If time flows at an even pace, then history does not. Joe Biden may still be new in the job, but he finds himself at the centre of a war between Israel and Iran in everything but name. After a comparative lull, events are not so much accelerating as whirling around the president, drawing him inexorably in.
Last night, Iranian officials reported that the Natanz uranium enrichment plant – a lynchpin of its nuclear programme – had been the victim of what they described as ‘nuclear terrorism’. According to US officials quoted in the New York Times, an explosion destroyed the independent power system that supplied the centrifuges for enriching uranium. They estimate it could take at least nine months to resume uranium enrichment there, which is a key path to a potential nuclear bomb.
The Iranians first reported a power failure. Now they say it’s Israel. The Israelis, for their part, say nothing. Their media, meanwhile, says it was Mossad.
Over the years, I have asked many Israeli officials about ‘operations’ ranging from individual hits to strikes against nuclear reactors. In every case, the response was the same: silence, and a smile. The duration and size of each was entirely dependent on the ego of the person I was asking.
The Israelis have form in this area. Several years ago, along with the Americans, they penetrated Iran’s programme through the use of Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm that successfully targeted the programme’s supervisory control and data acquisition. This caused significant damage to machinery and industrial processes, including the nuclear centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Once again, no responsibility was ever claimed. Israeli officials positively beamed.
As usual with these things, timing is everything. In Vienna, talks are ongoing between US and Iranian officials via European intermediaries over Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2018, president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA, the nuclear deal agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (the Five Security Council powers plus Germany). Biden has made it clear he would like to return to the deal. But if US officials have any ideas about being soft on the Islamic Republic, the Israelis are keen to disabuse them of this notion.
Iran, meanwhile, insists that the US must lift the sanctions Trump reimposed after the US withdrew. Only then, they say, will they countenance a return. Israel, now allied with the Sunni Arab Gulf states, believes the deal to have been weak: they want to see more.
This is only the latest in an exchange of moves from both sides since Biden took power. First came the Israeli assassination of Iranian nuclear chief, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. This was a hit that was also a message – as much for Biden as for Tehran; and its meaning was as blunt as a bullet: presidents change, Israeli security concerns do not.
The Iranians have also been testing Washington. In February, a hail of rockets struck a base hosting US troops in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The militant group, Saraya Awliya al-Dam, a Iranian front organisation, claimed responsibility. The US was forced to respond in kind. Jesus may have been from Judea, but the Middle East is no place in which to turn the other cheek.
The Iranians are now furious. ‘The Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions,’ said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. ‘They have publicly said that they will not allow this. But we will take our revenge from the Zionists.’
The fight between Iran and Israel plays out across multiple theatres. Since 2019, Israel has attacked shipscarrying Iranian oil (mainly to Iranian ally Syria) and weapons through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas. Iran is responding in kind. In early April, the Iranian ship, the Shahr e Kord was struck in an Israeli mine attack. Iran, which always responds clandestinely and with no claims of responsibility, reportedly struck back against an Israeli-owned container ship, the Lori.
On land, sea and in cyberspace, the Israelis and Iranians have been going at it for years. Now, as Tehran and Washington start to circle each other diplomatically, the Mossad and Iran’s various foreign and security arms – not least the Quds force – continue to stalk each other militarily. This, beyond mere questions of enrichment levels and sanctions, is what Joe Biden must negotiate if he is to find any sort of solution to a problem that has dominated the 21st century and shows no signs of ending any time soon.
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