Israel is wasting no time in trying to translate Donald Trump’s call for a tougher approach to Iran into action.
The government is making a diplomatic push to extend restrictions in the international nuclear deal with Iran to its development of ballistic missiles, sponsorship of terrorist acts and weapons proliferation to terrorist groups, three senior Israeli government officials said. The focus is on persuading U.S. and European lawmakers to strengthen “snapback” mechanisms imposing sanctions for Iranian activities that aren’t directly connected to its nuclear program, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“The goal should be a strategy that wins the support of European and hopefully Russian and Chinese and other international actors, rather than one that is a U.S.-Israel, go-it-alone strategy,” said Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Beyond contributing intelligence, Israel “should work with the administration on a compelling diplomatic approach that demonstrates that there’s a willingness to work with other countries to build pressure on Iran, not just to dictate terms,” said Shapiro, now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Fix or Nix?
Trump said Oct. 13 he would no longer certify that the nuclear agreement with Iran serves U.S. national security interests, in a speech that closely mirrored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call on the deal’s backers to “fix it or nix it.” Trump promised new sanctions on Iran, particularly its hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and threatened to terminate the agreement unless signatories addressed what he says are its shortcomings.
Before the deal was signed in 2015, Netanyahu told allies its biggest weakness was the failure to cover Iran’s use of Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups that Israel considers terrorists as proxy militias to threaten regional foes. Now Israel is using attacks, public statements and intelligence information it has collected over the past two years to show how Iran has exploited the accord, the officials said.
The Israeli government thinks broadening the two-year-old accord to punish Iran for involvement in terrorism, and removing clauses that phase out restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after a decade, would be better than scrapping it outright, the officials said.
Iranian leaders deny they’re seeking nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said over the weekend Iran would never open its defense and missile programs to negotiation.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his first statement since Trump’s Oct. 13 speech, said Wednesday Iran would not move first to abandon the deal.
“We won’t rip up the nuclear deal as long as the other side doesn’t,” Khamenei said in a public address. But he added, if the other side “rips it, we will tear it to pieces.”
Joining Israel in applauding Trump’s tough line were Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. That furthers a growing confluence of interests between Israel and Sunni Arab states fearful of Iran’s regional clout.
Iranian officials, including Khamenei, have spoken repeatedly of Israel’s coming demise and threatened to destroy the Jewish state if attacked. Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Iran of supplying weapons to Yemeni rebels and stirring unrest among Shiite Muslims in Bahrain.
“When Israel and the key Arab states agree on something, you know, you should pay attention,” Netanyahu said Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “We’re close, with our ears to the ground. We live right here next to Iran. We see what it’s doing.”
Praise for Trump from Jerusalem and Riyadh contrasts with the chilly reaction from European allies, who released a statement affirming their commitment to the deal. The agreement is “a major step towards ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes,” British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said in the joint statement.
Still, the trio added that they “share concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional activities” that could impact Europe’s security.
“We stand ready to take further appropriate measures to address these issues in close cooperation with the U.S. and all relevant partners,” the statement said.
Profound disagreements over the nuclear deal were a main reason Netanyahu fell out with the Obama administration. The Israeli leader has found a more sympathetic ear in Trump’s White House, but at the end of the day the president will do what he believes is in the U.S. interest.
Netanyahu “did well in bringing the Iranian nuclear issue forward on the international stage,” said Gilead Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator and now co-chair of the “Blue-White Future” group that aims to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. “In practice, though, Israel has very little impact on decisions taken.”