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Israel spying scandal comes to light one week before Iran negotiation deadline

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With less than a week before the March 31 deadline to finalize the outlines of a nuclear deal, the relative positions of Iran and the Western powers are coming into focus. The Islamic Republic’s leadership is said to express support for a potential agreement, as hardline factions are reportedly mollified by the level of Western concession so far. Among the so-called P5+1 – the UN Security Council’s five permanent members as well as Germany – France continues to play the bad-cop role, its UN ambassador warning on Tuesday that Iran still faces “difficult choices if it truly wishes to regain the trust of the international community.” Israel, which sees its regional nuclear monopoly hanging in the balance, sent a national security delegation to Paris on Sunday to press for fewer compromises. (France was of course instrumental in the early stages of Israel’s own clandestine nuclear program.) And the nascent U.S.-Israel breach continues to widen, as anonymous White House sources accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of using information obtained through espionage to lobby Congress against a deal.

The deadline for a final agreement is June 30, and the question of who will blink on outstanding issues – including centrifuge R&D, the lifting of sanctions, and inspections – is causing consternation among U.S. conservatives and their ideological allies. The likelihood of a transformational achievement in American foreign policy is especially ominous for Israel, even if its place in U.S. Middle East strategy seems secure for the foreseeable future.

According to the New York Times, the present stage of negotiations is a conflict between the U.S. desire for specificity and Iran’s strategic obscurantism:

Over the past few weeks, Iran has increasingly resisted any kind of formal “framework” agreement at this stage in the negotiations, preferring a more general statement of “understanding” followed by a final accord in June, according to Western diplomats involved in the talks.

Should that position hold – one of the many unknowns of the coming days – the United States and its five negotiating partners may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of describing the accord as they understand it while the Iranians go home to offer their own version.

This would obviously embolden the U.S. political opposition: “Persian perfidy” is their preferred argument against resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically. But as a German official observed to the Times, “We forget that the Iranians have politics, too. And theirs are at least as complicated as Obama’s.” In February, Ayatollah Khamenei declared there can only be one agreement, leaving it unclear what (if any) technical parameters the Iranian team could sign off on by Tuesday. And after 18 months of talks, a lack of specifics – on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges and the design of a plutonium reactor – could cause Congressional opponents of a deal to vote for more sanctions (which Obama says he will veto).

Coverage in the American media has been characterized by anxiety over the strong hand Iran enjoys at the negotiating table. As an Iranian political strategist recently told the Times, “We are steadfast and the U.S is compromising. We are not complaining.” The U.S. has no will for more elective war, certainly not against a country of nearly 80 million people, capable of projecting power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen. And for all the suffering caused by sanctions – and the grievous insult perceived to the national honor – Iran knows it can survive even under such punishing conditions. Getting the sanctions lifted – especially all at once, right away – would be a major victory, but coordinated assaults from the outside world have their usefulness too for an authoritarian regime. In any case, the White House clearly wants to get a deal done: according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, “This is probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is healthcare for us, just to put it in context.”

The American negotiating position has not been strengthened by ostentatious shows of internal discord, like the 47 Republican senators’ letter to the Iranian regime. (“We will have no letters or other nonsense that we are witnessing in the United States,” said the Iranian analyst quoted by the Times, who is reportedly close to Khamenei. “Iran speaks with one voice.”) Even Israel’s vigorous efforts to scuttle an agreement have played into the Iranians’ hands, by forcing Congressional Democrats to close ranks with the president. Citing “interviews with numerous Democratic senators,” Politico reports that the Israeli campaign “may have backfired”:

At best, several of them said, it’s made no difference and was simply a restatement of the Israeli government’s public antagonism toward a deal. In some cases, it appears to have made some lawmakers more sympathetic to the White House, given that the Israelis are decrying a deal that isn’t finished.

In the words of Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), “I’m not sure how you say it’s a bad deal. We don’t know what the deal is.”

