A major concern at the outset of the Biden administration would be a rushed return to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, along with the lifting of sanctions and no serious limits on the Iranian nuclear program, their ballistic missiles or support to terrorism.
Fortunately, things have not been going the way Iran had hoped, or led to believe before the 2020 election. While John Kerry and others may have sold the Iranians a bill of goods before the election on a rapid reset of the JCPOA, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear that a such a quick reset and lifting of sanctions was not going to happen, and talks between the U.S. and Iran are not even in the immediate future. Most recently, the U.S. has engaged in the first round of critical strategic talks with Israel on Iran.
In a secure teleconference led by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who proposed that this form be revived, were top national security personnel from both nations who reviewed what they knew about Iran’s nuclear program. Included in this meeting on the U.S. side were senior officials from the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department. On the Israeli side were officials from the Mossad, Israeli military intelligence, the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Ministry and the Atomic Energy Committee. A comprehensive and no-nonsense group to be sure.
While some Israeli officials say that they are playing for time, in the hopes that Iranians will continue to reject U.S. proposals for diplomatic engagement, the nature of the interaction was to establish a common intelligence baseline for dealing with Iran and restore a cooperative process on an ongoing basis — an effort that had been going on secretly in years past but had been suspended. It also gives the Iranians clear notice that the U.S. is taking Israeli concerns seriously and both nations will be operating from the same intelligence baseline, which is a critical element of national security policy.
Not long ago, Mr. Netanyahu made public a trove of documents on their nuclear program taken from Tehran documenting their extensive efforts and showing once again that the Iranians had been lying about this all along. Moving forward with this and a great deal of new intelligence will make it far harder for Iran to hoodwink the U.S. once again. At least Israel is not going to be complicit in further Iranian fraud.
Most recently two senior U.S. intelligence officials reported on an NSA intercept that Iran now threatened Fort McNair, an Army post in the U.S. capital which houses several senior military, and a plan to kill Gen. Joseph Martin, Army vice chief of staff. While such an Iranian strike on a senior military officer on U.S. soil would clearly be insane, it points to the critical nature of intelligence in dealing with Iran and their true intentions.
Amid the Biden administration’s push for diplomatic reengagement with Iran, the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue provides a useful venue to consider differences in approach and coordinate on the path forward, based on a common understanding of the intelligence and facts involved. The parties’ objective in the March 11 meeting was to arrive at such a common baseline and it appears that this was largely achieved.
Mr. Sullivan and his team were candid about the problems they face in engaging Iran diplomatically. By all accounts it was a very positive meeting, but all agreed that it is only the beginning of a process that will doubtless have its ups and downs. At least it was the beginning of a much-needed process and Mr. Sullivan, as well as the other members of the U.S. team, stressed the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This is a far different situation from what took place in 2015 in the negotiation of the ill-fated JCPOA, when Israel and its intelligence services were largely ignored and left out on the cold. Under pressure from the Obama White House to get a deal quickly at any cost — and the cost was huge — key intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program was either unknown or ignored. This new U.S.–Israeli cooperative effort gives significant hope that this will not happen again, and any diplomatic initiative will at least go forward on a common, and more accurate, intelligence baseline.
Going forward one decision that came from the March 11 meeting was to establish a joint team focused on sharing intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. Also of great importance is an agreement that the next meeting of what is being termed a “strategic forum” will focus on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support to terrorist organizations and other malicious activities in the Middle East. These two areas were also ignored in 2015, much to the world’s peril.
Mr. Sullivan, as well as Mr. Blinken and others in the Biden national security team, are experienced and highly capable individuals who are new to their current roles and getting used to their jobs. Having just been kicked in the teeth by a highly disrespectful Chinese delegation in an initial diplomatic engagement they may have learned a useful lesson that diplomacy in tough areas may now be more difficult than they anticipated. With Iran it is not going to be another John Kerry walk in the park. At least this time it appears Israel is going to have their back, which is a good thing.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford and is the author of the forthcoming book “Israel and the Search for Peace.”
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