Top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz have voiced alarm that as Vienna talks to reinvigorate the JCPOA stall, Iran may have already breached its obligations under the 2015 deal to dramatically advance its nuclear programme.
Iran is reportedly at the top of the agenda for the visit to Israel by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Bill Burns, starting on Tuesday.
Burns is expected to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday, Axios cited his spokesman as confirming. Also lined up for the visit, says the outlet, are the CIA director’s meetings with new Mossad Director David Barnea, Palestinian Authority (PA) intelligence chief Majed Faraj in Ramallah, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
There have been no official statements made by the US Embassy in Israel regarding the visit.
Stalled Talks Trigger Concerns
The trip to Israel by the CIA chief comes as negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal continue to stall.
Furthermore, there have been reports that the US may be mulling alternative approaches to ensure that Iran does not advance its nuclear program. Washington was suggested as looking into interim solutions, such as limited sanctions relief in exchange for Iran freezing its uranium enrichment, Bloomberg reported.
On 13 April, Iran announced its intention to enrich uranium to 60 per cent after its claimed its key Natanz nuclear facility was hit by ‘sabotage’, causing a power failure.
Iran had already been producing uranium enriched to just under 20 per cent following a decision in December 2020.
US and European officials have warned that Tehran’s violations of the JCPOA may become so advanced that the nuclear deal itself will be rendered no longer feasible.
These concerns have been long put forward by Israel, which insists that the Islamic Republic is on the cusp of obtaining the capacity to make a nuclear bomb.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on 4 August at a briefing for ambassadors from the UN Security Council’s member states that Iran had “violated all of the guidelines set in the JCPOA and is only around ten weeks away from acquiring weapons-grade materials necessary for a nuclear weapon.”
As Vienna talks are on hold, fresh tensions have done little to improve matters.
Israel, the UK, and several other western countries claim that Iran utilised drones to attack Israeli-operated tanker Mercer Street as it was sailing near the coast of Oman on 30 July.
The attack by unknown perpetrators killed two crew members, including a British national, with Israel quick to blame Iran for the attack. This stance was soon echoed by the UK and the US, which issued statements that Tehran was “highly likely” behind the assault on the vessel. Tehran, for its part, strongly denies culpability in the attack.
2015 Nuclear Deal
Under its 2015 nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of countries, including the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union, Iran was only permitted to enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent purity.
It was also to limit its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to no more than 300kg (660lbs), and to operate no more than 5,060 of its IR-1 centrifuges.
Thus, by capping its nuclear activities, Iran was granted sanctions relief in return. Low-enriched uranium can be used to produce fuel for commercial nuclear power plants, whereas highly enriched uranium – of a 20 percent purity or more – is used in research reactors. Uranium that is 90 percent enriched or more becomes weapons-grade – something that Tehran has repeatedly insisted it does not seek, underscoring the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme.
Under then-president Donald Trump the US unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018, reimposing stringent sanctions targeting Tehran’s energy and banking sectors in November that year.
Washington also lobbed warnings of secondary restrictions against any nation, entity and foreign person who engaged in business transactions with Iran.
The Iran nuclear deal has been in jeopardy since then, as Washington’s move prompted Tehran to largely abandon its own obligations under the accord.
Since President Joe Biden came into office in January 2021, the White House has vowed to return the US to the nuclear deal.
Indirect talks involving the US and Iran were launched in Vienna this spring, however, they were soon mired in a dispute over which side should make concessions first. Iran argued that the US must lift its unilateral sanctions as a sign of goodwill, while Washington is demanding that Tehran reduce its uranium enrichment and stockpiling activities ahead of any easing of sanctions can be lifted.
The sixth round of the Vienna negotiations, launched to that effect, wrapped up on 20 June, with Tehran indicating talks should resume after the inauguration of President Ebrahim Raisi, who succeeds Hassan Rouhani. Raisi was sworn in on 5 August, following his election victory in June. Iranian negotiators have now stated that a new government should be installed before any talks resume. Raisi faces a deadline to present a new government to Iran’s parliament at the end of next week.