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Iran, Israel and the US: A three-way conundrum

How will Biden’s administration handle the escalation between Iran and Israel

Saeed Okasha , Thursday 29 Apr 2021
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Escalation of hostilities between Iran and Israel took a sharp turn after Israel bombed the Natanz reactor in Iran, and Tehran retaliated with a calculated surge.

On 22 April a missile was fired from an Iranian base in Syria that hit a spot near the Dimona nuclear reactor in Israel. Following violent clashes in Jerusalem between Arab residents and Israeli right-wing radicals, Hamas declared it would not let Israel harm Jerusalem Arabs, and to show it meant business and allowed Palestinian factions including Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to fire 36 missiles at cities in southern Israel. This move is unprecedented in more than a year.

Meanwhile reports of talks between Washington and Tehran in Vienna show that President Joe Biden is willing not only to go back to the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018 but also to lift some sanctions without the prerequisites Israel demands.

Iran’s attempt to prevail over Israel vis-a-vis the US in terms of both diplomacy and security, snatching away the reins that Israel has held for at least three years, is just one battle in a long war unlikely to end any time soon. But it remains important to ponder the prospects and consequences of the current escalation, looking at Israel’s attempts to control the Biden administration and how the White House responds to them.

On 21 April, it was announced that a senior Israeli security delegation will visit Washington DC to persuade Biden to be cautious in returning to the nuclear deal, making his return conditional on tighter monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities and not lifting sanctions until Iran has stopped supporting entities that pose a threat to Israel. Soon after this announcement, however, The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed source believed to be from the Iranian negotiating team saying that the US is willing to lift sanctions on Iranian Central Bank, the national oil company, shipping lines and many key economic sectors including steel and aluminium.

Israel’s shock at the Biden administration was compounded when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 23 April that next week’s visit by Israeli officials will not change the US intention to return to the nuclear deal. Leaked reports and White House statements can be seen as a diplomatic victory for Iran and a loss for Israel. The Biden administration is primarily focused on erasing Trump’s legacy and willing to take steps and decisions that Israel views as posing a security, even an existential threat to it. Those decisions could encourage Iran to continue pursuing nuclear weapons and supporting countries and entities that threaten Israel and the entire Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to repeat what he did with the Obama administration, using Israel’s influence in Congress to introduce legislation forcing Biden to present Congress with any agreement with Iran before he signs it.

The senior Israeli delegation expected in Washington would include the army’s chief of staff, the directors of Mossad and military intelligence (Aman), as well as Israel’s National Security adviser. However, the trip’s itinerary and agenda remain a mystery, especially after Psaki’s statements and Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi saying recently that he is postponing his trip to the US. Kochavi said he is needed in Israel to respond to any developments in the security situation in the Gaza Strip. There are also no reports of scheduled meetings between Israeli security officials, who would have travelled with Kochavi, and their US counterparts.

Israel is likely to go on trying to convince the Biden administration that recent developments prove the Israeli viewpoint, namely that by merely signalling that it could return to the nuclear deal and lift sanctions, the US has encouraged Tehran to take steps that threaten Israel’s security. These actions include firing missiles close to the Dimona nuclear reactor and inciting Iranian proxies such as Hamas and Jihad to agitate the frontlines with Israel.

If Israeli security officials end up meeting with their US counterparts, even without Kochavi, they will not only focus on Iran’s nuclear issue, but also on Tehran’s interference in the region and its relations with entities accused of terrorism, such as Hamas and Jihad, as well as Iran’s missile capabilities.

Israel is also likely to discuss how all these developments are playing out in the light of Russia’s strong backing of Iran and Syria. Russia encourages Tehran to threaten Israeli security, using other countries to undermine US influence in many regions around the world. Biden places Russia at the top of the list of countries hostile to the US. The inability of the Biden administration to face off with Russia in Ukraine recently (when Russian troops were deployed along the border in a blatant challenge to US and EU threats) shows how risky it might be for the US to mend fences with Iran, especially since Iran is most likely a main player in Moscow’s strategy against Washington.

What lends even more credibility to Israel’s argument (linking Iran with Washington’s attempts to contain Russia’s growing influence in several parts of the world) are recent statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin. On 21 April, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Putin warned that no one should think of crossing the “red line” in relations with Russia.

Putin attacked US and Western sanctions on many countries (which indirectly references Iran): “It seems everyone is accustomed to imposing illegal sanctions for political reasons and forcing their will on others. But these actions are now evolving into something more dangerous.” Putin had been speaking of US and European sanctions against Russia years ago because of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, but his words were equally applicable to Iran.

Tel Aviv may well link Iran’s actions against Israel with Russia’s support of the mullah regime on several political, security and economic levels. This represents a serious threat to US interests in the Middle East due to an alliance Russia is forging with Iran and possibly with other countries, such as Turkey, in a confrontation with the US. Considering all the above, will the Biden administration be able to rebuff Israeli pressure? That remains to be seen.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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