Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Newsletter

Q&A with Prof. David Menashri about Israeli doubts as US resumes Iran nuclear talks

Photo for Q&A with Prof. David Menashri

Image Credit: Wikipedia / Torsten (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Professor David Menashri discusses the current state of U.S.-Israel relations and why the Biden administration's attempts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran carry risks and may fall short of what Israel is seeking.

UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, May 7, 2021 – With the Biden administration looking to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Tel Aviv University Professor Emeritus David Menashri – an internationally recognized expert on Iran – discusses the prospects and what it means to Israel. Dr. Menashri has authored and edited more than ten books, and published numerous articles on Iran and the Middle East. He is a former Israel Institute Visiting Professor at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.
Mossad’s chief Yossi Cohen reportedly held meetings at the White House last week and discussed Iran with President Biden. What kind of messaging do you think the Israelis are giving Biden regarding Iran?
I don't think there's anyone who knows what exactly Mr. Cohen told President Biden. We know that Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed the Israeli delegation not to go into the details of any agreement to avoid signaling that you agree or disagree. Obviously, the Israeli reservations are well known in Washington. Certainly, what I think was important in this meeting was to share the concerns of Israel and bring them directly to President Biden for the first time, because we so far didn't have a meeting between the prime minister and President Biden. It was important to share with the administration the concerns, and the rationale behind the Israeli positions and how acute the situation is from the perspective of Israel.
From the Israeli perspective, it's just over 100 days into the Biden administration. Do the Israelis believe that the administration may be rushing into things? Any parallels with this and the Obama administration?
This is a question of interpretation because the term of the president of Iran is over in two months. Now the question is, do you want to rush into these kind of complex issues of the deal and finish it in two months? And then what? Most likely, the next Iranian president will be a hardliner and may not like the agreement. I think that the time span to conclude the deal is very short. There is another concern, that if you rush, you may be missing things or unable to cover all essential aspects. From the Israeli perspective, it is crucial to fix the sunset clause: what happens after the duration of the deal? What is the verification mechanism until then and after? Also, from the Israeli perspective, the nuclear question is not separate from the missiles and Iran’s regional behavior. Now of course, you cannot deal with all these together. But I think that this all should be on the table because the nuclear issue is only one element. And I believe when Israel expresses its concern, it's not only about the nuclear program, but also about the whole Iranian threat. As in 2015, now too, I think that the signal to Iran is that America is desperate to get the deal soon. The Iranians are very shrewd politicians. They will take advantage of it.
To cap it all, there was recently an incident in Iran involving a leaked recorded interview by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the man behind the whole deal in 2015 and now. In the interview, he makes disparaging comments about the late Qassem Soleimani, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Corps, and how the Iranian president and the ministers don't decide the policy. And the answer from the supreme leader was that you, as a foreign minister, are not in charge of deciding policy; you are in charge of implementing it. So you are now speaking about someone who even today does not have authority, let alone in two months when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is no longer in office.
How does Iranian domestic politics influence Tehran’s approach to Israel and the Biden administration? And do Washington’s overtures to Tehran bolster the position of Iranian moderates after they were undercut perhaps during the Trump years?
The trend in the last few years, mainly since 2018, when the United States has withdrawn from the nuclear deal, is the growing power of the hardliners. And today, it's even worse. The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, is a former general in the Revolutionary Guards. This is the first time that a general is at the head of any of the three branches of government. The speculations in Iran are that the next president would also be from the radicals, as is the head of the Judiciary. The pragmatists have been weakened, after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and now after the video leak involving Foreign Minister Zarif, who was viewed as the figurehead running for the presidency after Rouhani. It is not clear if he'll be able to recover politically or be allowed to run or get elected.
With regard to Iranian attitude towards Israel and the United States, let me first tell you that there is no one Iranian attitude. The people think one way, Iranian reformists and pragmatist elements in a second way, and the extremists-conservatives think another way. The point is that the authority rests with the conservatives, extremists, no matter what you call them. And therefore, to produce a change, you need someone willing and capable.
