Archive for December 3, 2021

Europeans express dismay as Iran walks back compromises at Vienna nuke talks

December 3, 2021

Negotiators say 2 proposals submitted by Tehran undo months of work at previous rounds of talks, ‘time is running out’ for diplomacy; Macron: renewal of talks could be delayed

By AFP and TOI STAFFToday, 5:54 pm  

Iranian exiles and supporters of monarchy shout slogans during a demonstration near the Coburg palace during a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, on December 3, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

Iranian exiles and supporters of monarchy shout slogans during a demonstration near the Coburg palace during a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, on December 3, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

European diplomats expressed “disappointment and concern” on Friday after five days of international negotiations in Vienna on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after Iran submitted two draft proposals that appeared to undo months of dialogue.

Senior diplomats from the E3 group of Britain, France and Germany expressed “disappointment and concern after thoroughly and carefully analyzing Iranian proposed changes to the text negotiated during the previous six rounds,” which took place earlier this year.

“Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work,” they said, adding that the Iranian delegation had demanded “major changes.”

They went on to say it was “unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic timeframe.”

The latest round of talks began on Monday between the E3, Iran, China and Russia, with the United States participating indirectly.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

Diplomats were aiming to revive the 2015 deal, which began unraveling in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions, prompting Iran to start exceeding limits on its nuclear program the following year.

The diplomats said the delegations needed to “return to capitals to assess the situation and seek instructions, before reconvening next week to see whether gaps can be closed or not.”

“Our governments remain fully committed to a diplomatic way forward. But time is running out,” they said.

Iran said on Thursday it had submitted two draft proposals for the nuclear agreement.Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, arrives at the Coburg Palais in Vienna for nuclear talks, on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

On Thursday, Iran’s lead negotiator Ali Bagheri said the proposals concerned two main issues facing the 2015 accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

“The first document sums up the Islamic republic’s point of view concerning the lifting of sanctions, while the second is about Iran’s nuclear actions,” Bagheri told state television.

“Now the other side must examine these documents and prepare itself to hold negotiations with Iran based on these documents.”

Extreme and maximalist

An E3 diplomat told Israel’s Walla news that the draft on sanctions relief was extreme and maximalist, with the Iranians increasing their sanctions relief demands in comparison to agreements reached with the Rouhani government last June.

The talks had resumed in the Austrian capital on Monday after Iran paused them in June following the election of ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi.

The diplomat also told Walla that Iran had backtracked on the nuclear draft too, removing all the previously agreed upon compromise language on steps to roll back their nuclear program.

“The Iranians have been told their proposals are not serious and they are to go back to Tehran and get further instructions,” the diplomat said.

Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency said the talks would “most likely” resume on Monday but French President Emmanuel Macron warned there could be a longer break in the talks, which only resumed on November 29 after a five-month break.

Speaking on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, just across the Gulf from Iran, the French president said it “should not be excluded” that this round of talks “does not reopen swiftly.”

Including the Gulf states and Israel

However, in comments likely to please his Gulf hosts but anger Iran, Macron said a broader framework might benefit the talks on bringing Washington back into the deal.

He appeared to suggest bringing the Gulf states and even Israel into the talks, although having Iranian and Israeli envoys at the same table appears almost impossible.

“I think everyone is conscious of the fact that not talking, not trying to find a new framework on both nuclear and regional issues, weakens everybody and is a factor in increasing confliction,” the French president said.

“It is also important to reengage a slightly broader dynamic and involve regional powers as well,” he added.

“It is difficult to reach an agreement if the Gulf states, Israel and all those whose security is directly affected are not involved.”French President Emmanuel Macron (L) is greeted by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan during his tour of the French pavillion at the Dubai Expo on the first day of his Gulf tour, on December 3, 2021. (Thomas Samson/AFP)

On Thursday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called for an “immediate cessation” of the nuclear talks, accusing Iran of “nuclear blackmail.”

