Israel tries to blow up US-Iran nuclear talks. What happens now?

Israel tries to blow up US-Iran nuclear talks. What happens now?

Iran has vowed to avenge Sunday's attack on its Natanz nuclear facility. Tehran blames Israel, which — as in the past — has neither confirmed nor denied it was responsible. And all this happens just days after indirect talks on US plans to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed in Vienna. What the Iranians do now will determine the immediate future of those negotiations, a Biden administration priority.


What happened? Natanz, one of Iran's most important sites for uranium enrichment, was hit by an explosion that affected the power system that supplies the centrifuges. The damage will likely set back the country's efforts to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels by some time. So far it's unclear whether it was a cyberattack similar to the Stuxnet malicious worm jointly developed by Israel and the US that destroyed one-fifth of Iran's centrifuges in 2010, or a bomb like the one that caused a July 2020 fire in the same facility.

Why now? The timing of the attack as US-Iran nuclear talks are ongoing is no coincidence. Israel fiercely opposed the original agreement championed six years ago by the Obama administration and was delighted when Donald Trump walked out of the deal in 2018 and later slapped crippling economic sanctions on Iran. To move talks forward, President Biden is willing to lift some of those sanctions, but Tehran, cautious about looking desperate so early in the discussions, has been playing hard to get.

The Israelis now worry that Iran has restarted enriching uranium at higher levels and that many of the deal's so-called "sunset clauses" expire in 2026, so Iran could begin to significantly expand its nuclear program while (technically) adhering to the terms of the agreement. Tel Aviv feels it's urgent to stop version 2.0 of the nuclear deal before Iran comes even close to getting the bomb.

How does it affect the US-Iran nuclear talks? It's too soon to ascertain whether the attack will diminish Iran's key bargaining chip: threatening to enrich uranium faster. What is virtually guaranteed, however, is that its aftermath will poison the domestic political environment in Iran, where any concession to "Great Satan" is always a hard sell, even more so now with a presidential election coming up in two months.

While the Americans' negotiating hand has strengthened, Natanz will further erode a mutual willingness to compromise — which is already very low after Iran stopped complying with the deal's terms on uranium enrichment in May 2019, and the high-profile assassination of a top Iranian general ordered by Trump in early 2020.

Who benefits? Clearly, Israel, for two reasons. First, whatever the full extent of the damage, it has physically undermined Iran's nuclear program, in the near term at least. Second, it has complicated a diplomatic process the Israelis would like to stop. Iran is now left to choose between a forceful retaliation that would delay any lifting of sanctions and an easing of economic hardship inside Iran, or a muted response that could make Iran's leaders appear weak just at the moment they'd like to be driving a hard bargain.

What happens next? The fallout from Natanz will put immense pressure on the Vienna talks, likely hardening Iran's position and reducing the odds of reaching an agreement before the presidential vote in June. Regardless of the election outcome, the decision on whether to rejoin the nuclear deal will be made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Negotiations will continue. Iran's sanction-plagued economy suffered mightily last year due to the pandemic and low prices for the oil it's still able to export. Doing whatever it takes to get an agreement may not be popular for many conservatives at home, but US sanctions relief is too big an economic incentive for Iran to ignore.

In short, both the US and Iran still want to return to the original deal. That's why, unfortunately for Israel's government, the question is not if but when a new nuclear agreement will be signed.

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What do America's policies around the world mean for jobs, the economy, and the future of the country's future? This Tuesday, June 15. at 11 am ET, GZERO Media presents a a live discussion on trade, immigration, and how domestic issues like racism and deep partisan divides impact America's standing in the world. Our event, which is sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, is free and open to the public. Please register to attend.

Judy Woodruff, anchor of the PBS NewsHour, will moderate the conversation with:

  • Donna Edwards, Member of Congress (2008-2017)
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group and GZERO Media
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
  • Miriam Sapiro, Managing Director, Sard Verbinnen & Co. (SVC) and Former Acting and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative
  • Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Advisor, New America

Special appearance by Governor Thomas H. Kean, Chairman of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 | 11 am - 12:30 pm ET

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What's the significance of the US-China bill, competition bill that passed the Senate earlier this week?

Well, the bill is a major investment in American technology, research and development, semiconductor manufacturing, and it's designed to push back on the China Made in 2025 push that lawmakers have become increasingly worried about in recent years. The opinion in Washington has shifted from seeing China as a strategic competitor to a strategic rival. And you're seeing what's now likely to be one of the only bipartisan bills in Congress now pushing back on that. Significant money for semiconductors in this bill, even though some of it was set aside for automotive purposes. That money's not going to come online fast enough to really make a difference to the current global semiconductor shortage, but it will help build up US long-term spending capacity and manufacturing capacity in semiconductors.

Other aspects of the bill, banned the application TikTok from going on government devices out of security concerns, created new sanctions authorities around Xinjiang and Hong Kong for human rights abuses, and mandated a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, which is probably going to happen anyway once the Biden administration is able to align with its allies. Let the athletes play. Don't let any high level delegations go. This is probably the only bipartisan bill to happen this year, yet still, half of Senate Republicans voted against it because they were opposed to the kind of industrial policy they think this represents, but it does show the area where there's bipartisan agreement in a city that's very, very divided right now. China is the bad guy and Congress is moving in that direction.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What do you expect from President Biden's first European trip since taking office?

Well, first, it will be sort of reconnecting with Europe, reconnecting with the European Union, with NATO, with the partners in the G7, and going really from the initial message, which was, "we are back," to a more concrete message, "here is what we could potentially do together." That is the expectations. And let's see how it turns out.

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Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

When President Biden and President Putin meet, will cybersecurity will be a key issue that they discuss?

Now, I'm sure that there will be many thorny issues on the table. But after American fingers pointed to Russia and hold it responsible for the SolarWinds hack, it's likely. Criminals in Russia were also not hindered when they held the Colonial Pipeline Company ransom through a ransomware attack. And really, when journalists and opposition leaders cannot speak a single critical word without being caught, how come cybercriminals can act with impunity in Russia? So the need for prevention and accountability really is significant. And I hope the President Biden can push and persuade Putin to change the confrontational and aggressive course that he is on.

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Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET

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Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET

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