The Natanz Attack Also Held a Message for Washington

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The attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility Sunday – widely attributed to Israel — was clearly aimed at impairing Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. But it was very likely also meant as a message for Washington.  

President Biden has made it clear that he wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear pact, putting Robert Malley, who played an important role in making the 2015 deal during the Obama administration, in charge of negotiating a new deal. The U.S. approach has been well received by Tehran. A government spokesman pronounced it, “realistic and promising.”

This is what Netanyahu has been fearing since the advent of the Biden administration. “The nuclear deal with Iran is once again on the table. Such deals with extreme regimes are worthless,” he said at the Holocaust memorial ceremony earlier this month. “A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us,” he declared.

The threat raised only mild concern among the diplomats gathered in Vienna. Netanyahu has often said such things. But three days later, Iran’s main uranium enrichment center, the heart of its nuclear program, was paralyzed by sabotage.

In the past, Israel has declined to comment on its possible connection to such acts. In this case, the operation was leaked to local journalists who attributed them to "foreign reports" a term of art that Israeli media used to evade military censorship. Usually when that happens, the prime minister ignores or denies it; this time, he didn't. 

On the day the news of the Natanz strike became public, U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. Lloyd Austin became the first senior Biden administration official to visit Israel. “In the Middle East, there is no threat more dangerous, serious and pressing than that posed by the fanatical regime in Iran, Netanyahu declared during their press conference. “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.”

Austin responded with mild diplomatic boilerplate about the enduring strength of the Israeli-American relationship and Washington’s desire for “earnest consultations” over “shared challenges in the region.”

The contrast between the two statements was unmistakable. Austin didn’t mention Iran. He was reiterating the Biden administration’s position: After the attack on Natanz, the U.S. announced that it knew nothing at all about it. Washington neither condemned nor condoned the operation.

“I am confident that together [the U.S. and Israel] can chart a path toward enduring peace in this region and advance open and stable order — now, and in the years ahead,” Austin said. He and Netanyahu shook hands, but it was an awkward and illuminating moment.

The war between Israel and the Islamic Republic is real and fundamental. A good new nuclear deal won’t end it, but it could at least ameliorate the danger and buy time for a change in Iran.

There are at least four explanations for the timing of the Israeli operation. It humiliates the Iranian government on the eve of its national elections. It demonstrates that Israel is willing and able to frustrate implementation of a nuclear deal it considers irresponsible. It also raises the possibility of Iranian retaliation leading to a regional escalation. That is something the Biden administration, determined to pivot from the Middle East to the Pacific, badly wants to avoid, while Netanyahu wants to make sure that any shift in focus doesn’t come at Israel’s expense. And it bolsters Netanyahu’s public standing at home at a time when he is trying to stay in power by putting together a coalition government.

Some Israeli cynics say that Netanyahu actually wants a crisis that will unite the country around him at a time when Israeli politics is so unstable and he faces a trial on corruption charges. That could be, but it’s also the case that a great majority of Israelis — including most opposition party leaders — share his view of the Iranian regime and its intentions. Even if he were to leave office tomorrow, his policy of resistance to a nuclear Iran would remain baked into the strategic doctrine and national psyche.   

That doesn’t mean Netanyahu isn’t open to a different Iran deal. He insists that any new deal come with no expiration date, permits invasive international inspection of military as well as civilian nuclear sites, restricts Iran’s missile and warhead capability and imposes sanctions on violators. Israel’s demands also include a bilateral agreement with the U.S. for support against Iranian aggression and terrorism launched from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the Red Sea.

For Israel, a retreat to the old, flawed deal, as Iran is demanding, would portend something much worse. As much as Biden would like to stay neutral, sooner or later he will have to pick a side.

It looks like sooner. On Tuesday, Iran informed the UN it is raising the quality of its enrichment to 60% purity from 20% — bringing it closer to weapons grade. That is exactly the kind of escalatory retaliation that could help make Netanyahu's case with Biden.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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