Is Israel Sabotaging Itself?

Israel keeps attacking and sabotaging Iran; Iran keeps showing restraint. Israel is running out of patience to stop the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal; Iran keeps showing patience.

In the summer of 2020, Israel sabotaged Iran’s Natanz civilian nuclear enrichment facility. They have bombed Iran’s allies in Lebanon, and they have bombed their allies in Syria. Earlier, at the beginning of 2020, Israel and the U.S. assassinated General Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top military official. Later, at the end of 2020, General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s civilian nuclear program, was assassinated.

Each time Israel provoked, Iran showed patience and restraint. “The Iranian nation is smarter than falling into the trap," President Hassan Rouhani calmy stated. "They are thinking to create chaos."

On April 6, the US did what was unthinkable for Israel: they took the first wary steps toward returning to talking to Iran. Iran had been too smart to fall into the trap, and Israel’s attempts to provoke Iran into destroying its own chances of returning to the international community and to the international nuclear deal had so far failed.

Israeli Provocations; Iranian Patience

So far. So, Israel upped the provocation and made the provocation public to try to force Iran into retaliating and publicly acting against its interest. On April 11, Israel once again sabotaged the Natanz nuclear facility when they detonated an explosion in the facility that shut down the power that runs the centrifuges that enrich the uranium. On April 6, not coincidentally the same day the US tentatively returned to the nuclear talks, Israel attacked an Iranian military vessel in the Red Sea. The ship broke into flames and smoke when a mine that had been attached to it exploded.

Still, Iran did not take the bait, Iran did not retaliate. On April 24, an Iranian oil tanker was attacked off the coast of Syria. The ship was hit by what appears to be a drone that came from Lebanese waters. This time three Syrians, including two crew members, were killed.

Such provocation is not a new Israeli strategy. It goes back a long time. When a country shows the maturity not to attack, Israel has often turned to provocation to try to purchase the attack. Referring to war with Syria, Moshe Dayan, the head of the Israeli Defence Force, once confessed to a reporter, off the record, that Israel deliberately provoked Syria to attack. He said that Israel would push further and further until Syria responded. Dayan admitted that Israel had started "more than 80 percent" of the skirmishes with Syria. Former Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett once referred in his diary to "the long chain of false incidents and hostilities we have invented, and the many clashes we have provoked." Sharett called this "the method of provocation and revenge."

This time, the provocation wasn’t working. Iran was still not taking the bait. Iran’s leaders refused to respond to Israel’s sabotage by engaging in retaliations that would simply sabotage their own efforts at squeezing out from under US sanctions and returning to the nuclear talks and to the international community. Echoing Rouhani’s earlier words, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif continued to explain that the Israelis “want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions…We will not fall into their trap.”

The Talks Go On

Not only did Iran not respond, but they side stepped the Israeli attempt to sabotage the nuclear talks in Vienna by embarrassing the US, by making them look complicit in Israel’s attacks, or alienating Iran, by provoking them into aggression.

Despite concerns that the Natanz attack would trigger Iran’s temper and cause them to walk out of the nuclear discussions, Iran continued to show patience and kept their seat at the talks. Though a positive result is not a sure thing, the Americans and the Iranians are still talking: at least indirectly. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has said, to the dismay of Israel, that "The negotiations have achieved 60 to 70 percent progress." Rouhani says that they could "reach a conclusion in a little time."

American sanctions continue to be a road block, and though the US disagrees with the percentage of progress, saying "we have more road ahead of us than in the rearview mirror," their tone has changed, and even the US describes the talks as having been "positive." Israel has taken note of that tone change. Israeli officials told Israeli journalist Barak Ravid that Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat has accused the US of "not showing sufficient consideration of the Israeli government’s position during its Iran diplomacy." The US has even recently suggested a willingness to consider lifting sanctions that targeted Iran’s economy, including crucial sanctions on the central bank and oil companies.

A high level Israeli delegation including all of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi is heading to the White House with instructions from Netanyahu to focus on convincing the Biden administration of Israel’s objections to the US returning to the Iran nuclear deal. When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether the Israeli delegation would have any effect on the US returning to the nuclear deal, she answered in one word: "No." As the Israeli acts of sabotage did provoke Iran to retaliate, so they did not sabotage the nuclear talks.

Increased Enrichment

The Israeli attacks also did not sabotage Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Far from slowing it down, the attacks have sped it up. As they did in the Obama negotiations, Iran is reversibly increasing their centrifuge capacity as leverage. In response to the Israeli attack on the Natanz civilian nuclear facility, Iran escalated their program in two ways. As promised when the Natanz nuclear facility was attacked, the damaged centrifuges have been replaced with more advanced versions. Though the Israeli sabotage may have temporarily slowed Iranian enrichment, it ultimately accelerated it. On April 21, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran had installed eight cascades of more advanced centrifuges. One of those cascades is reportedly enriching uranium to 60%: less than needed to produce a bomb but more than enough to make a statement.

America Rebukes Israel

Perhaps the most striking sign that Israel’s acts of sabotage have gone so far that, this time, they may be sabotaging themselves, rather than moving the States against the Iran talks, the attacks provoked the US to issue a rare rebuke of Israel. The US informed Israel that they are displeased with the recent Israeli attacks and with Israel’s public boasting about those attacks, expressing concern that those acts could damage the new negotiations with Iran.

Dropping Demands: Has Israel Conceded Failure?

Israel may be seeing the forecast. Even Israel may be seeing the signs that this time they have sabotaged themselves. Israeli officials have reportedly concluded that they will not be able to pressure the US to significantly strengthen the nuclear agreement. So, they seem to be backing down on their key demands, including expanding the deal to include Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for Iranian allies like Hezbollah. Israel seems now to be restricting their demands to the much weaker – and somewhat redundant – demand for greater International Atomic Energy Agency powers to inspect Iran’s nuclear sites.

Saudi Arabia Calls Iran

And in a sign that others may also be recognizing that Israeli attempts to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal have instead sabotaged Israel’s attempts to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal, there are reports of direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran having taken place on April 9 in Iraq. The talks reportedly involved senior officials. The talks are potentially interesting because the last time Iraq mediated possible talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in January 2020, the Saudis were motivated, at least in part, by a recognition that they had not succeeded in pushing the US into a war with Iran. Pursuing more peaceful relations with the Iran was plan B. Perhaps the current talks are a version of plan B that comes with the recognition that Israel has failed to push the US to continue to isolate Iran. The talks may indicate that, like Israel, Saudi Arabia is recognizing that, in the Israeli promise to sabotage the Iran deal, Israel has this time sabotaged themselves.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.