A possible answer is provided by a recent report in The Wall Street Journal: “Israel Spied on Iran Nuclear Talks with U.S.” That headline sounds a bit dog-bites-man, as the AP’s State Dept. Inquisitor Matt Lee suggested to Jen Psaki: “I don’t understand what the administration is hoping to accomplish here by this anonymous whining about something that it shouldn’t be surprised is happening.” But what really has the White House riled up is their belief that Team Netanyahu shared the resulting intelligence during briefings with American lawmakers and their aides. In addition to including classified information on the quantity and quality of centrifuges Iran could be able to keep, these briefings are said to have omitted accompanying concessions asked of Tehran, giving a misleading picture. American spies reportedly discovered the snooping via “intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks.”

Chemi Shalev, U.S. correspondent for Haaretz, suggested on Twitter that the relevant U.S. counterespionage efforts may have netted even more inflammatory information: “Lost in WSJ spy story: US knows what Netanyahu says in private about Palestinian statehood – AND ABOUT OBAMA.” The Journal story includes a threat of lasting repercussions for the special relationship: ‘“People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.”’

For its part the prime minister’s office emphatically denied the accusations – a little too emphatically: “The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel’s other allies.” Anticipating the obvious counterexample, the Wall Street Journal article explains that Israel’s “intelligence agencies scaled back their targeting of U.S. officials after the jailing nearly 30 years ago of American Jonathan Pollard,” according to obviously impartial “current and former Israeli officials.” If they did so, America’s spies haven’t noticed: as of 2012, “The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency’s Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East,” according to the AP. While audacious provocations of its patron are nothing new for Israel, the Obama administration seems to have decided to start reacting more normally to Israeli behavior, which has historically been ignored.

Despite the backlash, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. is undeterred. “If anything,” the New York Times reports, “Mr. [Ron] Dermer is intensifying his efforts to thwart the nuclear deal with Iran that Mr. Obama is working hard to close within days.” Sacking Dermer, a former American Republican operative, has frequently been mentioned as a possible first step toward mending fences with the president, but Netanyahu seems loath to part with his Rovian confidant. And the ambassador, even as he defends his boss’s megalomaniacal stunt in Congress, is keeping his eye on the prize: “Above all, Mr. Dermer has been working to ensure that even as the United States and Israel feud, members of Congress continue to back generous military and intelligence support for Israel.”

We should follow Dermer’s focus. The Obama administration’s insistence that arms and money will continue to flow as usual, even as diplomatic policy shifts, underscores the basis of the special relationship: Israel’s role as Middle East gendarme. This is especially unlikely to change as the rest of the region disintegrates. But Israel is on alert for any threat to the material support that enables its militarism: in its indignant response to the Journal’s charges of espionage and subversion, Netanyahu’s office insisted, “These false allegations are clearly intended to undermine the strong ties between the United States and Israel and the security and intelligence relationship we share.”

Eamon Murphy

Eamon Murphy is a journalist in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @epmurph.

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22 Responses

    • just on March 25, 2015, 5:14 pm

      Thanks lysias. From the linked article:

      “What is most striking about all of this is the massive gap between (a) how American national security officials talk privately about the Israelis and (b) how they have talked for decades about the Israelis for public consumption – at least until the recent change in public rhetoric from Obama officials about Israel, which merely brings publicly expressed American views more in line with how U.S. government officials have long privately regarded their “ally.” The NSA refused to comment for this article.”

      This charade needs to stop. The government needs a fully informed electorate.

      Eamon, thanks for this article. The republicans and the Israelis continue their assault on, and undermining of, this President and administration, Their unholy alliance puts the national security of the US and the entire MENA at risk.

      • seafoid on March 25, 2015, 5:42 pm

        ” The republicans and the Israelis continue their assault on, and undermining of, this President and administration, “-

        Could there eventually be a civil war between the GOP and the Dems, maybe over income inequality and plutocracy ?

  1. oldgeezer on March 25, 2015, 5:29 pm

    Normally one would wonder what would drive someone to make such a broad denial that the state of Israel doesn’t spy on it’s allies. In the case of nutty the reason is pretty obvious. That this man should be prime minister or even leading a fries team at the local mickey d’s speaks poorly of the character of his supporters.