Concerning the United States, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei authorized the negotiations in 2015, and probably also today, and without it there could not be negotiations. To be clear, it is not a negotiation with the United States; it's with the Europeans, or the EU, China, and Russia. So they separate between doing a nuclear deal, which is a specific item that we are discussing – and even at this time, not directly – and changing the attitude towards the United States. On the United States in general, there are two schools of thought in Iran. Again, the pragmatist, like Zarif or Rouhani, who want to improve relations with the West. We'll start with Europe, but then we may also go to the United States. The more radicals are going eastward – China, Russia, India, and Japan. And the Revolutionary Guards are behind this trend, and they have their own power and vested interests.
When you speak about attitudes towards Israel and the United States, there is a difference between the United States and Israel. They don't even entertain the idea they will have some dialogue with Israel. With the United States, I would think that the majority of the people – the civil society – are willing. Those who have the power are very hesitant. One thing is clear: they are desperate to solve this issue and unfreeze the sanctions. They are entering negotiations, not from a position of power, but from weakness. But what happens is the negotiation in 2015 and now show the weakness of the American strength and the strength of the Iranian weakness. 
What is the likelihood Iran will rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, and what it would it mean for U.S.-Israel relations?
There is a high likelihood that both sides will agree to return to the nuclear deal. I don't know if they will be successful in doing it in two months. But this is the way they are going. And Americans are very nice and forthcoming. I think that there's a good chance that they will do it, and Iran desperately needs the funds. I cannot guarantee what happens if it's postponed to after the Iranian presidential elections. In the meantime, the nuclear deal is ticking.
As far as Israel-U.S. relations, intelligence, security, and military ties between the two allies remain strong, but unfortunately, the atmosphere is not good. Here, it's something about Israeli politics. We have gone through four rounds of elections in just two years – most recently, a national election on March 23. Here we are, 44 days later, and it's still not clear what government we'll have. This week, Netanyahu failed to form a government. An interim government cannot deal with major challenges facing the country. The atmosphere between the two heads of state is not good. And I cannot blame the U.S. president for this. That said, I think that we all trust that the Americans will not abandon Israel. But I think that Israel should go back to its policy that if it does something, to do it quietly, to embrace ambiguity, and not make all kinds of noises: we have done A, B, C, and we will do D, E, and F. With all the respect I have for the State of Israel, this is the show of the Americans. Israel should be much more active in protecting itself in the region, in the policy in Syria, in missiles, in Hezbollah, in Hamas, and I think these are in our capabilities. From what I see, President Biden wants to go on with the deal. I am not happy that this is being done in a way that antagonizes the friends of the United States in the region. It's not only Israel, it's Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Saudi Arabia has a choice; they are now talking with the Iranians. Israel does not have this, you know, the privilege of speaking with both sides. And I think that as much as we know about American policy, they will not sacrifice basic Israeli interests in a deal with the Iranians. Let us not forget that the nuclear deal is not the only issue in disagreement between the United States and Israel. There are disagreements regarding the Palestinian question, and the tensions in Jerusalem are reaching a new peak with the approach of the last Friday of Ramadan, tomorrow.    
There have been numerous reports in the media recently about the ongoing covert or "shadow war" between Israel and Iran (what Israelis refer to as the "campaign between the campaigns"), have these attacks been increasing and, if so, why? How great a risk is there that these attacks could escalate into outright war?
The shadow war or "campaigns between the campaigns,” as long as it's in our neighborhood, it's one thing – and Israel can manage. Israel has the power. But here we are speaking also about activities in the Persian Gulf – far away from our borders – where Israel has capabilities, but it's more dangerous. Much of our imports come from the seas. And I think that it is also risky for the Israelis that we extend our muscles so far. I know in modern technology it's possible. And I think that, from what I see that it's not increasing, both sides are decreasing such activities. And I believe that there was probably a signal to Israel that hold your horses.
Note: Above are portions of an interview originally conducted on May 6, 2021. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.