Attack on Iranian nuclear facility complicates Biden’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran, experts say

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WASHINGTON — While White House press secretary Jen Psaki denied Monday any U.S. involvement in a Sunday explosion that damaged an Iranian nuclear facility, the incident may complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to bring Tehran’s government back to the negotiating table.

“The next rounds of nuclear talks were always going to be tough, but they just got tougher,” Eric Brewer, deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Nuclear Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an email to Yahoo News.

President Biden

President Biden meets with bipartisan group of members of Congress. (Amr Alfiky/New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Early on Sunday, the Natanz nuclear facility, best known as the earlier target of a 2010 joint U.S.-Israeli cyberattack called Stuxnet, experienced a blackout or power failure as a result of a large explosion. Sunday’s attack, whether by digital sabotage or purely physical destruction, was linked to Israel by Israeli journalists, amid a push in recent years by Israeli officials to be more public about its actions against Iran.

Iranian officials on Monday vowed revenge against Israel, as Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, labeled the blackout an act of “nuclear terrorism.” The attack took place just a day after Iran celebrated its “National Nuclear Technology Day” and unveiled nearly 200 new, advanced centrifuges.

“The U.S. was not involved in any manner,” said Psaki during Monday’s White House press briefing, reiterating what anonymous U.S. officials had told reporters earlier, that “we have seen reports of an incident at the Natanz enrichment facility in Iran,” but “the United States had no involvement, and we have nothing to add to speculation about the causes.”

Having inherited the aftermath of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran including the targeted killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, the abandonment of the nuclear deal and the reimposition of harsh sanctions, the Biden administration will need to figure out how to navigate escalating tensions to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to try to jump-start the deal negotiated under former President Obama.

U.S. diplomats are in the very early stages of trying to engage with Iran to try to revive and perhaps strengthen the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA, an agreement that temporarily limited Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and allowed for independent inspections before it was abandoned by President Trump in May 2018.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran, May 8, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, U.S. administration officials including Special Envoy Rob Malley as well as senior Iranian officials met with third-party negotiators, led by the European Union and including Russia and China, to begin preliminary discussions about what it would take to bring both parties back to the deal.

With elections in Iran looming, officials in Tehran have so far refused to meet directly with U.S. counterparts. Still, the Biden administration has expressed optimism for a process its officials have already said will be lengthy and complex. “On a whole, discussions were productive,” said a senior administration official speaking to reporters on Friday. “There still are question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to do what it will take to take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal.”

Iran’s lead negotiator, meanwhile, said the talks were “on the right track,” and the three parties are due to meet back in Vienna later this week.

One of the major questions during those first meetings, Brewer told Yahoo News, was whether Iran might be willing to come back into compliance without the U.S. removing all Trump-era sanctions, potentially leaving the door open to a more robust deal with fewer concessions. The removal of sanctions remained the key point of dispute in Vienna, reportedly creating a potential impasse.

Now, following the Israeli attack on Natanz, moving forward without sanctions relief “seems pretty unlikely,” Brewer wrote.

Additionally, the attack on Natanz could give Iran additional excuses to shy away from diplomacy, particularly if its senior leaders believe or argue that the U.S. was somehow involved or played a role in approving Israel’s actions.

Lloyd Austin

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem, April 12, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via Reuters)

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made his inaugural trip to Israel over the weekend just before the attack, where he celebrated “U.S.-Israel defense cooperation” and declared his commitment to “continuing our close consultations on threats posed by Iran and to strengthening Israel’s security.” It’s unclear whether Austin was made aware of Israel’s plan to attack Natanz. Yet the urgency the White House has placed on denying an active role and attributing the action to Israel runs parallel with the Biden team’s preference for diplomacy.

“There’s very little the U.S. can do here, other than raise objections,” Brewer said.

Even so, the lack of commentary or condemnation of Israel’s actions from the White House could create the impression that the U.S. is not upholding its commitment to reimplement global standards for engagement, particularly with its partners in the Middle East. “Saudis are blockading already-devastated Yemen into a famine. Israel is attacking Iranian nuclear sites amid sensitive P5+1 Iran diplomacy. Unclear how these steps by client states help the US strengthen a ‘rules-based international order,’” tweeted Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy adviser who nearly accepted a role in Biden’s State Department before deciding he would be more influential outside the administration.

Either way, the Biden team will have to determine how to incorporate or respond to Israel’s actions.

In addition to the explosion at Natanz on Sunday, Israel has also been linked to a series of explosions at various nuclear enrichment sites over last summer, as well as the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020.

Members of Iranian forces

Members of Iranian forces at the coffin of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Nov. 30, 2020. (Hamed Malepour/Tasnim News/AFP via Getty Images)

According to analysis by Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Wilson Center Fellow and the former director of the Center for Middle East policy at the RAND Corporation, these kinds of Israeli attacks fit into the country’s “Octopus Doctrine” aimed at directly attacking Iranian interests rather than limiting them to its proxies like Hezbollah. As Kaye wrote in a piece last summer, Israel’s targeting of Iranian nuclear facilities has not always been strategically successful, and has perhaps even had the effect of speeding up Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The question is what message is the Biden administration sending to Israel?” she wrote in a tweet on Sunday evening. “It’s unlikely the U.S. would welcome such attacks at this sensitive time in diplomacy.” Regardless, she concluded, given Israel’s disdain for the JCPOA as it currently stands, the U.S. should expect more Israeli resistance.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ensnared by his own domestic political challenges, has told journalists in recent days that Israel will not tolerate a deal that “threatens us with annihilation.” He described the nuclear deal as “worthless” given that it is brokered by an “extreme regime” in Iran. Meanwhile, Iran is itself dealing with its own challenges and opportunities. As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pointed out on Tuesday, Iran has reignited its nuclear research, allowed its proxies to attack U.S. troops again and driven a wedge between the U.S. and its allies. The Trump administration’s abandonment of the deal and the Sunday’s attack give Iranian officials talking points to condemn attempts at diplomacy.

Chris Murphy

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. (Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

However, Iran is also dealing with crippling sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic, additional economic challenges and the loss of both its top military officials and nuclear scientists, noted Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Despite the latest attack and the impending elections, it’s still in Iran’s interest to get sanctions relief, he told Yahoo News.

“I think there will be a tendency to misappropriate any Iranian negotiating resilience or steadfastness or resolve to the latest source of pressure against them, which could be Israeli covert action or Biden’s sanctions,” said Taleblu. However “I think that’s missing the forest for the trees. … I don’t think this will contribute to Iran not negotiating,” he said.

“Should sanctions remain, even the far-right flank in Iran will covet the credit of defeating the ‘great Satan’ at the negotiating table,” Taleblu concluded.

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