Why Saudis and Israelis are anxious about JCPOA talks

April 28, 2021 - 21:23

TEHRAN – Israel and Saudi Arabia have intensified their efforts to influence any U.S. move to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which they have publicly opposed right from the start.

As Iran and world powers resumed nuclear talks on Tuesday, Saudi and Israeli media outlets reported that there were consultations between Washington and Tel Aviv on the one hand and Washington and the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council on the other hand. 

The main issue of these consultations was Iran.

As the Iranian negotiating team head to the Austrian capital of Vienna on Monday, a senior Israeli delegation comprised of Mossad chief Yosef Cohen, head of military intelligence Tamir Hayman, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat arrived in Washington for talks on Iran. Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army Aviv Kochavi was also supposed to join the delegation but the recent hike in Israel-Gaza tensions forced him to cancel his trip to Washington.

Palestinian residents of the occupied East Jerusalem have recently taken to the streets to protest Israel's mistreatment, after the Israeli police set up bans on public gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan, which Palestinians celebrate by holding congregational prayers. These bans enraged Palestinians and prompted them to launch what some observers called another Intifada which soon spread to other parts of Palestine, including the Gaza strip. The armed wings of the Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza fired rockets on Israel in response to the Israel regime’s atrocities against the Palestinians. The Israeli army also bombed Palestinian sites in Gaza.

But the Gaza events did not prevent Israel’s senior military intelligence officials, except for Kochavi, from traveling to Washington to dissuade the Biden administration from rejoining the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

The visiting delegation met with several high-level Biden officials including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and senior U.S. military and intelligence officials. The focus of the conversations is squarely on the terms of the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, according to Israeli press reports. 

On Tuesday, Sullivan and Ben-Shabbat held their first in-person meeting since Joe Biden entered the White House. 

“The U.S. and Israeli officials discussed their serious concerns about advancements in Iran’s nuclear program in recent years. The United States updated Israel on the talks in Vienna and emphasized strong U.S. interest in consulting closely with Israel on the nuclear issue going forward,” a readout from the White House said.

The statement also said that the U.S. and Israel agreed on what it called “the significant threat posed by Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region.”

Following the meeting of Sullivan and Ben-Shabbat, the White House said the U.S. and Israel agreed to establish a new group to counter Iran’s drones and missiles.
 
“The United States and Israel agreed to establish an inter-agency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Precision Guided Missiles produced by Iran,” the White House statement noted, claiming that these weapons are being provided to proxy groups in the West Asia region. 

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley held talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan alongside officials from the countries of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Malley said he discussed the Arab officials the situation around the JCPOA and the Vienna nuclear talks. 

“Good discussion this morning with our GCC partners regarding the status of JCPOA talks and regional security. Heading back to Vienna for the next round of talks toward our objective of a mutual return to JCPOA compliance,” he tweeted on Tuesday before heading to Vienna.

The U.S. discussions with Saudi Arabia aim to persuade them the U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal will not harm their own interests. But this is exactly what the Obama administration told the Saudis and the Israelis after signing the JCPOA in 2015. Instead of supporting the deal, the Saudis and Israelis joined forces to kill the deal and the Trump came into power, they saw a new opportunity to scrub the deal. They may have even thought that the JCPOA would never be revived given the blows the Trump administration delivered to it. This may explain why they are so anxious about the JCPOA being revived after four years of anti-JCPOA rhetoric from Washington. 

If the Biden administration is really keen to revive the JCPOA, it needs to be aware of any possible unconstructive efforts on the part of the Saudis and Israelis because they have never been proponents of the deal and they are unlikely to change their mind just because there is a new president in the White House. Of course, they may stop short of calling on the Biden administration to refrain from rejoining the JCPOA but they will certainly ask the U.S. to at least make some amendments to the original deal, something that will be opposed by other signatories to the JCPOA namely Russia and Iran. 

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, has recently said that the negotiators in Vienna have come to conclude that regional security and missile production are different from curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

“Curbing Iran's nuclear program is a different matter from regional security and missile production. At the end of two rounds of talks [in Vienna to revive the JCPOA], I came to the conclusion that it was clear to all participants that only by reviving the original agreement could we achieve our goals. No new terms or clauses,” The Russian diplomat said in an interview with Der Spiegel, according to Fars News.

Iran also strongly rejected any offer to expand the JCPOA while calling on the U.S. to remove its sanctions. 

The latest round of Vienna nuclear talks was held on Tuesday after negotiating teams briefed high-level officials at home on the outcome of their talks. Earlier on Sunday, top Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Abbas Araghchi attended a meeting of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.
 

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