CIA director to visit Israel as U.S. considers returning to Iran nuclear deal

With a new Iranian hardline president, accelerated uranium enrichment, and stalled talks, some American officials say a comprehensive return to the JCPOA is unlikely.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

CIA Director William Burns arrived in Israel on Tuesday amid reports that the U.S. is seeking alternative solutions regarding the Iran nuclear deal, as negotiations surrounding the deal have stalled.

Initial reports have indicated that Burns will meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Mossad Director David Barnea as well as with Palestinian Authority (PA) officials, including PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, his visit is reportedly expected to focus on the Iranian issue.

The Biden administration is reconsidering its push for a full return to the nuclear deal with Iran as uncomfortable truths are getting in the way, Bloomberg reported Monday.

According to “people familiar with the discussions,” the financial daily said that the U.S. is now thinking of alternative interim deals. One proposal under discussion is the removal of certain sanctions in return for Iran freezing its most recent moves towards producing nuclear weapons.

This is because there is serious concern in Israel, Europe and the United States that if the Iranians are not stopped soon, all the knowledge they have gained through their serious breaches of the accord will make it pointless to return to it. The rational behind the deal had been to keep Iran at least a year away from being able to produce the bomb. By now, however, Tehran is perhaps only 1- weeks away from that point, as indicated by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz last week.

Such a turnabout would be a blow to President Biden, who had made re-entering the deal with Iran a central component of his foreign policy, seemingly thinking that Iran would be eager to agree since the strict snapback sanctions ordered by former president Donald Trump in 2018 have severely crimped the Persian economy.

Iran started steadily breaching the accords several months after the U.S. walked away.

It first began stockpiling hundreds of tons of uranium and then slowly started enriching it to 20% purity. In April, they announced that they had started raising the level to 60%, albeit only a few ounces a day. This is far beyond the 3.67% level allowed under the nuclear accord and a very short technical step below the 90% needed for weapons-grade material.

“There is no credible explanation or civilian justification for such an action on the side of Iran,” EU spokesman Peter Stano said at the time.

Then, in early July, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had begun producing enriched uranium metal. This is “a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon,” according to the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Great Britain, who slammed the move as a “threat” to the “progress” made so far in the negotiations over re-signing the JCPOA.

There have been six rounds of indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran so far, but the seventh was put on hold last month in anticipation of the Iranian presidential elections. On August 3 Ebrahim Raisi was elected – and he is a hardliner who has opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) since its inception. Perhaps even more dire for the future of the negotiations, the person who really runs the country, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, came out against the deal last week.

“In this government, it was shown that trust in the West does not work,” he said, adding, “Westerners do not help us, they hit wherever they can.”

The U.S. is also convinced that Iran has been behind several attacks on Western vessels in recent months, including sending two kamikaze drones into an Israeli-managed oil tanker, the Mercer Street, on July 29 in the Gulf of Oman. The subsequent explosion killed two crewmembers, one British and one Romanian. Iran has denied any connection to the incident, although American experts who examined debris recovered from the site have evidence that the UAVs were of Iranian origin.

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Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.