In a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Bennett called instead for “concrete measures” to be taken against the Islamic republic.

The goal of the JCPOA is to make it practically impossible for Iran to build an atomic bomb, while allowing it to pursue a civilian nuclear program. Iran denies wanting a nuclear arsenal.

Blinken said Thursday it was not too late for Iran to revive its nuclear deal with world powers, but cautioned that hopes for the success of the talks were wearing thin.

“I think in the very near future, the next day or so, we’ll be in a position to judge whether Iran actually intends now to engage in good faith,” Blinken told reporters in Stockholm on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “I have to tell you, recent moves, recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for optimism.”

“But even though the hour is getting very late, it is not too late for Iran to reverse course,” Blinken added.

Mossad head vows no Iran nukes ‘ever,’ as credibility of military option scrutinized

December 3, 2021

David Barnea says agency will ‘do everything needed to alleviate threat,’ but air force head won’t say if Israel can destroy Iran’s program and report claims IDF has no strike plan

By TOI STAFF2 December 2021, 11:27 pm  

Israeli F-35 fighter jets fly in formation during the military's Blue Flag exercise in October 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli F-35 fighter jets fly in formation during the military’s Blue Flag exercise in October 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

The head of the Mossad spy agency said Thursday that a bad nuclear deal between world powers and Iran would be “intolerable” for Israel, vowing that the Islamic Republic will never acquire nuclear weapons.

“It’s clear that there’s no need for uranium enriched to 60 percent for civilian purposes,” David Barnea said during a ceremony at the President’s Residence to honor exceptional Mossad agents. “There’s no need for three enrichment sites. There’s no need for thousands of active centrifuges — unless, that is, there is an intention to develop nuclear weapons.”

“A bad deal, which I hope will not be made, is intolerable to us,” he added. “Iran is striving for regional hegemony, wages terrorism that we are blocking every day around the world, and is continuously threatening stability in the Middle East.”

“Our eyes are open, we are prepared, and we will do with our partners in the security establishment everything that is necessary to alleviate the threat against Israel and thwart it by any means,” Barnea said.

“Iran will not have nuclear weapons — not in the coming years, not ever. That is my promise, that is Mossad’s promise.”Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

Barnea’s comments came as negotiations resumed in Vienna between Iran and world powers on restoring the 2015 agreement that limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.From left to right: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog and Mossad chief David Barnea light Hanukkah candles at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, December 2, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Israel vocally opposed that deal and has urged the Biden administration — which is seeking to rejoin the accord — to end the talks, charging that Iran is using the negotiations to buy time to advance its nuclear work.

Iran is currently enriching uranium to 60% purity, which is just a short technical jump from weapons-grade, and far exceeds the cap set in the 2015 nuclear deal. There is no civilian use for 90% enriched uranium.

Israel has lobbied for its allies to scrap the 2015 deal altogether, instead seeking a better arrangement or heavy sanctions backed by a credible military threat.In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran. (IRIB via AP, File)

Asked about plans for a potential strike on Iranian nuclear sites during a rare television interview aired Thursday, Air Force head Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said the IDF was prioritizing preparations for such a possibility.

However, he did not directly respond when asked by Channel 13 news if the air force can fully neutralize the threat of a nuclear Iran.

“We always need to be ready with a military option and therefore this has become high priority,” he said.

“We make mistakes; we’re improving,” said Norkin, while remaining evasive when asked about the Israeli Air Force’s capabilities and the immediate threat posed by Iran.

Norkin compared Israel to an “insurance policy” against Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb. Asked if that insurance policy would need to be exercised, he said: “We’ll do whatever is required.”Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin speaks in a television interview on December 2, 2021 (Channel 13 screenshot)

The Walla news site reported Thursday that Israel does not currently have operative plans to strike Iran’s nuclear program.

The report, which did not cite sources, said the military was working on plans of action should a strike become necessary, but that training for such a mission has not yet begun, and will take several months to complete.

