JERUSALEM – The last time the United States attempted to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, the reaction of the Israeli government was brutal and fierce. In the years leading up to Iran’s 2015 deal with Washington and several other great powers, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly called their negotiations a “historic mistake,” even delivering a speech to Congress in 2015 denouncing the Obama administration’s openness to an agreement.
But on Friday, the official announcement that the Biden administration was seeking to return to nuclear negotiations with Iran, following the collapse of the 2015 deal under President Donald Trump’s leadership, was initially greeted with a muted response – not only in Jerusalem, but also in the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which also oppose an overly generous rapprochement with Iran.
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued a brief statement, avoiding commenting directly on the negotiations, but noting that Israel was in contact with the United States.
“Israel remains determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and its position on the nuclear deal has not changed,” the statement said. “Israel believes that returning to the old agreement will pave the way for Iran to a nuclear arsenal.”
Western diplomats and former Israeli officials have said the Israelis still digest the news and seek to respond to it, but accept the need to engage constructively with Washington instead of rejecting negotiations out of hand.
“The question is,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli Minister for Community Affairs, said in an interview with the New York Times on Friday, “what is the new administration’s policy towards the outcome of the negotiations?”
The Israeli government was not inherently opposed to the negotiations, Hanegbi said. But the talks were expected to result in a better deal than the one agreed in 2015, which Israel and the Gulf countries condemned because its restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities would expire in a decade and a half, and that didn’t do much. thing to curb Iranian military activity. across the Middle East.
“We would like the negotiations to focus on what the world would like to see: an agreement for a longer period – for at least 50 years, if not more,” Hanegbi said. Israel cannot accept “an agreement that will expire in four to five years,” he added. “It must be an agreement that will be valid for generations. Nothing else will achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran. “
Saudi and Emirati officials remained silent on Friday. Watching the resignation of the Biden administration in Tehran, the two Gulf states – which were outraged at being excluded from the last round of negotiations – can only hope that the United States will keep its promises to ensure that Gulf interests are represented in the talks, analysts said.
“We just have to trust the new administration; we have no option, ”said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Emirati political scientist. “They are really determined to reach Iran, so there is no way anyone can stop them.”
But he recognized that there could be something to be gained, saying, “If the end result is less confrontation with Iran, a less aggressive Iran, a less expansionist Iran, that’s a dream of sorts. .
The Israeli government has yet to articulate a clear response to the change in US policy, said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence. But at least initially, he said, it will take a much less combative approach to policy-making for the Biden administration than that of President Barack Obama.
“I think they will be very careful,” Yadlin said of the Israeli government. “The Americans are not back to the deal yet, and they will try to create a dialogue that will help the Americans make a longer and stronger deal.”
He added: “In practice, they will not directly confront the Biden administration. They will wait a bit to see if the Iranians react and how the negotiations develop.
In Europe, where leaders have long hoped America would return to the table with Iran, the response has been more positive. “The United States is giving diplomacy a chance,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, wrote on Twitter. “We expressly welcome and support this!”
Maas also warned Iran against taking aggressive action just when diplomatic breakthroughs seemed possible. “Now Iranian leaders must also show that they are serious,” he said.
In Russia – Iran’s ally and signatory to the nuclear deal – the Biden administration’s decision meant that the Kremlin, for once, had something positive to say in the direction of Washington. In particular, he praised how the White House had also pulled out of Trump-era efforts to restore United Nations sanctions against Iran.
“Ending the call for sanctions is a good thing in itself,” said Dmitry S. Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin. “It’s an event that can probably be branded with a plus sign.”
In the Gulf region, which sees Iranian expansionism as a major threat, the mood was more muted, with currents of pessimism.
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political commentator considered close to the government, said Saudi Arabia had signaled to the Biden administration for months that it supported re-engagement with Iran, but only if the goal was a deal more ambitious. than the 2015 agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“Now the question will be, is this just rhetoric and are the people at Biden just going to effectively produce an identical recreation of the JCPOA, with all of its flaws?” Said Mr. Shihabi. “Or will it lead to a better deal and additional constraints on Iran’s regional behavior?” The folks at Biden make all the right noises, but the proof is in the pudding.
Saudi Arabia has been careful to point out the positive in its dealings with the Biden administration so far, wanting to show that it remains a constructive partner when it comes to Iran or other regional issues, Eman said. Alhussein, Saudi analyst in the Arab Gulf States. Institute in Washington.
“They want to be seen as part of the solution to these problems,” Alhussein said, adding that Saudi Arabia may be keen to do so due to the “atmosphere of apprehension” regarding the kingdom’s uncertain relations. with the United States.
Biden officials have said they want to recalibrate the partnership into what will be an inevitably cool turn after four years of strong support from the Trump administration.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Vivian Yee from Cairo. Reporting was provided by Irit Pazner Garshowitz in Jerusalem, Steven Erlanger in Brussels, Roger Cohen in Paris, Melissa Eddy in Berlin and Anton Troianovski in Moscow.