Mr. Burns added that the United States still believed that Iran had not made a decision to arm its nuclear program.

Patrick Kingsley Contributed to reporting from Jerusalem, and Eric Schmidt from Washington.

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