Mideast: Spoilers to the Iran Nuclear Deal

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As the US and Iran resumed indirect talks this week in Vienna, Washington’s key Mideast allies -- Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- are seeking to shape the outcome of any revived nuclear deal in their favor. Whether those talks can accommodate their demands seems doubtful. But both Sunday's strike on Iran's Natanz nuclear facility and the escalating Israeli-Iranian shipping war suggest Israel will not cease its long-running shadow war against Tehran in deference to Washington's aims. The febrile atmosphere is worrying senior figures in Israel’s security establishment, with some openly questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal authority over recent actions, included the apparent Israeli attack on Natanz. While Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seem to have shunned the spotlight, both know they are in the front line of any regional conflagration (related). Indeed, a suspected missile attack on the Israeli-owned cargo ship Hyperion Ray off the emirate of Fujairah was reported on Tuesday by Israel's Channel 12 and Iran's al-Alam TV, the day after Tehran accused Israel of sabotaging its Natanz nuclear site. An Iranian military ship, the Saviz, was targeted in the Red Sea last week. The manner of Israel’s suspected Natanz attack, which it has not officially confirmed, is causing deep concern among some of its security establishment. “Sensitive operations, with diplomatic and security significance that include the potential for escalation, require government approval,” said Israel’s former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin. In a series of tweets, Yadlin outlined that the prime minister did not gain authorization from his cabinet or from Israel's parliament. “All these processes did not happen, and the decisions are being made while excluding all the decision-making bodies,” he wrote. Netanyahu is currently in a fight for his political survival, struggling to cobble together a coalition government after Mar. 23 elections -- Israel's fourth election in two years -- while facing three cases involving charges of alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Historically, Israel has sought unanimous approval across its political and security establishment for any major military action. But Netanyahu has long-styled himself as the only politician who can confront Iran and there are fears that creating a national emergency to serve his own interests could spiral out of control (EC Dec.25'20). Washington’s knowledge or influence over Israel’s covert activities is unclear, including whether it sees such action as useful leverage in talks with Iran, or extraordinarily unhelpful (related). Most Israelis insist that Israel enjoys a degree of independence in respect to its military and intelligence activity on Iran but concede that any major action -- such as a military strike on a critical nuclear facility -- would need a green light from the US. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz hosted US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the day of the attack. Gulf Allies' Strategy “Is Israel going rogue? I think they're just behaving as the very powerful state in the Middle East that can shape outcomes along with its Arab partners. The big, big driver here ... is a seat at the table for Gulf states," a Gulf expert emphasized. As if on cue, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday insisting that any renegotiated nuclear deal must be “stronger and longer,” and "take into account the deep concern of the countries of the region about Iran’s escalatory steps to destabilize regional security and stability, including its nuclear program." Israel and Arab Gulf countries alike are keen to see Iran's missile activities constrained. But Gulf states could have different takes on the presumed covert Israeli action. Official advisers at the Saudi foreign ministry believe Israel is doing a “good job at derailing the US talks with Iran." At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces the persistent threat of drone and missile strikes from Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels -- and the kingdom may find it hard to pull itself out of the Yemen quagmire without a functioning nuclear deal that gives Iran a pathway out of sanctions (EC Apr.2'21). If Tehran remains isolated, it will be able to leverage its influence with the Houthis to continue to strike at Saudi Arabia. In short, ending the Yemen war and maintaining harsh sanctions on Iran do not appear to be compatible. So on one level, Saudi Arabia accepts that the administration of US President Joe Biden wants to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran. Toward that end, its public strategy is geared toward reminding Washington that Riyadh will always be a reliable long-time ally in the region while Tehran cannot be trusted. Abu Dhabi’s position on risky Israeli covert action is more nuanced. The recent attack on the Hyperion Ray struck close to home, off Fujairah -- a sign of the UAE's vulnerability. The UAE, more reliant on foreign investment than Saudi Arabia, faces steeper fallout from spiraling escalation. Its long-standing commercial ties with Iran also leave it with a more nuanced balancing act between Israel and Iran than Saudi Arabia (related). But like Riyadh, it wants a seat at the table when the future security architecture of the region is under discussion with Washington. The current situation will also test whether Israel's normalization deals in the region will play a role in reducing tensions. “Regional allies have trade relations and an interest in trying to prevent escalation,” says Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Coordination on Iran was already in place before normalization, but official diplomatic ties have now thrown up “so many channels of cooperation and dialogue, which have life beyond the Iran issue” (EC Jan.22'21). Tom Pepper, London, and Oliver Klaus and Amena Bakr, Dubai Compass Points • SIGNIFICANCE: A US-Iran deal on reviving the JCPOA risks being scuppered by escalating Israeli action against Tehran, possibly with silent approval from at least some of its Gulf allies. • CONNECTION: The Biden administration has said it will pursue a "stronger and longer" deal after its possible return to the JCPOA. But Iran agreeing to any constraints on its missile capabilities or regional behavior is unlikely.

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