Israel-Washington-Tehran: A tense triad

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Thursday 17 Aug 2023

Israel is worried about understandings between the US and Iran that recently resulted in an agreement on the exchange of prisoners and the release of frozen funds from Iranian oil revenues.

Darian Dalili holds up a sign as he protests during a hunger strike outside the White House in Washington, DC on August 14, 2023, as he calls for the release of his father, Shahab Dalili, a US permanent resident held in an Iranian prison since 2016.


Tel Aviv has adamantly opposed Washington’s return to the Iranian nuclear deal from which former US president Donald Trump withdrew.

The current understandings, mediated by Qatar and hosted in Doha, include the release of five Iranian-American prisoners held by Iranian authorities in exchange for the release of Iranian prisoners in the US as well as the release of some $6 billion in Iranian funds in a frozen account in South Korea.

Israel says it is worried because Iran will use these funds to support its allies encircling Israel, in a reference to Hizbullah of Lebanon, the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and several groups that recently became active in the Syrian Golan.

Israel asserts that Iran is pumping money and military expertise to bolster these groups, which it claims pose an imminent threat to it. Tel Aviv also accuses Tehran of financing the activities of armed groups in the West Bank, which have recently become a security concern for Israel, especially since they are active in what Israel perceived to be its weak flank.

Washington attempted to alleviate Israel’s worries through statements by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House Spokesperson John Kirby, asserting that Washington will regulate the Iranian funds that will be released and transferred to accounts in Qatari banks. The statements also asserted that Tehran will use them only for humanitarian purposes such as purchasing medicine and food.

However, Israel is not convinced that Iran will not use these funds for other purposes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that “the money that Iran will receive will go to terrorist elements which it sponsors,” according to a statement by his office.

Meanwhile, Israeli analysts see the recent Washington-Tehran understandings as part of a bigger deal between the two sides pertaining to the nuclear agreement they have been trying to revive in recent months, something Israel has repeatedly criticised.

Tel Aviv believes that the latest deal is part of broad understandings to limit Iranian uranium enrichment to 60 per cent, and prevent Iran-affiliated militias in Syria and Iraq from attacking US soldiers there.

Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper quoted Israeli security officials as saying they believe the understandings would increase diplomatic cooperation between the US and Iran, especially on the nuclear deal, and that they are part of the agreements reached in the Sultanate of Oman.

Israel also relates the understandings to Tehran providing Moscow with shipments of Iranian weapons, especially drones, and stopping Iranian attacks against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The newspaper continued that Israeli officials said this type of agreement does not require the approval of the US Congress, because hostility towards Iran is prevalent. Thus, US President Joe Biden’s administration decided to ease tensions with Iran at the expense of Israel.

Meanwhile, Tehran denies that the recent agreement restricts its nuclear activities and points to several US reports indicating that tension remains high despite recent understandings. It further cites the US sending two warships to the Red Sea with more than 3,000 soldiers on board, and a US warning to ships in the Strait of Hormuz about possible attacks by Iran. This is in addition to the US military looking at the possibility of providing protection for commercial ships in the strait.

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor, argues that the understandings between Washington and Tehran will increase tensions between the US and Israel, adding to a long list of quarrels, most notably, disagreement on judicial reforms adopted by Netanyahu’s government which Washington opposes, as well as not inviting Netanyahu until now to visit the White House.

Abu Saada told Al-Ahram Weekly that relations between Israel and the US are strategic and well-established, but such issues poison the atmosphere between them, after public criticism by the US of measures taken by Netanyahu’s government.

He notes that Israeli officials who previously boasted that they put pressure on Washington not to return to the nuclear deal now find themselves powerless in the face of recent understandings between the US and Iran.

Israel, which tried to mobilise international public opinion and secure US participation in a possible strike targeting Iran’s nuclear capabilities worries the recent agreement will upend its efforts. Israel estimates Iran has reached 90 per cent uranium enrichment, and Tehran has announced that it has obtained missile technology faster than the speed of sound. These are integral components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Tel Aviv is also worried that the Washington-Tehran understandings will strengthen Hizbullah’s position. Israel warns it could have a large-scale confrontation with the group, according to reports by the Military Intelligence Division, which believes a war with Hizbullah, Iran’s ally, is only a matter of time.

Abu Saada further explained that Israel is diligently working on extracting US support to launch a strike against Iran or one of its allies in the region, especially Hizbullah, in order for Israel to achieve what it calls “restoring deterrence.”

He noted that Iranian-US understandings are another blow to Netanyahu’s efforts towards this goal, with the first being an increasingly complex reality about the Israeli army’s efficiency due to thousands of reservists refusing to serve in protest of Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan.

As tensions continue to rise between Washington and Tel Aviv, Israel is counting on the 2024 US elections leading to Washington taking a tougher stand on Tehran more aligned with Israel’s actions against Iran.

Israelis theorise that for Netanyhau, the recent agreement between Tehran and Washington is a reminder of tensions in the last months of former US Democratic president Barack Obama’s term in office, before Trump was voted into the White House in 2016.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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