In DC, Israel’s top spy and security wonk face a mission impossible on Iran

Meir Ben-Shabbat and Yossi Cohen are well-regarded in Washington, but their trip is unlikely to prevent the Biden administration from barreling toward deal with Tehran

Lazar Berman
Yossi Cohen, then the national security adviser, is seen in a committee meeting at the Israeli parliament on December 8, 2015, sitting behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yossi Cohen, then the national security adviser, is seen in a committee meeting at the Israeli parliament on December 8, 2015, sitting behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Senior Israeli national security officials are in Washington for their first face-to-face meetings in the United States with their Biden administration counterparts. The focus of the conversations is squarely on the terms of the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which Iran has been gradually and openly violating.

Though they are senior figures and well-respected in Washington, Mossad agency chief Yossi Cohen and National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat face a difficult task. As talks on the future of the deal progress in Vienna, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US and Iran will eventually reach an agreement — and there’s nothing Israeli officials can do to stop it.

The question, then, is what the officials wish to achieve, and whether they stand a chance to influence American policy.

“I think they can move the needle a bit,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council. “I don’t think it’s going to change the direction.”

Both the US and Israel are seeking to avoid the bitter diplomatic fight that unfolded publicly in the lead-up to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is formally known.

“The pattern is that before and after each round in Vienna, the US wants to consult Israel,” explained David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Each side is trying to learn the lessons of 2015.”

Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

The nations set up a strategic group, which last convened on April 13, to coordinate their efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. The group is led by Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Ben-Shabbat, who met on Tuesday in Washington.

Though ongoing updates are important, Israel is more concerned about what comes next.

The major gap between Israel and the US, one that may well be unbridgeable at this point, is around the question of whether there is any value in returning to the original JCPOA. Though Biden administration officials have promised to deal with Iran’s missile production and activities across the Middle East in subsequent talks, the first step in their eyes is to get Iran back into compliance with international demands on its nuclear program.

A return to the original deal “is the floor and not the ceiling,” said a source familiar with the administration’s thinking on the talks. “It doesn’t stop there.”

This approach offers tangible and immediate benefits. To return to compliance, Iran would have to hand over enriched uranium it currently possesses in violation of the JCPOA limits.

“The US approach is to say, by locking in the current deal, they’re going to have to get rid of over 2,000 kilo — almost two bombs worth — of low-enriched uranium,” Makovsky said.

David Makovsky (screen capture: YouTube)

The next phase of talks – over issues like missiles and support for armed proxies – would then begin with Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium back down to 300 kilograms.

“The administration’s view is let’s first lock in what we have, and ensure that a follow-on deal is not a high-stakes gamble where they keep accumulating and accumulating,” Makovsky said.

Israel contends that in order to get Iran to return to the original deal, the US will have to give up its main source of leverage – sanctions reinstated by former president Donald Trump that have devastated Iran’s economy — rendering a new agreement reining in its missile activity and support for proxies even less likely.

There is certainly no guarantee that a new and improved deal – “JCPOA 2.0” – will ever actually come about.

“The president and the secretary of state keep saying that they want a longer and stronger deal,” Makovsky said. “So the question is, is 2.0 real, or is merely aspirational? And if it’s real, what is the economic leverage that will ensure that Iran will sign up for 2.0?”

“Longer” refers to extending the “sunset clauses” in which limits on uranium enrichment end in 2025 and 2030. Though the deal technically prohibits Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon, detractors of the agreement say these clauses will allow Iran to do so with impunity once the sanctions against the regime end. “Stronger” means more access for inspectors and limits on Iranian activities beyond its nuclear program.

As the Biden administration focuses its efforts on sealing an agreement for a return to the original deal, it is avoiding speaking publicly about its plans for a follow-on deal so as not to add any further obstacles to the talks in Vienna. But this understandably unsettles Israel and its strategic partners in the region, and increases the fear that the US won’t have enough leverage left once it removes most sanctions.

Ben-Shabbat and Cohen are likely also trying to understand how two looming deadlines are affecting America’s approach to the negotiations. In May, a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” between Iran and the IAEA will end, which would drastically scale back inspectors’ access to Iranian nuclear sites. The next month, Iran will hold presidential elections, in which many expect a hardline candidate to prevail.

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, leaves the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ after the closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna on April 16, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran hold talks. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The Israelis, for their part, are sharing new intelligence with their American counterparts on Iran’s nuclear program, and will argue that their ongoing alleged covert strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and on Tehran’s proxy forces in the region should not be curtailed as talks move forward in Vienna.

“I think they will make the case very forcefully…that the freedom of action that Israel maintains is an asset, not a liability for the Americans,” said Lerman.

A non-trip?

Despite the senior-level visits to Washington, it’s hard to ignore a inescapable sense of futility. The fundamental disagreement between Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu and the US under Joe Biden is real and too wide to be bridged.

“You have this Israeli delegation that’s preaching a certain gospel, and a group of senior Americans who really couldn’t care less,” argued Ori Goldberg of the IDC Lauder School of Government.

Israel, with its predilection toward tactical brilliance, seems to think that there is some piece of intelligence it has garnered — however impressively — that could sway the Biden administration. But the American president and his advisers have made a political determination based on their own approach and worldview, not on a particular fact or intelligence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad head Yossi Cohen during a toast for the Jewish New Year on October 2, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

To compound the inefficacy of the Israeli mission, the two senior figures who made the trip are seen as Netanyahu loyalists in the eyes of an administration that is no fan of the prime minister. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi earlier this week dropped out of the trip, ostensibly because of escalating rocket fire from Gaza, removing the figure least identified with Netanyahu and with interlocutors in the Pentagon least affected by the political change in Washington.

“Both Yossi Cohen and Meir Ben-Shabbat at this stage are political operatives,” said Goldberg. “They’re not greeted with elation by senior officials in the Biden administration. “

“It’s a non-trip,” he added, arguing that instead of a coordinated trip, this was a set of disjointed individual visits.

“There is a problem to some extent,” agreed Lerman, “because some Israelis in high places feed the perception that essentially we are talking about a political posture rather than a professional message. That detracts from the effectiveness of the mission.”

At the same time, Lerman emphasized, Cohen and Ben Shabbat “represent serious, effective, professional establishment figures. They are not their master’s voices in any sense of the words.”

Others see no issue with the top Israeli officials making the trip, but believe that it is their US counterparts who make the visits unlikely to bear much fruit.

Danielle Pletka (photo credit: AEI, courtesy)

“The Israeli government is the Israeli government and these are its senior-most national security officials,” emphasized Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

“As to whether the Biden administration will listen to them, these are the same people who were in the Obama administration. There’s no reason to believe they would act any differently than they did then.”

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