    It beggars belief that the US considers Israel an ally. Not just due to this incident but the entire history of the relationship. Israel has done far more harm to the US than many of it’s supposed enemies.

    • seafoid on March 25, 2015, 5:40 pm
      • oldgeezer on March 25, 2015, 6:15 pm

        That’s not surprise. In fact it’s to be expected (at least the attempt to spy).

        Hence the point about what drives nutty to lie and say Israel never spies on it’s allies.

      • Kay24 on March 25, 2015, 6:32 pm

        Lying comes easily to Nutty. He lies with cunning but no intelligence. He lies thinking his lies will not be revealed. He says he will not have a two state solution, then lies that it was a misunderstanding. He thinks the world has collective amnesia, when it comes to things he says and does. He lies like a pickpocket, and is certainly no statesman worthy of respect. He has lost credibility and lacks integrity, and the Israelis love him and his dishonest ways (even Sara Netanyahu’s dishonesty is fine by them). Low standards for a nation. So who really believes Nutty’s denial? Look at how he connived with congress to stab the President, in an effort to sabotage the negotiations with Iran, how he was able to get spineless GOP congress people to write that traitorous letter to Iranian leaders, and how he lied to win elections. Now think again.

  2. just on March 25, 2015, 6:33 pm

    Ayman Mohyeldin:

    “US says it has carried out airstrikes on #ISIS targets in #Tikrit. US Air Force now providing air cover for #Iranian-backed ground forces”

    I think that we have a more important relationship with Iran…

    While Israel helps the ???

    (please let the innocents be spared! This is what GW started with the assent of most of almost all of the repubs and too many of the dems in Congress…

    From wiki: “The Iraq War[nb 1] was a protracted armed conflict that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the United States. The invasion toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. The conflict, however, continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government.[43] The United States officially withdrew from the country in 2011, but the insurgency and various dimensions of the civil armed conflict continue.

    The invasion began on 20 March 2003. The U.S., joined by the United Kingdom and several coalition allies, launched a “shock and awe” surprise attack without declaring war. Iraqi forces were quickly overwhelmed as U.S. forces swept through the country.”

  3. Sycamores on March 25, 2015, 8:14 pm

    talking about spying,7340,L-4640928,00.html

    Leaked report outlines 40 suggestions to sway Israeli policy; EU source: more chance of implementation in wake of Netanyahu rejection of Palestinian state.

  4. Rusty Pipes on March 25, 2015, 11:14 pm

    Hardly: “The Obama administration’s insistence that arms and money will continue to flow as usual, even as diplomatic policy shifts, underscores the basis of the special relationship: Israel’s role as Middle East gendarme. This is especially unlikely to change as the rest of the region disintegrates. ”

    Rather, it underscores the threadbare support Obama has gotten for standing up to Netanyahu from congresscritters, who have the power to work around economic or military sanctions that a president might impose on Israel — which is a big part of the reason that America’s and Israel’s military and intelligence are so enmeshed. Israel’s meddling in its neighbors’ affairs contributes significantly to the region’s disintegration and does not align with America’s best interests (even if it serves the interest of some of America’s 1%).

  5. sckang1965 on March 26, 2015, 5:02 am

    The Israelis spying on the United States is OLD NEWS! The Israeli Intelligence is the most aggressive on U.S. Soil and they’re supposedly allies for many years. They have targeted our economy, military, and everything else that they can get their hands on. Then turn around and sell products from American Proprietary Designs.
    When FBI Counterintelligence caught the Israeli Agents, they weren’t too concerned. The FBI would lecture the Israelis. Then the Israelis would say a little churlish, are you done? The FBI would get phone call from a U.S. Congressmen or Senator to back off or there would be unforeseen consequences on OUR FBI AGENTS!
    The USA NSA shares RAW intelligence with the Israelis- the Israeli Sigint National Unit (ISNU) daily. There is NO filter on much of the electronic intelligence. Names, addresses, and other details remain on the report. We supposedly have an agreement with the INSU not to target Americans. The Israelis just pledge not to target Americans, but the INSU aren’t held by legal agreement. INSU can do whatever they feel.