Once those are complete, the Israel Defense Forces will be able to provide Israeli leaders with a detailed military option, the report said.

Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told French President Emmanuel Macron that only a credible military threat will stop Iran’s nuclear program. Senior Israeli officials have blitzed their counterparts in the US, UK, France and Germany in recent days in a bid to lobby against nuclear talks with Iran, which kicked off Monday after an extended hiatus.

The Biden administration has repeatedly reiterated its desire to return to the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which former president Donald Trump exited. Following its exit, the US began reinstating sanctions on Tehran while Iran began to openly breach the deal’s terms.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said that it would only lift sanctions in return for concrete and evident changes in Iran’s behavior, and that not all sanctions would be lifted.

War: What Israel talks about when it talks about striking Iran’s nuclear program | The Times of Israel

December 3, 2021

Israeli officials have regularly called for a ‘credible military threat’ against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, but less discussed is the major conflict that’s almost sure to follow

By JUDAH ARI GROSSToday, 6:40 am  

In this photo released by the US Air Force, an Israeli Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle flies in formation with a US Air Force B-1B Lancer over Israel as part of a deterrence flight Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (US Air Force/Senior Airman Jerreht Harris via AP)

In this photo released by the US Air Force, an Israeli Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle flies in formation with a US Air Force B-1B Lancer over Israel as part of a deterrence flight Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (US Air Force/Senior Airman Jerreht Harris via AP)

Nearly one year ago, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi stood on stage at an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv and announced that he had ordered the military to begin preparing renewed plans for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Iran can decide that it wants to advance to a bomb, either covertly or in a provocative way. In light of this basic analysis, I have ordered the IDF to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to the existing ones. We are studying these plans and we will develop them over the next year,” Kohavi said.

He added: “The government will of course be the one to decide if they should be used. But these plans must be on the table, in existence and trained for.”

Since then, the IDF has done just that, with the air force and Military Intelligence, in particular, preparing themselves for such an operation, stepping up training exercises and focusing tremendous resources on intelligence collection. Billions of additional shekels have been poured into the defense budget specifically to prepare for strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

And over the past year, Israeli officials have regularly repeated calls for what they describe as a “credible military threat” against Iran’s nuclear program, in speeches, press conferences, media interviews and private meetings with allies, arguing that it is necessary in order to gain leverage in the ongoing negotiations with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

By its own estimates, the IDF is still at least months away from being fully prepared to conduct such a strike, though officials say that a more limited version of its plans could be carried out sooner.An Israeli F-35 fighter jet takes off during the military’s Blue Flag exercise in October 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

But the focus of these discussions has generally been on the strike itself against Iran’s nuclear facilities, an operation that would indeed be far, far more complicated and difficult than any other the IDF has conducted, including its raids to target Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007.

In each of those missions — Operation Opera and Operation Outside the Box — a single sortie containing a relatively small number of fighter jets conducted the bombing. But unlike in both of those cases, Iran does not have one nuclear facility that one group of planes could take out in a single strike, but many that are spread throughout the country, which would therefore require extraordinary levels of coordination to ensure that all of the sites were hit at the same time.

Making this more difficult is the fact that many of the facilities are buried deep underground, making them all but impenetrable to attacks from the air, particularly the Fordo reactor, where Iran recently began enriching uranium to 20 percent levels of purity with advanced centrifuges, in the latest breach of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The United States does have the massive bunker-busting ordnances needed to strike such facilities — the 13,600-kilogram (30,000-pound) GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) — but Washington has so far refused to provide them to Israel, not that selling the incredibly heavy bomb to Jerusalem would do much good as the Israeli Air Force does not have an aircraft capable of carrying it, nor does it even have the airfield infrastructure needed to support the aircraft that could carry it.

