Despite the Ukraine war and a pending nuclear deal, Iran is still firmly in Israel’s sights, reports Yassamine Mather
On March 27 the foreign ministers from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Morocco met with their US and Israeli counterparts in Israel’s Negev desert. The gathering was heralded as a historic event, bringing together Arab and Israeli ministers on Israeli soil for the first time.
This, as well a number of new realignments in the region, reflects changing times in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the possibly imminent nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1 powers. However, all polls taken in the above countries - and elsewhere in the Arab world - show that the majority do not support normalising ties with Israel. Yet their unelected leaders seem to have taken the decision that they can ignore such sentiments for the sake of Realpolitik.
No doubt the war in Ukraine and the west’s need to access Iran’s oil and gas reserves have given a new impetus to the negotiations with the Islamic Republic. There is some urgency regarding the need to return Iranian crude oil to global energy markets in the months ahead, in order to offset price spikes in the wake of new sanctions on the Russian economy following the invasion of Ukraine.
However, the Iran nuclear deal has not yet been signed and disagreement over crucial issues, such as the removal of US sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, might still jeopardise any accord. Right now we know there has been progress mainly because of the hysteria in Tel Aviv. After all, Israel’s government opposed the terms of the original deal in 2015, and then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu did his best to encourage Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal. The current government has also made it clear that any re-activation of the original deal would be unacceptable.
So in Negev over the weekend, US secretary of state Antony Blinken was trying to reassure Israel: “When it comes to the most important element, [Israel and the US] see eye to eye. We are both committed, both determined, that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon.”1
No doubt some differences remain - current Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett has expressed “very deep concerns” about the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) being taken off the US terror list, which, he said, Blinken “did not rule out in any way”. However, this was contradicted by Robert Malley, the US envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, when he told a conference in Doha on the same day: “The IRGC will remain sanctioned under US law and our perception of the IRGC will remain.” Mind you, we are very familiar with contradictory statements from US officials: this week, for instance, despite Biden’s comments about Putin there were denials of any plans for ‘regime change in Russia’ by the state department.
On Iran the compromise US position seems to be that of ‘de-listing’ the IRGC as a ‘terrorist organisation’ - primarily a symbolic gesture. But Israel is far from happy. Bennett and his foreign minister, Yair Lapid, said in a joint statement earlier in March: “The attempt to de-list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation is an insult to the victims and would ignore documented reality supported by unequivocal evidence.”2 Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro was probably right in his assessment: “If you asked each minister at the table, they might come with a different priority.”
As Blinken was trying to prepare allies for a possible Iran nuclear deal, predictably Netanyahu - now an Israeli opposition leader, of course - commented that Blinken was mistaken for supporting the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, claiming once more that any new pact would give Iran the green light to develop atomic weapons.
Of course, as is the tradition of inter-state diplomacy and the accompanying secret deals, we do not know what the current proposals are. However, maybe Netanyahu does - perhaps thanks to senators who attended Robert Malley’s recent briefing on the subject. Most of the neoconservative Republicans who were there were ‘outraged’ by what they heard. James E Risch, senator for Idaho who holds the highest Republican position in the Senate foreign affairs committee, issued the following statement:
The Biden administration has continued its pursuit of a deal with Iran despite objections from our Middle East partners and legitimate oversight concerns from both chambers of Congress. Reports out of Vienna are unsettling at best, and I’m appalled at the concessions this administration is considering to placate the Iranian regime. A deal that provides $90-$130 billion in sanctions relief, relieves sanctions against Iran’s worst terror and human rights offenders, and delists the IRGC does not support our national security interests. Worse, this deal could enable Putin to continue to build out his nuclear arsenal and benefit financially in the midst of his assault against Ukraine. The administration should walk away.3
However, when it comes to the prospects for a new Iran nuclear deal, there is a lot of optimism amongst European leaders. Speaking at the Doha conference on March 28, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a nuclear deal was near, even though a few items remain to be settled. A similar message came from Josep Borrell, the European Union’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who told the Doha conference that a deal was “very close”. A couple of days later day on his return to Europe he told MEPs in Brussels:
Russia wanted to prevent sanctions on Iranian oil being lifted, because if Iran started producing oil there will be more supply in the markets, and that’s not in the interest of Russia ... It seems that two weeks ago, we almost had it. Then Russia came - Russia was obstructing.
Of course, that particular obstacle seems to have been resolved when Russia was given confidential guarantees as far as trade with Iran is concerned, and by all accounts Moscow is no longer objecting to the deal. Yet the incident shows how the war in Ukraine has created divisions between two former allies: Russia and the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile the hot/cold war between Iran and Israel continues, with both sides using the fact that news is dominated by the war in Ukraine to escalate attacks against each other. Earlier this month the IRGC claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. According to Tehran, a number of Mossad operatives were killed and several buildings were severely damaged, including the headquarters of the Kurdistan24 news agency.
The IRGC, however, claimed that the targeted site was an Israeli intelligence outpost:
Following the recent crimes of the fake Zionist regime and our previous statements that the crimes and evils of this infamous regime will not go unanswered, last night the strategic centre of Zionist conspiracy and evil was targeted by powerful missiles of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
However, local authorities in Erbil denied the presence of Mossad agents. Provincial governor Omed Khoshnaw told reporters that the allegations were “baseless”, since “there is no Israeli base in that area”. But that was contradicted by a senior US official who told The New York Times that one of the buildings in Erbil struck was actually an Israeli training facility.4 And Middle Eastern news agencies reported that Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, had on several occasions complained to the Iraqi Kurdistan region, warning them about the presence of the Mossad base.
Kurdish political commentator Niyaz Hamid added:
It was agreed between these parties that the city of Erbil should become the centre of the Israeli Mossad, where several Iranian Kurdish opposition groups are also based. This agreement has had the consequence of making the city of Erbil the centre of the war between Israel and Iran.5
The targeting of Erbil was itself a retaliation to the Israeli attack on Iran’s drone site in Iranian Kurdistan - according to The New York Times, “the Israeli intelligence operatives who launched the airstrike were based in Iraq.”6
All this shows that, irrespective of what happens regarding the Iran nuclear deal, the conflict between the Islamic Republic and Israel will continue to escalate. Both sides have invested too much effort in military hardware and political bravado to be able to retreat. And, of course, if this were to lead to a full-scale war, the United States under any administration - Republican or Democrat - would side with Israel. That would conceivably pave the way for the splitting up of Iran into a number of smaller states.