Axios from Tel Aviv

A set of building blocks, each decorated with a flag of a country in the Middle East.
August 03, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (1,794 words, 7 minutes) starts with the latest rhetoric coming from Iran on nuclear weapons.
  • It also brings you updates on the Israel-Lebanon maritime dispute and dives into Jared Kushner's new book, which describes the tension in the Trump-Netanyahu relationship.

Programming note: Tel Aviv will be off next week, but a new edition will hit your inbox on Aug. 17.

  • Sign up to receive this newsletter.

1 big thing: Renewed debate in Tehran about producing nuclear bomb

Illustration of a question mark with a nuclear symbol as the dot on the bottom.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Several senior Iranian officials and politicians have opened the door over the last two weeks to the possibility of producing nuclear weapons — despite the fact that Iran has long maintained it will never do so.

Driving the news: Iran says Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa — a legal Islamic ruling — against nuclear weapons. But in an unusual statement on Tuesday, Iranian MP Mohammad-Reza Sabbaghian Bafghi warned that Parliament could ask Khamenei to revise his fatwa if Iran's "enemies... continue their threats."

  • That followed a string of statements from other political figures saying Iran could produce a nuclear weapon if it so chose.

What they're saying: “It is no secret that we have the technical capabilities to manufacture a nuclear bomb, but we have no decision to do so," former Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi, who now heads Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera two weeks ago.

  • Soon after, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a former diplomat and an adviser to Khamenei, said Khamenei's fatwa doesn’t allow the pursuit of nuclear weapons — “but if we want to do this, no one can stop us."
  • Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, then joined the debate. He reiterated that Iran has the technical capability to build a nuclear bomb but stressed it has no intention of doing so.
  • Eslami's spokesperson later clarified that his remarks were misunderstood. "Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons due to its strategic capabilities, and will never move towards this direction," he said.
  • Last Sunday, an unofficial Telegram channel affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps posted a warning that if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked, Iran could immediately return to the AMAD project, Iran’s clandestine effort to build a nuclear bomb which was shut down in 2003.

The other side: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid made an unusual statement of his own during an event with Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, hinting at Israel’s nuclear weapons.

  • “The operational arena in the invisible dome above us is built on defensive capabilities and offensive capabilities, and what the foreign media tends to call ‘other capabilities.’ These other capabilities keep us alive and will keep us alive so long as we and our children are here," Lapid said.

Between the lines: Raz Zimmt, a top Israeli expert on Iran at Tel Aviv University, said the "unusual" and "concerning" Iranian statements are largely a response to Israel's increasing threats of a potential military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

  • “However, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility for a renewed debate among Iranian decision-makers about the possibility of changing Tehran's nuclear strategy, 19 years after it decided to freeze its military nuclear program," Zimmt told me.

2. Iran nuclear talks to resume next week

The Iranian flag
Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

Outside of Tehran, Iranian and U.S. officials are set to resume indirect talks in Vienna on Thursday about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, a U.S. official told Axios.

Why it matters: U.S. officials are concerned the nuclear deal is close to becoming irrelevant, as Iran has taken steps to advance its nuclear program and limit the work of UN inspectors.

The big picture: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently presented an updated draft agreement and called on Iran to make a decision on the proposal.

  • Borrell wrote in a Financial Times op-ed last week that after 15 months of negotiations, he has concluded that “the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted."
  • But Borrell added that his draft agreement "represents the best possible deal… decisions need to be taken now… if the deal is rejected, we risk a dangerous nuclear crisis."

What they're saying: The U.S. official said tomorrow's talks won’t be a new round of negotiations, but an attempt to see whether it was possible to do the “fine-tuning” needed to reach an agreement on the basis of the draft.

  • “If Borrell thinks this is necessary to see that we haven’t left any stone unturned, we appreciate it and are ready to do it, but we are entering this with our eyes wide open," the U.S. official said. "We are headed back to Vienna with low expectations but are going to make a good faith effort."
  • The official added that everybody knows what the agreement needs to look like and stressed that in order to get a deal, Iran needs to lift its demands about issues that are outside the 2015 nuclear agreement.
  • The U.S. official stressed that while Iran is advancing its nuclear program during the negotiations, the U.S. is not sitting idly by and continues to put more pressure on Iran by imposing new sanctions.

Go deeper.

3. Kushner: Friedman went behind our backs on Bibi annexation plans

Trump signs an order recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Photo: Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images
Kushner, Netanyahu, Friedman, and other U.S. officials watch as Trump signs an order recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory on March 25, 2019. Photo: Michael Reynolds/Getty Images

Jared Kushner writes in his new book that in early 2020, then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman promised then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Trump administration would support Israel swiftly annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, but didn’t tell the White House about it.

Why it matters: The crisis that broke out over Netanyahu’s surprise annexation announcement was a watershed moment in the relationship between Trump and Netanyahu.

