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US and Israel to strengthen coordination on Iran

What’s happening: This Sunday, US Secretary of Defence General Austin will visit Israel and meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

  • According to the Pentagon, Austin’s meetings will focus on Iran and other “shared priorities” in the region.
  • Israel is keen that the Biden administration will honour understandings reached during the final weeks of the Trump administration for the US to guarantee Israel’s qualitative military edge.
  • The visits will come as the US and Iran are engaging in indirect talks in Vienna with the other Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) participants in an effort to save the agreement.
  • Speaking on Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration is prepared to lift sanctions, including “those that are inconsistent with the JCPOA,” to ensure Iran returns to compliance with the deal.
  • At this week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event at Yad Vashem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will not be bound by any international agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
  • “The nuclear deal with Iran is once again on the table. These type of deals with extremist regimes are worth nothing,” he added: “I say to our closest friends too: ‘A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us.’ Only one thing will obligate us: to prevent those who wish to destroy us from carrying out their plans.”
  • Yesterday, an Iranian military spokesperson said that Iran would retaliate for the attack on the Iranian ship in the Red Sea earlier this week, which has been attributed to Israel. The retaliation would be carried out once the investigation into the perpetrator was concluded. Israeli officials are preparing for such a possibility.

Context: There is concern that were the Biden administration to lift all sanctions implemented under President Trump, the US would concede any leverage to force Iran to renegotiate a stronger nuclear agreement with a ballistic missile component.

  • In Vienna, Iran is demanding that all US sanctions are lifted before returning to JCPOA compliance. However, the Biden administration is facing strong opposition from Republicans to keep sanctions relating to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, counter-terrorism sanctions on Iran’s central bank and the national Iranian oil company, as well as sanctions for human rights abusers.
  • According to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (2015), the Biden administration is required to submit any agreement with Iran to a congressional vote before sanctions are lifted. This includes re-entry into the JCPOA.
  • The Biden administration hopes to return to the JCPOA agreement as a starting point to reengage with Iran so that it can agree to a longer and stronger agreement. However, Washington has not yet explained how it intends to resolve the tension between the desire to return to the JCPOA, which could mean abandoning any means of pressure, and its aspiration to force Iran to accept improvements to the agreement.
  • Israel and the US began a strategic dialogue over how to align their intelligence and strategies regarding Iran. In early March, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan, held their first meeting.
  • Israeli officials have already presented to the new US administration several areas where the JCPOA could be improved. These include the expiration date of the agreement (the sunset clause), tighter inspections and restrictions on the development and manufacture of advanced missiles.
  • Although Israel may not agree with the US approach, they prefer to work with the administration to try and influence their policy, unlike their public opposition to former President Obama’s approach.
  • Iran continues to move forward with its nuclear programme, installing advanced centrifuges and enriching large quantities of enriched uranium. This week Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said Iran is producing 20 per cent enriched uranium at a rate 40 per cent faster that what is required by law.
  • Regionally, Iran has encouraged its proxies in Yemen to mount large-scale ballistic missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and have encouraged the militias in Iraq to target the American bases.
  • Over the past month, it has been reported that since 2019 dozens of attacks have occurred on Iranian ships in the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, most attributed to Israel. Some of these strikes targeted oil shipments from Iran to Syria; others were linked to Iranian attempts to smuggle weapons to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. In response, attacks on Israeli ships have been attributed to Tehran in the Arabian sea in the last few weeks.

Looking ahead: Israel’s top military and intelligence chiefs are set to visit the US over the coming weeks to try and convince the Biden administration not to lift all Iran sanctions and return to the JCPOA nuclear deal.

  • Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Head of Military Intelligence Tamir Heyman will visit the White House and present “formal evidence of Iran’s lies” which “conceals important elements about its nuclear programme,” Israeli media reports.

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