Israel’s bold move of blowing up the Iranian power station, Natanz, was preceded by a series of connected events.
Last Saturday, Iran defiantly announced that it had switched on the new centrifuges in Natanz, which would enable it to enrich uranium 50 times faster than the old ones. This was Iran’s way of ratcheting up the pressure on the Biden administration and other negotiators from Western countries in Vienna.
On the same day, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on a pre-scheduled visit to placate Israelis, who were displeased with the negotiations. The next day, power failure that appeared to have been caused by a deliberately planned explosion struck Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment only 24 hours after it was put into operation. It is likely that the Israelis did not fill in the Americans in advance or inform them of the details of the operation before it was carried out. The attack raised questions as it took place on the same day of the US secretary of defense’s visit. Austin did not comment on the attack, neither criticizing nor defending it, or giving any indication as to whether he was upset or pleased.
It is clear that Israel has changed the cards everyone was holding without caring for what the US secretary of defense, or the US president, thinks.
Two weeks ago, Iran held the power advantage, playing the Natanz reactor card as a bargaining chip, in that it would operate the centrifuges if it did not obtain full concessions on the JCPOA nuclear agreement before returning to negotiations. Now, however, Iran has lost this bargaining chip due to the attack, and is in an uncertain position of whether to continue negotiations or withdraw its team from Vienna.
In Vienna, the negotiations behind closed doors between Iran and the United States are being conducted in a strange manner; the American delegation is in one hotel and the Iranian delegation is in another. Moreover, because the Iranian delegates refuse to meet directly with the Americans, the latter have agreed to seek the help of British, French and German mediators to convey messages to the Iranian team in their hotel, where they meet with the rest of the participants; Russian, Chinese and a representative of the European Union.
It should be noted that the Israeli attack will postpone the Iranian threat, but not completely eliminate it, and we must pose the question, what will happen next? This is what makes negotiations so important.
I recently participated in a forum on this topic held by the Bahraini newspaper, al-Bilad, which hosted Prince Turki al-Faisal. I agree with what the speakers said about the potential risks behind reactivating the agreement, and for this reason, the countries of the region must prepare for all possibilities, including the worst ones.
However, there are many facts surrounding the 2015 nuclear deal that should be taken into account:
- The deal is an international document signed under United Nations oversight.
- The deal is supported and signed by Russia and China, it is a rare consensus between the three superpowers and puts the countries that reject it in a tight corner without an ally.
- The deal is already accepted by the current US administration, which has about four years to fully activate it, unlike the previous Obama administration, which did not have the same kind of time.
Even opposing Arab countries are not against the spirit of the deal. They are against it being limited to nuclear enrichment and armament and that it does not address the very real Iranian threats against them, such as their ballistic missiles and waging foreign wars.
Biden’s negotiating team fought to reach a quick deal with the current Iranian government that enabled it to collect 15 billion dollars in debt. But despite his concessions to the Iranians, he has so far failed to move one step further. What made things harder for negotiators was the series of sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump, which succeeded in slowing the negotiations and complicating the situation. It appears that the humiliating Israeli attack on Iran will be another blow to the negotiators in Vienna. Rouhani and his government have only two months left as he is ineligible to run for re-election while the real leadership remains, i.e. the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard, who prioritize portraying the regime as a victor over any negotiating.
I expect, despite the inherited obstacles and the Israeli attack, that the US administration will insist on proceeding with negotiations, but it can no longer ignore Israel and the countries of the region if it really wants its mission to succeed.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.