  6. pabelmont on March 26, 2015, 10:02 am

    The USA’s “classified” information is stuff someone has decided to stamp “secret” — it has a most tenuous connection to whatever “national security” may be supposed to be. Nevertheless the USA provides harsh penalties for anyone disclosing classified info (Assange, Snowden, Manning as a few well-known examples) UNLESS the disclosers are (sufficiently) high government officials for whom it is supposed the classified materials they have leaked has been (secretly? previously? after-the-fact?) declassified (Gee! it wasn’t a national security thing-a-bob after all, who knew?).

    But If Israel discloses what would be a crime for Americans to disclose, it sure feels like a sort-of-you-know-crime to the Americans. Hurts our feelings. Makes us less trusting in the close relationship between security services. And like that.

  7. Walid on March 26, 2015, 3:21 pm

    With less than a week before the March 31 deadline to finalize the outlines of a nuclear deal, Israel’s other pals the axis of anti-Shia states decided to bomb Iran’s pals in Yemen. This will surely get the Iranians’ back up, which is probably why the attacks on Yemen came at this critical time in US-Iran negotiations, most probably to get Iran to do something rash and trigger an American reaction that would end the talks.

    • just on March 26, 2015, 3:28 pm

      Yes, Walid.

      Never mind that the US is supporting Iranian ground efforts in Tikrit at the request of Iraq………

      “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practise to deceive.”

      ― Walter Scott, Marmion

      • Citizen on March 26, 2015, 5:18 pm

        Yes, Walid & just, it’s truly astonishing what control of oil & protecting the petrodollar + carrying out AIPAC’s wishes + weapons/security business profiteering–will do.

      • Walid on March 26, 2015, 9:29 pm

        Astonishing, Citizen, is the spontaneity by which the Arab League mobilizes a coalition of member states to assault a fellow member state. Saw it done to Saddam, to Gaddafi, to Assad and now to the Shia resistance in Yemen. But it will have nothing to do with the uprising in Bahrain or with Israel’s repeated assaults on the Palestinians.

        From CNN, that for the last month has been coming to Iran’s defense:

        “(CNN)—Saudi and allied warplanes struck rebels in Yemen on Thursday, with Saudi Arabia threatening to send ground troops and inserting itself into its southern neighbor’s civil war, potentially opening up a broader sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

        The swift and sudden action involved 100 Saudi jets, 30 from the United Arab Emirates, 15 each from Kuwait and Bahrain, 10 from Qatar, and a handful from Jordan, Morocco and Sudan, plus naval help from Pakistan and Egypt, according to a Saudi adviser.

        The Egyptian state news agency on Thursday quoted Egypt’s Foreign Ministry as saying Egypt’s support also could involve ground forces.

        What do those countries have in common? They’re all predominantly Sunni Muslim — in contrast to the Houthi rebels, Shiite Muslims who have taken over Yemen’s capital of Sanaa and on Wednesday captured parts of its second-largest city, Aden. The Saudis consider the Houthis proxies for the Shiite government of Iran and fear another Shiite-dominated state in the region.

        “What they do not want is an Iranian-run state on their southern border,” CNN military analyst Lt. Col. Rick Francona said of the Saudis… ”

  8. Mooser on March 31, 2015, 11:24 am

    Here’s Josh Marshall editor of TPM, on the Iran nuclear deal
    Mr. Marshall describes himself ( his words, I wouldn’t know) as “a Jew and a Zionist”. Yet he seems entirely unaware that Israel has illegal nuclear weapons, or that any of his readers know it, and think maybe, just maybe it is relevant.

    Oh yes, he says that “Saudi Arabia, you’ll note, doesn’t fight its own wars. We fight them. For understandable reasons, the Saudis – and other Arab states – would greatly prefer the Iranians were out of the nuclear business entirely” Israel, you see, has very little to do with it.

    • Mooser on March 31, 2015, 11:37 am

      Marshall’s previous article on Netanyahoo claims that the “right-wing coalition” Netanyahoo is involved with may not give Netanyahoo the room he wants to move to the left! Wow!

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