Israel’s shadowy conflict with Tehran moves into the light

A mysterious explosion that caused a blackout at Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility last weekend prompted the Islamic Republic to suggest that its old enemy Israel was responsible.

Israel is generally quiet after an unexplained attack, which the assassination from a leading Iranian nuclear scientist, cyber attacks aimed at slowing Tehran’s enrichment capacity, or attacks on Iran-linked ships traveling in international waters.

This time, however, in officially sanctioned leaks to local media and the US press, Israel almost claimed credit. last weekend’s attack.

His public acceptance of a shadow conflict with Tehran is aimed at complicating US-brokered talks over Iran’s nuclear program that have been re-energized by Joe Biden’s presidency, according to Israeli, European and US officials and analysts who have turned their attention. interviewed with the Financial Times.

“Israel wants to make the position [over nuclear talks] harder for the US administration and send the message to the Iranians that we are stronger and we don’t need to hide when we do something, ”said Eldad Shavit, an IDF reserve colonel and former intelligence officer.

For Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s veteran prime minister, the escalation is part of a decade-long rejection of the idea that Iran’s ambitions can be tamed through diplomacy.

His position, say people familiar with his thinking, is both politically timely – Iran is a powerful symbol in Israeli politics – and motivated by a deeper fear of the existential threat posed by Tehran. According to him, Israel’s own secret nuclear weapons program – active since the 1970s and operational since the 1980s – is not a sufficient deterrent.

Netanyahu sacrificed his relationship with President Barack Obama by aggressively wooing Republicans opposed to the nuclear deal signed with world powers in 2015. Back to the rapprochement of the Obama era.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleges Iran has always intended to reverse nuclear deal © Debbie Hill / EPA / Shutterstock

Netanyahu has authorized hundreds of airstrikes on Iran-related targets in Syria in recent years and has recently stepped up his covert actions. An assessment by the US intelligence community this week described a pattern of “iterative violence between Israel and Iran.”

“If you put all the things Israel does, what it says. . . does it amount to [the nuclear deal] is not going to stop us, we do not believe it and you are going to have to go further, ”said Elliott Abrams, the former Iranian envoy to the Trump administration. Israel believes that without “further limits on Iran’s nuclear program or on Iranian support for terrorist groups, we will have to act in our own self-defense,” he added.

Israel has always said the deal with Iran was not broad enough because it did not include the brakes on Iran’s pursuit of ballistic missiles and its regional ambitions, including support for Shiite militias in Iraq. , Lebanon and Syria.

Netanyahu also alleged that Iran had always intended to reverse the deal, trumpeting a secret nuclear archive that Mossad operatives had extracted from a warehouse in Tehran.

“Israel has had a long-standing war with Iran, even though it was a secret war with a low profile,” Sima Shine, a former Mossad official and head of the Iran program, told the. Institute for National Security Studies. “Now Israel has an interest in dissuading Iran and making them believe that we can penetrate anywhere whenever they jeopardize our national security.”

Iran responded to the blackout this week intensify its uranium enrichment at 60%, its highest level ever. Military grade uranium is 90% enriched.

“These are our responses to your wickedness,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, even as nuclear negotiations with world powers resumed in Vienna. “You wanted to empty our hands during the discussions, but our hands are full.

Iranian officials privately agree that Netanyahu’s intention is to derail the talks, while covert actions delay the nuclear program.

“Israel has a history of destroying Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs and has a self-defined mission to do the same with Iran, but not by bombardment rather than sabotage,” said an Iranian extremist. “This sends a message to the Americans that they don’t need to contain Iran through talks and therefore no need to lift the sanctions.”

A US National Security Council official said Washington and Tehran had a “common goal” of returning to the nuclear deal. The Vienna talks were the best way to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to “address all of the concerns we have about Iran’s activities in the region and beyond,” the President added. nobody.

Mike Eisenstadt, a former U.S. government military analyst now on the Washington Institute think tank, argued that Israel’s covert actions could leverage Biden’s team. “It kind of sheds light on the day between the United States and Israel and saves time for negotiations,” he said.

European diplomats have expressed dismay at the tit-for-tat conflict and its ability to undermine the Vienna talks.

One described it as a “vicious cycle” and said Iranian retaliation by switching to 60% enrichment “could seriously complicate matters” in the Austrian capital. Another European official said there was “one actor who was not interested in the talks” and was trying to “undermine diplomatic efforts” – a clear reference to Israel.

But the official also expressed hope that other parties want the nuclear deal “back on track”, including Iranian extremists who need the lifting of sanctions to bring economic benefits and ease pressures. national policies.

“At the end of the day, it will be a question of what kind of compromise is found. . . and that they can sell as their victory and show that they are not the ones who backed down, ”the official said.

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