(To circumvent these limitations and to demonstrate the seriousness of an Israeli threat of attack, some current and former officials in the US have floated the idea of selling or leasing to Israel one of the three American heavy bombers capable of carrying the MOP — the B-52, B-1, or B-2 — though doing so faces a number of legal and logistical challenges, as the B-52 and B-2 are both effectively barred from sale under America’s New START treaty with Russia and the B-1 may also not be fully capable of containing the MOP within its bomb bays.)Illustrative: A US Air Force B-1B bomber, left, flies with a South Korean fighter jet F-15K over the Korean Peninsula, South Korea, Sunday, July 30, 2017 (South Korea Defense Ministry via AP)

Iran has also invested heavily in its air defenses, both purchasing advanced systems from Russia and developing its own domestically produced capabilities.

But while the complexities of such an operation should not be overstated, they are ultimately problems that can be resolved with enough time and resources.

Though Israeli officials are willing to discuss the efforts to overcome these challenges and develop the capabilities needed to conduct such a strike, typically left unmentioned is what happens afterward, which is of far greater significance.

In 1981 and in 2007, there was effectively no immediate retaliation by Iraq and Syria, respectively, though Baghdad’s response did come a decade later — to a certain extent — with its Scud missile attacks on Israel during the First Gulf War. This is not expected to be the case with Iran, several Israeli defense officials have told The Times of Israel.

For decades, Tehran has been building up a number of proxies throughout the region, the most formidable of which is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a terrorist group with an arsenal of rockets, missiles and mortar shells that matches and even surpasses many Western states. These foreign proxies are meant to insulate Iran from attack from its enemies. To wit: Israel can’t attack Iran if it is busy fighting off rocket fire and invasion attempts by Hezbollah from Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia similarly couldn’t attack Iran if it were facing the Houthis in Yemen.Hezbollah fighters stand atop a car mounted with a mock rocket, as they parade during a rally to mark the seventh day of Ashoura, in the southern village of Seksakiyeh, Lebanon, in this October 9, 2016 photo. (Mohammed Zaatari/AP)

The Israeli military firmly believes that this network of proxies would be brought to bear against Israel if it conducts a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And Israeli projections for what a war against Hezbollah and allied militias in the region would look like are unnerving: thousands of projectiles raining down on Israeli population centers, hundreds killed, severe damage to infrastructure and major utilities knocked out of service.

That is not to say that Israel would never conduct a strike on Iran for fear of attack from its proxies, but that any decision to do so would have to be weighed not against the military’s ability to carry out the operation, but against the potentially devastating prospects of what would follow the raid.

“The military option needs to be on the table. It is, of course, the last thing that we want to use, but we don’t have the luxury of not preparing ourselves for the options,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Thursday, in an on-camera interview with the Ynet news site.

Jerusalem’s concern is that a nuclear-armed or even nuclear threshold Iran would be able to act with even greater impunity in the region, arming its proxies and more deeply entrenching itself in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

But Israeli officials have been loath to set a specific condition under which it would conduct a strike. This is due, in part, to the fact that the considerations lie not only in Iran’s capabilities, but to the balance between the threats facing Israel and Israel’s ability to counter them.

Asked if uranium enrichment to the level of 90 percent purity — generally regarded as “weapons-grade” — would prompt an Israeli attack, Gantz refused to comment on Thursday.From left to right: IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a military drill in northern Israel on November 16, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

“I don’t like setting red lines that afterward I’d have to come and explain myself [if I didn’t uphold them]. We are tracking the Iranian process every day. There will be a point in time when the world, the region, and the State of Israel will have no choice but to act,” he said.

The Israel Defense Forces have been making strides to prepare itself for the multi-front war that is liable to follow a strike on Iran, holding a number of large-scale exercises simulating such a conflict in recent months and investing roughly NIS 1 billion ($315 million) toward training for next year. The military is also working to improve its air defenses, particularly in northern Israel, in an effort to prevent the worst of the damage from rocket barrages and drone strikes in a future conflict.

But the propensity of Israeli officials to discuss the technical aspects of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities belies the true calculus at play in deciding whether to carry it out: it’s not about the strike, but the war that follows.