image Photo: Reuters, Flash90

US informed Israel before Iran policy switch

Israel received prior notification that the United States is ready to discuss resumption of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran.

This, according to Reuters, citing “a person familiar with the matter,” saying that the Biden administration “wanted to avoid blindsiding Israel, Iran’s regional arch-foe, over the U.S. plans.”

The US informed the United Nations Security Council on 18 February of its intention to rescind former President Donald Trump’s September 2020 declared-reimpositon of snapback sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The Biden administration also announced its readiness last week to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the JCPOA that Trump abandoned in 2018; based on conviction that diplomacy is the best means to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not directly informed about the shift in US-Iran policy when President Joe Biden called him 17 February for the first time since taking office nearly a month after taking office, however, said the source.

Netanyahu has made clear his strong opposition for the US to return to the JCPOA.

Israel remains committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons and its position on the nuclear agreement has not changed. Israel believes that going back to the old agreement will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal,” said Netanyahu in a statement obtained by TV7. He nevertheless maintained that “Israel is in close contact with the United States on this matter.”

Washington has already contacted Tehran over its detention of Americans, reportedly through a third nation.

“We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” adding that it is a “significant priority” of the Biden administration to get those Americans “safely back home.”

Iran has arrested several American citizens and dozens of dual nationals in recent years primarily on espionage allegations. Human rights activists charge Tehran with attempting to use the detentions as bargaining chips to leverage concessions from other countries, which the Ayatollah regime has denied.

“We will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner,” he said, branding it as a “complete and utter outrage” and a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

An Iranian news website affiliated with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council later cited a source who stated all communication between the US and Iran on the issue is being conducted by Switzerland.

Sullivan also confirmed Iran’s lack of response to the Biden administration’s diplomatic approach to resolve the nuclear dispute. The nations are at an impasse over which side should take the first step toward reviving the deal. Tehran’s Foreign Ministry reiterated yesterday that Washington must lift sanctions while the US insists the Islamic Republic must immediately end its violations of the 2015 nuclear treaty.

The latest developments come as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that it has made a deal with Iran to “suspend” unannounced inspections at suspected nuclear sites – which was part of the JCPOA known as the Additional Protocol.

Speaking at a Vienna airport after a weekend trip to Iran, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi revealed the move, which he said came “much to my regret.”

The United Nations nuclear watchdog said it struck the arrangement to “mitigate” Tehran’s threat to slash cooperation with the agency.

Iran has set a deadline of next week for Biden to lift sanctions re-imposed by Trump, or it will halt snap IAEA inspections under the deal, which lifted sanctions in return for curbs on Iranian atomic development.

The IAEA, US and Israeli intelligence agencies believe Iran operated a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003, which Iran denies. The 2015 nuclear deal effectively drew a line under that past – but Iran is still required to explain evidence of undeclared past activities or material to the IAEA.

Tehran has been openly breaching limits set by the JCPOA since the US withdrawal.

Prior to Grossi’s press conference in Austria, the IAEA and Iran issued a joint statement saying Tehran would continue implementing the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement that allows the agency to continue “necessary verification and monitoring activities for up to three months” at declared nuclear facilities. The statement did not specify what those activities are.

Explaining that the steps that Iran would take this week would be “to a certain extent mitigated” by the terms of this new, temporary agreement, Grossi said, “What we agreed is something that is viable, it’s useful to bridge this gap that we are having, salvages the situation now. But of course for a stable, sustainable situation there will have to be a political negotiation that is not up to me.”

The IAEA is expected to issue a quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities this coming week.

Although the sites where the material was found are believed to have been inactive for nearly two decades, opponents of the nuclear deal, such as Israel, say evidence of undeclared nuclear activities shows that Iran has not been acting in good faith.

Reuters cited 7 diplomats as saying that the agency will use that opportunity to rebuke Iran for failing to explain to its satisfaction how uranium particles were discovered at two of its undeclared sites during snap IAEA inspections conducted in August and September of 2020 – to which Tehran had barred access for 7 months. The officials said they also expect the agency to call Iran out for its continued failure to explain radioactive material found previously at another site in Tehran, Turqazabad. The reprimand could come either in the quarterly report or possibly a separate statement issued the same day.

Iran is obliged to account for all uranium to prevent suspicion it is being used as the core of a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA’s full findings are a highly-classified, and only a small number of countries have been informed of the details.

Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharibabadi has declined to comment, as has the IAEA itself.

It remains unclear whether the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors – due to convene 1 week after release of the quarterly report – will take action condemning Iran.

Several of the diplomats who spoke to Reuters said the Board’s current focus is on efforts to salvage the 2015 deal by bringing Washington back into it.

“Everyone is waiting on the Americans,” remarked one source.