By Jamie Dettmer
The director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, is in Israel for talks that officials say will focus primarily on Iran. His arrival Tuesday comes amid rapidly rising tensions in the region and a drone strike on an Israeli-managed oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, which Western governments blame on Tehran.
Last week, there was also an escalation in cross-border hostilities between Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed radical Lebanese group, and Israel. Hezbollah fired cross-border rockets, which landed near Israeli military positions, drawing retaliatory Israeli strikes into southern Lebanon.
Both sides appeared careful to avoid casualties, but on Saturday, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah warned he could order an escalation.
Iran has denied it was behind the drone strike last month on the HV Mercer Street in which two crew members, a Briton and a Romanian, were killed. But Western officials and analysts say it fits a pattern of increased combative behavior by Iran, especially over the past six months.
During his three-day visit, Burns is expected to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, his Israeli counterpart, David Barnea, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, and other top defense officials. The key topics will be Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s regional actions and the likely foreign policy direction of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a former hardline Islamic judge who is under U.S. sanctions over alleged atrocities he oversaw during his career in the Iranian judiciary.
“The arrival of a hardline president in Iran has prompted dire predictions about the direction of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies,” noted the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research group, in a report released on August 5.
“There are reasons for concern. Raisi’s past, his rhetoric during and after the election campaign, and the hardliners’ consolidated control over the instruments of power in Iran may well signal a more ideological and less pragmatic approach, especially toward the West,” the report added.
On Monday, Raisi told French President Emmanuel Macron during a phone conversation of Tehran’s determination to “maintain” its capacity for “deterrence” in the Gulf.
The meeting with Barnea will be Burns’ first as CIA director with Mossad’s head, and it comes amid an impasse in U.S. efforts to revive the nuclear deal struck in 2015. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal and Iran has since been accused of breaching it and racing to develop a bomb. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The 2015 agreement lifted sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran to observe strict limits on its nuclear program. President Joe Biden has offered to rejoin the deal if Iran returns to full compliance with its nuclear provisions.
Negotiations, however, have stalled. Last week, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in Washington, “We urge Iran to return to the negotiation soon so that we can seek to conclude our work.” He said time was slipping away, adding, “The opportunity to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA won’t last forever.”
A Bloomberg report, citing U.S. officials, said the administration is considering the possibility of pushing an interim deal that would see an easing of some economic sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran agreeing to a freeze on its nuclear project. Israeli officials have told local media they expect Burns to outline this new approach.
Israel — along with Iran’s Arab Gulf opponents — have long opposed the JCPOA and are against its revival, and the Israeli government believes a key principle of the nuclear deal, which Burns helped to negotiate for the Obama administration, has now been shattered — namely, to keep Iran at least a year away from having the capacity to make a nuclear bomb.
Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the U.N. Security Council that Iran has enough nuclear material to build a bomb in a few weeks. “Iran is only around 10 weeks away from acquiring weapons-grade materials necessary for a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Israeli officials say Iran’s recent actions in the Gulf with escalating assaults on oil tankers, cargo ships and other vessels should make the Biden administration think twice about seeking to resurrect the nuclear deal.
Previously, shipping attacks in the Gulf have more often than not involved limpet mines, which can be placed on the hull of a target vessel. Israeli defense officials see the switch in tactics as a major escalation in a shadow war between Iran and Israel.
And they have called for strong retaliatory action against Iran for the drone attack on the MV Mercer Street. Gantz told the Knesset, or parliament, that there are “hundreds of Iranian UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in Iran, Yemen, Iraq and other countries.” He added, “We will act to remove any such threat.”
The call for a strong response has been echoed in Britain by the country’s top military commander, General Nick Carter, who said in a BBC interview that Western powers need to retaliate, otherwise Tehran will feel emboldened. “We have got to restore deterrence because it is behavior like that which leads to escalation, and that could very easily lead to miscalculation and that would be very disastrous for all the peoples of the Gulf and the international community,” he said.
The Biden administration has also condemned Iranian actions in the Gulf with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying after the drone strike on the MV Mercer Street that there was “no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior.”
The administration has been more restrained in language than Israel and Washington appears to be prioritizing getting Iran back to the negotiating table. But according to Bloomberg, the administration may have accepted that the chances of a return to the 2015 deal are now fading.