SIM REPORT: Growing tensions between Israel and Iran to complicate US efforts at reviving JCPOA

SIM REPORT: Middle east and central asia, issue 8

Tensions between Iran and Israel have escalated in the past weeks amid a series of recent security incidents. The most high profile incident to occur took place on 11 April at Iran’s giant nuclear fuel enrichment site in Natanz. The sabotage attack, which Iran has blamed on Israel, saw an explosion take out an internal power system that keeps electricity flowing to large centrifuge machines spinning at high speed to turn uranium gas into an enriched product. The attack took place just hours after Iran launched new centrifuges for faster uranium enrichment and ultimately destroyed the centrifuges themselves. The cause of the attack was not immediately clear, although the most likely theory is that someone had placed explosives in the facility; Iran has since named a suspect, Iranian national Reza Karimi, saying he had fled the country prior to the attack. It is unclear how Karimi would have gained access to one of the most secure facilities in the country. Another theory is that a cyberattack affected the power supply.

Following that incident, an Israeli-owned commercial vessel was hit by a projectile on 13 April off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE, in the Gulf of Oman. The Hyperion Ray, which sails under the Bahamas flag but is Israeli-owned, suffered a small amount of damage but no injuries. The ship was en route to the UAE from Kuwait. Tel Aviv blamed Iran for the incident, which took place as Tehran threatened to retaliate for the Natanz incident.

Another escalation was reported on 22 April when Syrian surface-to-air missile hit in southern Israel’s Negev desert on Thursday morning (22 April), triggering rocket alert sirens in the area near the top-secret Dimona nuclear facility.  Israel responded by striking the missile launcher and additional surface-to-air batteries in Syria. Israel has been linked to hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in recent years targeting Iranian and Iranian-allied assets in attempt to prevent Tehran from establishing a stronghold in the country.

The exchanges comes at a delicate time amid ongoing efforts by US President Joe Biden to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, nuclear deal), which prevented Iran from stockpiling enough high-enriched uranium to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon in exchange for lifting of sanctions. The US and Iran have been involved in indirect talks since 6 April on revitalising the deal, with France, Germany and the UK reportedly acting as intermediaries between Iranian and US officials during meetings in Vienna. Former president Donald Trump had previously pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reinstated biting economic sanctions against Iran, prompting Iran to break compliance with the deal.

The decision of Israel, which views Iran’s nuclear programme as a national security threat, to stage the attack on Natanz given the current climate and context suggests the country’s deep opposition to restarting negotiations and also highlights a divergence in the foreign policies of the Biden administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, Netanyahu has made clear his opposition to the deal when it was first agreed under former US president Barack Obama, saying Iran is not a trusted partner and noting its history of hiding suspected nuclear activity. Instead of diplomacy, Israel has tended to approach its adversaries through a ‘mow the grass’ strategy; in the case of Iran this means it launches attacks to destroy one set of nuclear facilities and then repeats such an attack when the facilities re-emerge.

However, the Israelis were not completely successful in their apparent attempt to derail negotiations; indeed, the Iranians have continued to partake in the Vienna talks though a breakthrough is unlikely in the immediate term. This is in part because both the US and Iran are likely to remain intransigent on their demands that the other act first, with the US refusing to lift sanctions first and Iran refusing to return to compliance first. Additionally, Iran’s posturing following the Natanz attack will likely complicate the talks; Iran has vowed to increase enrichment to 60 per cent, just one step away from the 90 per cent enrichment required for nuclear weapons.

Another stumbling point in the negotiations will be Iran’s perception of the nuclear deal. The deal is deeply polarising in Iran, and the image of the US as a reliable partner has been tarnished after Trump pulled out. There is no guarantee that, should a deal with Biden be reached, the US will not elect another Trump-like figure who rescinds on the deal again. Meanwhile, Iran is surely aware that Israel will likely continue to attack its nuclear programme, including through assassinating nuclear scientists, regardless of any progress in negotiations or return to the deal, which could incentivise further secretiveness and lack of trust. There is a small window of time for a deal to be reached before Iran’s presidential election in June, in which hardliners opposed to the deal are expected to do well. The prospect of much needed sanctions relief will likely keep Iran committed to negotiations at least in the coming month, although Iran’s growing alliance with China as the two build stronger trade ties may remove this dependency.  

In the immediate- to short- term, additional tit-for-tat exchanges are likely to take place between Iran and Israel. Clandestine maritime attacks are a high probability, with both sides having blamed each other for targeting vessels in recent months. Cyberattacks on critical national infrastructure and additional assassinations or arrests of nuclear scientists or spies are also highly probable. Missile attacks against Israel by Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon are also likely. Iran may also retaliate against Israel in locations outside of the Middle East; in February media reported on a foiled Iranian plot to attack Israeli diplomatic interests in eastern Africa, while in January, Iran was linked to a small-scale explosion near the Israeli embassy in India’s capital New Delhi. The likelihood of all out conflict between Israel and Iran is low, although the potential for miscalculation or miscommunication remains which could spark a greater escalation. A breakdown in talks between Iran and the US could also lead to increased frequency and intensity of attacks.


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