What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How conflict between Iran and Israel could affect U.S. diplomacy with Iran

A major explosion Sunday disabled parts of Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, south of Tehran. Iran quickly blamed Israel for the incident, which comes as indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran over the crippled nuclear deal are set to resume. John Yang speaks to Henry Rome of the Eurasia Group about possible motives behind the attack, and how it affects U.S. diplomacy.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yesterday, a major explosion disabled parts of Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, South of Tehran. Iran quickly blamed Israel.

    As John Yang tell us, this also comes as indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal are set to resume later this week.

  • John Yang:

    The facility was knocked off line just hours after launching its new advanced centrifuges. Tehran said Sunday's blackout at the Natanz facility, considered a centerpiece of Iran's uranium enrichment program, had caused a fire. They called the attack an act of nuclear terrorism and blamed Israel.

  • Saeed Khatibzadeh (through translator):

    Various sources confirm that the Zionist regime was behind this incident.

  • John Yang:

    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Natanz would be rebuilt to more quickly enrich uranium. State media quoted him as saying: "The Zionists wanted to take revenge against the Iranian people for their success on the path of lifting sanctions."

    And he said: "Iran will take revenge for this action."

    In Israel, media widely reported the country's spy agency orchestrated the sabotage, even though officials have not claimed responsibility. But, speaking in Jerusalem today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would never permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

    I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel. And Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran's aggression and terrorism.

  • John Yang:

    Hostility between the two countries has played out in recent years through a series of clandestine attacks, from a mysterious explosion at Natanz last July, to November's death of the Iranian scientist who launched the nuclear program decades ago.

    And Iran, in turn, has carried out its own attacks on at least two Israeli-owned cargo ships. Israel has been critical of the Biden administration's attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which would, in part, ease sanctions on Iran.

    Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Israel this weekend said attempts at diplomacy would not be overshadowed by recent events.

  • Sec. Lloyd Austin:

    Those efforts will continue. And I'm very, obviously, supportive of the president's efforts to negotiate a way ahead there.

  • John Yang:

    Indirect talks between the United States and Iran resume Wednesday in Vienna. But European officials acting as mediators voiced concern.

  • Heiko Maas (through translator):

    What we are hearing from Tehran at the moment is not a positive contribution to this.

  • John Yang:

    In a letter to the U.N. secretary-general today, Zarif called on the U.S. not to use the attack as leverage in negotiations, and asked for an end to sanctions that have been in place since President Trump abandoned the nuclear deal three years ago.

    At the White House today, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States was not involved and repeated that the administration's focus remains on diplomacy.

    Henry Rome is a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting company. He focuses on Iran and Israel.

    Mr. Rome, thanks so much for joining us.

    In this case, what would Israel's motive be, or should I say motives, plural?

  • Henry Rome:

    Yes, absolutely.

    I mean, first and foremost, what we have to say is, is the Israelis are keen to degrade Iranian nuclear capabilities by any means at their disposal.

    So, the first motive here, clearly make it harder for the Iranians to enrich uranium at large quantities and to ensure that the Iranians are focused very much on securing their own facilities, instead of doing nuclear research.

    But I think there's another important motive here, of course, which is, as you mentioned, the negotiations ongoing, returning this week in Vienna, which is to say that either the Iranians will retaliate for this attack, which could have unintended consequences and make those negotiations more difficult, or Iran, internally, the domestic politics are so toxic right now, might decide that now is just not the time to contemplate concessions to the West.

  • John Yang:

    The foreign minister, the Iranian foreign minister, said he expects the talks to go on, Iran would not be pulling out of the talks.

    But, as you say, what does this do to their negotiating position, to their leverage at the table?

  • Henry Rome:

    Yes, I mean, I think the incident happened amid a very contentious domestic environment inside Tehran when the negotiators returned from Vienna at the end of last week, which is a huge amount of skepticism about whether the U.S. will follow through with its commitments to lift sanctions.

    And I think the broader environment is one of skepticism about whether the U.S. and Iran can make progress before the Iranian presidential elections in June. So, this is just one more factor, I think, that adds on to the challenges facing both the Iranian government and the Biden administration in reviving the nuclear agreement.

  • John Yang:

    You mentioned the Biden administration.

    Clearly, the United States and Israel agree that they don't want Iran to have nuclear capability. But they may disagree on how to get there. Was taking this action while the U.S. secretary of defense was in Israel, do you think that was a message, a signal to the Biden administration?

  • Henry Rome:

    Yes, I mean, I think, frankly, it's quite provocative that you have, as the negotiations are just getting under way, an incident like this.

    It also follows an incident last week, where Israel was accused of attacking an Iranian spy ship in the Red Sea. And so you take these two incidents together and say, it looks like Israel is really trying to send a pretty clear message that not only are they unsatisfied with the way things are going from a diplomatic point of view, but also that they are willing to take steps covertly to try to make diplomacy more difficult.

  • John Yang:

    And by naming Israel — and you talk about the domestic political pressures within Iran — does that increase the pressure on Iran to respond in a bigger way than they have in the past with these attacks on Israeli shipping?

  • Henry Rome:

    I think it does, in the sense that the Iranian government, and especially the foreign minister, as you cited there, is being very clear that this was not, in their view, the United States.

    So, it's a way of saying to the domestic kind of detractors of diplomacy in Tehran, look, we're still talking with the U.S. indirectly, but they weren't the ones involved in conducting this attack.

    Now, you asked about retaliation. The Iranians are quite nimble in contemplating and in carrying out retaliations to attacks like this. So I would expect that to go forward at some point. But I think the assumption is that the Iranians will be careful not to conduct a retaliation that would be so provocative that would make negotiations more difficult, that would make it more difficult for the United States to say, look, we're contemplating giving sanctions relief in exchange for nuclear constraints.

  • John Yang:

    Was this a cyberattack, or was this the old-fashioned way, hands on?

  • Henry Rome:

    It's a great question.

    The short answer is, we don't know. The — we know that there was an explosion at a power unit. Now, if we recall back, and you mentioned in your report, the incident, explosion at the advanced centrifuge facility at Natanz back last summer, which was — it appeared to be kind of a physical old-fashioned bomb place there.

    There's — oftentimes with operations like this, there can be a cyber-component, there can be a physical component. It kind of ranges on a spectrum there. So, I think we don't quite know at this point, but there was an explosion, and that — and that is not easily repaired, so far as we can tell.

  • John Yang:

    Henry Rome of the Eurasia Group, thank you very much.

  • Henry Rome:

    Thanks so much.

Listen to this Segment