  • It was also a major internal policy struggle within Trump’s inner circle.
  • Over the last year, Friedman has denied stories, including those published on Axios and in my book, “Trump’s Peace,” that he acted on Israel's annexation plans behind the White House's back. Kushner confirms those stories in his book, "Breaking History," out Aug. 23.

Flashback: In a Jan. 28, 2020 speech announcing his peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump said the U.S. would support Israel annexing areas of the West Bank as part of the plan's implementation, but didn’t say when.

  • Immediately after the ceremony, Friedman told reporters that Israel could begin its annexation plans right away. Shortly after that, Netanyahu announced he would pass a resolution in his Cabinet on annexation in five days.
  • Trump and Kushner were caught off guard by both Netanyahu’s announcement and Friedman’s briefing to the press, and made it clear to the two of them that annexation could not happen immediately.

Kushner describes how it went down in his book:

  • “As it turned out Friedman had assured Bibi that he would get the White House to support annexation more immediately. He had not conveyed to me or anyone on my team."
  • Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser adds that he confronted Friedman, who then claimed he had accurately represented Trump’s plan.
  • “Our conversation got heated and I pulled out the plan from the folder on my desk. ‘Where does it say that in here?’, I asked. ‘It doesn’t say that here. You are one of the best lawyers in the world. You know that’s not what we agreed to."

Friedman eventually agreed to withdraw his previous statement and tell Netanyahu he couldn't move forward with annexation.

  • “Behind the scenes, our relationship with the Israeli government had reached its lowest point to date. I felt like I was trying to move the Israelis forward and build partnerships with the broader world while they were stuck on internal politics," Kushner writes.

The other side: In his book, “Sledgehammer,” Friedman downplayed the efforts he made with Netanyahu to push for a swift annexation move and said everything he did was coordinated with Kushner.

  • He portrayed what happened as a misunderstanding between him and Kushner, Netanyahu, and the Israeli prime minister's advisers. Friedman told me this week that he stands by his recollection of events as stated in his memoir.
  • “Jared and I had a misunderstanding on the timing, but not the substance, of the sovereignty deal with Israel," he told me. "We had some heated discussions commensurate with the stress of the moment. In the end, however, we resolved our differences in a manner that best served the interests of both the U.S. and Israel."

🎧 Go deeper: Listen to the "How it Happened: Trump's Big Deal" podcast.

4. Despite U.S. pressure, OPEC+ agrees to only small output increase

Biden and Mohammed bin Salman.
President Biden walks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 16. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

OPEC and its allied producers today agreed to increase oil production in September by another 100,000 barrels a day — a modest increase that is not expected to have a major impact on crude prices.

Why it matters: The increase is less than the White House had expected after President Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia last month.

The big picture: The Biden administration saw today's OPEC+ meeting, led by Saudi Arabia, as crucial in its efforts to lower gas prices.

  • A day earlier, the State Department said it had approved two major arms deals worth a total $5 billion for the sale of air and missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
  • Biden held bilateral meetings last month with Saudi and Emirati leaders and pledged to help them defend themselves against missile and drone attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
  • The $3 billion deal with Saudi Arabia includes the sale of 300 Patriot missiles.
  • The more than $2.2 billion deal with the UAE includes the sale of 96 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile rounds.

5. "Gaps narrowing" between Israel and Lebanon in maritime dispute

U.S. senior adviser for energy security Amos Hochstein meets with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at Baabda Palace in Beirut on Aug. 1.
U.S. senior adviser for energy security Amos Hochstein meets Lebanese leaders on Aug. 1 in Beirut. Photo: Lebanese Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Israeli, Lebanese, and Biden administration officials appeared upbeat after talks this week about the possibility of reaching a deal on the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon.

The big picture: The dispute is focused on a potentially gas-rich, 330-square-mile area of the Mediterranean Sea off of Israel and Lebanon.

  • With a major Israeli gas project in the Mediterranean set to come online this fall, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened war if Lebanon's rights are not preserved.

Driving the news: U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein, who is mediating between the parties, arrived on Sunday in Beirut for another round of talks with Lebanon’s senior military and political leadership.

  • Hochstein held a meeting Monday morning with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the latest Israeli proposal to settle the dispute.

State of play: During the meeting with Hochstein, the three Lebanese leaders rejected Israel’s demand to get one of the potential gas fields in the disputed area in return for compromise on another potential gas field, according to reports in the Lebanese press.

  • Aoun, Mikati, and Berri also refused a proposal for sharing the potential revenue with Israel or holding a joint gas production effort in a part of the disputed area, claiming it was the equivalent of normalization with Israel.
  • Late Monday, Hochstein traveled secretly to Israel for a meeting with Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and the Israeli negotiation team.

What they're saying: Although there are still gaps, Berri and several other senior Lebanese officials expressed optimism about the possibility of reaching a deal.

  • Meanwhile, a U.S. official said the gaps remaining are mostly about the division of different “blocs” in the disputed area, but stressed it is solvable because “nobody wants things to get out of control."

What’s next: Hochstein is expected to return to the region within two weeks to continue the talks, Lebanese and Israeli officials said.

Read more.