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How Far is Israel’s New Government Willing to Go to Counter Iran’s Nuclear Program?

When the newly-elected Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was sworn in for his sixth term in office on December 29, 2022, it became evident that Tel-Aviv would take a firm stance against Iran and its nuclear weapons program. Netanyahu’s far-right government, the formation of which triggered intense controversy at home and abroad, has already indicated its intent to pursue an assertive policy against Tehran aimed at thwarting any potential renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While Netanyahu’s coalition government, made up of Jewish ultra-nationalist and religious parties, has promised to overhaul the country’s foreign and domestic policies, it has indicated that confronting Iran will remain one of its highest priorities.

Over the past three years, Tehran has engaged in nuclear talks with the original “P5+1” signatories to the JCPOA in an effort to revive the accord. Thus far, these efforts have been unsuccessful. In the wake of Iran’s ongoing protest movement, they appear to be off the table altogether; in an off-the-cuff remark, U.S. President Joe Biden was recorded claiming that the deal was “dead.” The JCPOA’s destruction has paved the way for Netanyahu—long one of its strongest and most vociferous opponents—to pursue a strategy of open confrontation with Tehran.

This Time is Different

Netanyahu has made ardent opposition to Iranian influence a hallmark of each of his previous terms in power. However, thanks in part to skillful Israeli diplomacy over the past half-decade, the prime minister’s position with regard to Iran is far stronger than at any point in Israel’s recent history. Since 2020, Tel Aviv has pursued the normalization of relations with Turkey and several of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, bolstering its diplomatic support in the case of confrontation with Iran. Therefore, it is likely that Netanyahu will feel comfortable exerting more pressure on the Biden administration to shelve nuclear talks during his upcoming visit to Washington, DC in early 2023. Netanyahu’s government could even seek a military option to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons at this stage, though the imposition of additional sanctions in light of the violent mass riots would appear the more moderate policy.

The new prime minister’s Iran policy will almost certainly distance Israel from the European Union. Although Iran’s brutal crackdown on civilian protesters and Tehran’s military assistance to Russia have persuaded the Biden administration to institute further sanctions, the EU is still keen to resume talks over the nuclear issue. As such, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, recently stated, with regard to nuclear non-proliferation, that there was no alternative to the JCPOA—and those who thought otherwise were deluding themselves. For this reason, Tel Aviv will probably focus more on lobbying the EU to torpedo possible nuclear talks with Iran, rather than the United States, where the negotiations remain politically infeasible.

Tehran Needs a Deal

In these efforts, Netanyahu may count on the support of Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional arch-rival. Considering the long-term rivalry between two nations in the Gulf and instability at home, Tehran sees the resumption of nuclear talks with the EU as the most viable option to lower tensions with the West, gain much-needed economic relief, and ensure its security in the face of its Gulf rivals. In December 2022, Iranian officials indicated a desire to resume the stalled JCPOA negotiations, with the possible participation of the United States. The Iranian government has made clear that it is keen to persuade European signatories not to reimpose the harsh international sanctions regime that has strangled the Islamic Republic’s economy.

Iran believes that the commitment of the EU states to resume the negotiations will push the Biden administration to the table and revive the JCPOA. At the very least, prolonged talks with the EU would allow Iran to build additional leverage and seek more concessions from the West in exchange for abandoning its nuclear weapons program. In this vein, Iran’s main priority is to win additional guarantees that harsh economic sanctions will not be unilaterally reimposed on Iran by a future U.S. administration. As such, Tehran will attempt to keep the negotiations process at least nominally alive to preserve the agreement’s residual benefits and prevent the U.S. and its Gulf allies from resorting to alternative means to counter its regional influence and sabotage the nuclear program.

Undoubtedly, PM Netanyahu’s other priority is the development of a deeper partnership with Arab countries, made possible by the Abraham Accords. Since their signing in mid-2020, two regional states have recognized Israel as a state, undermining Iran’s long-term narrative of “Muslim unity against Zionists.” Indeed, the budding partnership between Israel and the GCC states, empowered by additional U.S. sanctions, will continue to constrain Iranian economic activity, exports, government finances, and access to external funding. Notwithstanding, such an alliance in the immediate neighborhood against Tehran could trigger the latter to inflame sectarian conflicts in Yemen and Iraq or increase its military assistance to Russia.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statements condemning Iran and its nuclear program indicate the renewal of a harsh standoff between Tel Aviv and Tehran. Given this reality, it is likely that  Western powers will gradually cease their involvement in the JCPOA nuclear talks. If everything goes according to the new PM’s plan, Israel will play a central role in this decision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.

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