In Israel and the Gulf, reaction to US push for Iran talks is muted but wary

The New York Times
JerusalemWritten By: Patrick Kingsley © 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Feb 20, 2021, 03:23 PM IST
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The muted response from Iran’s regional antagonists may mask a strong undercurrent of pessimism and behind-the-scenes pushback against the Americans’ decision

When the United States last tried to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, the reaction from the Israeli government was blunt and fierce. In the years preceding Iran’s 2015 agreement with Washington and several other leading powers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel repeatedly called the negotiations a “historic mistake.”

But Friday, the formal announcement that the Biden administration was seeking a return to nuclear negotiations with Iran, after the collapse of the 2015 agreement under President Donald Trump, did not provoke a sharp backlash — not just in Jerusalem, but also in the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which also oppose too generous a rapprochement with Iran.

The muted response from Iran’s regional antagonists may mask a strong undercurrent of pessimism and behind-the-scenes pushback against the Americans’ decision. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates remain wary of Iran’s intentions, and have signaled that they would be open to a deal only if it went well beyond the previous one — reining in Iran’s ballistic missile program, its meddling in other countries and the militias it supports in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, in addition to its nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s office issued a brief statement avoiding direct comment on the U.S. intention to negotiate but noting that Israel was in contact with the United States.

“Israel remains committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and its position on the nuclear agreement has not changed,” the statement said. “Israel believes that going back to the old agreement will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.”

Western diplomats and former Israeli officials said that the Israelis had accepted the need to engage constructively with Washington instead of dismissing the negotiations out of hand.

Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister for community affairs, said the Israeli government was not intrinsically opposed to negotiations. But the talks had to yield a better deal than the one in 2015, which Israel and the Gulf countries condemned because its restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities would expire in a decade and a half and because it did nothing to restrict Iranian military activity across the Middle East.

“We would like the negotiations to emphasize what the world would like to see: an agreement for a longer time — for at least 50 years, if not more,” Hanegbi said in an interview. “It has to be an agreement that will be valid for generations. Anything else will not achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.”

Saudi and Emirati officials, for their part, were silent Friday. Watching the Biden administration’s outreach to Tehran with resignation, the two Gulf states — which were outraged at being excluded from the last negotiations — can only hope that the United States will keep its promises to consider Gulf interests in the talks, analysts said.

“We just have to trust the new administration,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist. “We don’t have any option. They really are determined to reach out to Iran, so there’s no way that anybody could stop them.”

But he acknowledged there could be something to gain, saying, “If the end result is less confrontation with Iran, a less aggressive Iran, a less expansionist Iran, it’s a dream of a sort.”

The Israeli government’s reticence reflects a less combative approach to the Biden administration’s policymaking than with President Barack Obama’s, at least initially, said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.

“Practically, they will not confront the Biden administration directly,” he said. “They will wait a little bit to see whether the Iranians are reacting and how the negotiations develop.”

But behind the scenes, Israel is already lobbying the United States for an agreement that is much tougher on Iran. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and a team of experts will soon travel to Washington to brief senior American officials about what they see as the threats still posed by Iran, hoping to persuade the United States to hold out for harsher restrictions on Iran in any deal, two senior Israeli officials said.

Israeli intelligence suggests that Iran has blatantly violated the terms of the original nuclear deal and is still taking steps to develop a nuclear warhead, the officials said, claims that Iran denies.

In Europe, Russia and China, which supported the original deal and opposed Trump’s withdrawal from it, the reaction was positive.

“The U.S.A. is giving diplomacy a chance,” Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, wrote on Twitter. “We expressly welcome and support this!”

Maas also warned Iran against taking aggressive measures at a time when diplomatic breakthroughs seemed possible. “Now the Iranian leaders must also show that they are serious,” he said.

In Russia — an ally of Iran and a signatory to the nuclear deal — the Kremlin praised how the White House had also backed away from the Trump administration effort to restore United Nations sanctions on Iran.

“Halting the call for sanctions is a good thing, on its own,” said Dmitry S. Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. “This is an event that one can probably mark with a plus sign.”

China, which signed a trade and military pact with Iran last year and is another signatory, reiterated Friday that the United States should “unconditionally” rejoin the nuclear deal. It has opposed renegotiating a new agreement in the past.

An unconditional return “is the key to breaking the deadlock,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, said at a news conference.

Biden administration officials said Friday that the next move was Iran’s and that they did not intend to offer concessions or incentives for Tehran to join negotiations.

“We don’t anticipate taking additional steps,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters traveling with President Joe Biden on Air Force One. A senior administration official said that any U.S. actions, such as the removal of sanctions on Iran, would have to be discussed at the negotiating table.

Iranian officials did not formally respond to Biden’s proposal Friday, although several officials said Thursday that Iran would likely join the talks. But they did reiterate their position that the United States must lift sanctions first before Iran would return to its commitments under the nuclear agreement.

“Gestures are fine,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on Twitter. But to revive the nuclear talks, he said, the “U.S. must Act: LIFT sanctions. We WILL respond.”

In the Persian Gulf, U.S. allies who view Iran as a major threat were gritting their teeth over the possible talks.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political commentator who is viewed as being close to the government, said Saudi Arabia had been signaling to the Biden administration for months that it supported reengaging with Iran, but only if the goal was a deal with additional constraints on Iran’s regional behavior.

“The Biden people are making all the right noises,” he said, “but the proof is in the pudding.”

Calling renewed negotiations with Iran “a totally mind-boggling thing to do,” Mohammed Alyahya, editor-in-chief of the English website of Saudi-owned news channel Al-Arabiya, warned that lifting sanctions against Iran would mean relinquishing all the leverage the Trump administration accrued through its maximum-pressure campaign of economic punishment, leaving Tehran to do as it pleased.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Alyahya said. “Going back to the same deal is going to yield the same exact results that the first deal did: an empowered Iran, an Iran that is going to quickly try to reclaim its regional leverage that it has lost as a result of the maximum pressure campaign. This is not a regime that will act in good faith.”

Yet amid a cooling in U.S.-Saudi relations — Biden officials have said they will recalibrate the relationship after four years of coziness between the Trump administration and the Saudis — Saudi Arabia’s official communications have emphasized the positive in dealings with the Biden administration so far, said Eman Alhussein, a Saudi analyst at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“They want to be seen as being part of the solution to these problems,” Alhussein said, partly because of the “atmosphere of apprehension” about the kingdom’s uncertain relationship with United States.