Axios from Tel Aviv

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September 28, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (1,915 words, 7 minutes) starts with Iran. It also dives into U.S.-Israel talks on technology cooperation, MBS' official new title and Israel's election campaign.
  • We'll be off next week and will return to your inbox on Oct. 12.

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1 big thing: The last "huge obstacle" in Iran nuclear talks

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

Iran's demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency close its investigations into its alleged past undeclared nuclear activity is the last "huge obstacle" to restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a senior European diplomat tells Axios.

Behind the scenes: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi focused his address to the UN General Assembly on the need for guarantees that the U.S. won't abandon the deal again. But in private meetings on the sidelines of the summit, his only demands concerned the IAEA probe, according to a senior European diplomat.

  • That was confirmed by a senior U.S. official who was briefed on Raisi’s meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel.
  • The European official said the Iranians are convinced the U.S. could simply tell the IAEA to make the problem go away, but both IAEA chief Rafael Grossi and the Biden administration are adamant that the agency's concerns must be adequately addressed before the probe can be closed.
  • Those concerns relate to uranium particles found at sites by UN inspectors. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly flagged those sites after Israel's Mossad stole the Iranian nuclear archives.

Behind the scenes: "At midnight on Aug. 15, we thought we had a deal," the European diplomat told Axios, describing a back-and-forth between Iranian and U.S. proposals that had narrowed in on a few technical issues.

  • But as they worked to close those issues, the Iranians for the first time made closing the IAEA investigations a precondition of the deal.
  • “Something happened in Tehran. Maybe the highest authority in Iran decided it doesn’t want a deal without being sure the investigations will be closed," the European diplomat said.

State of play: The European officials who met Raisi and other Iranian officials in New York explained that the investigations will be closed only if Iran provides reasonable explanations about the sites to the IAEA, the diplomat added.

  • The Iranians pushed back, claiming that Israel planted the uranium particles and that the U.S. and European powers could solve the issue politically.
  • "As long as they think [Secretary of State Tony] Blinken can just pick up the phone and tell Grossi to drop it, we won't get a deal," the European diplomat said.

Driving the news: A delegation led by the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, met with Grossi and his team on Monday and Tuesday in Vienna.

  • Grossi said the meeting focused on clarifying the outstanding issues regarding the investigation, tweeting: "A lot of work lies ahead of us."
  • Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told Al-Monitor on Sunday that Iran is ready to provide answers to the IAEA regarding the allegations against it, though he did not elaborate.

What to watch: A deal is unlikely to be announced prior to the U.S. midterm elections, but the European diplomat held out hope for a breakthrough prior to November's IAEA board meeting.

  • Still, the diplomat acknowledged that the Iranians are in no rush and have little regard for any deadlines the Western powers try to impose.

The bottom line: "We have one obstacle, but it is a huge obstacle," the European diplomat said.

2. U.S. and Israel launch high-level tech talks, with an eye on China

US President Joe Biden (L) and Israel's caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid
President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on July 14. Photo: Atef Safadi/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel will launch today a "high-level strategic dialogue on technology cooperation" amid concerns from the Biden administration about Chinese investments in Israel's tech sector and involvement in research at Israeli universities.

Why it matters: The new platform is intended to boost U.S.-Israel civilian technology cooperation, which had decreased in recent years, senior Israeli officials say.

  • The dialogue was envisioned in the Jerusalem Declaration that President Biden signed with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid while visiting Israel in July.
  • Only India, Japan and South Korea have this kind of dialogue with the United States.

State of play: The U.S. has both security and economic concerns about Chinese involvement in the Israeli tech sector. The Trump administration started pressing Israel on this issue, but then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who had worked to strengthen economic ties with China — resisted any significant steps.

  • But with the Biden administration also taking up the issue, the new Israeli government has started considering Chinese investments more through a national security lens.

Driving the news: Today's first session of the technology dialogue will be chaired by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Eyal Hulata. Israeli Minister of Science Orit Farkash-Hacohen will also attend.

  • The dialogue will focus on four fields: pandemic preparedness technology, climate tech, artificial intelligence and cooperation on the use of powerful quantum computers, something Israel hasn’t had access to so far.

Between the lines: As part of the agreement to establish the dialogue, Israel agreed to discuss “trusted tech ecosystems” — a code name for protecting sensitive technology from China.

  • The agreement calls on the countries to "increase coordination on … research security, investment screening, and export controls, as well as on technology investment and protection strategies for critical and emerging technologies."

What they're saying: Hulata said in a briefing that Israel shares the U.S.' concerns about protecting technology. “It is not only an issue of export controls but an issue of preventing abuse of technology by bad actors," he said.

  • Hulata didn’t mention China directly but said that the Biden administration's concerns regarding the protection of technology are an opportunity for Israel to strengthen cooperation with the U.S. government.
  • A senior Israeli official said prior to the meeting that Israel wanted to reach an understanding with the U.S. on the China issue, without imposing limitations that significantly hamper Israel's tech sector.

3. Netanyahu's bloc inches closer to majority

Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With a little over a month to go before the Israeli elections, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu's bloc is inching closer to getting the support it needs to win a majority on Nov. 1.

Why it matters: If Netanyahu's bloc manages to get 61 seats in the Knesset, the former prime minister will likely move ahead with decisions and legislation that would suspend his ongoing corruption trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

  • Netanyahu’s plans for “reforms” in the judicial system could significantly diminish the independence of the criminal prosecution and the supreme court and further erode Israel’s democratic institutions. The former prime minister denies the corruption charges.

State of play: The latest polls show that the gap between Netanyahu and Lapid on the question of who is more fit to be prime minister is the smallest ever. While Netanyahu continues to poll around 45%, Lapid went up from 15% four months ago to 30%.

  • The polls suggest that Netanyahu’s Likud party could win around 32 seats — two more than in the previous elections. Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party could win around 25 seats — eight more than in the previous elections.
  • But when it comes to the blocs, Netanyahu’s potential right-wing coalition has made gains in recent weeks, with most polls showing it would win 60 seats. Some polls show the bloc could get 61.

Between the lines: The polling favoring Netanyahu's bloc isn't a result of the opposition leader's momentum but of an internal breakdown in the Arab Joint List.

  • Balad, a Palestinian nationalist party, left the Joint List earlier this month, tipping the scales in Netanyahu’s favor.

What to watch: Turnout is currently the only important factor in these elections.

  • Polls show that the turnout among Arab voters could be low, which would give an advantage to Netanyahu. But this could change with the split in the Joint List.
  • Among Jewish voters, there is also fatigue and indifference toward the elections (it will be Israel's fifth election within four years). This is exacerbated by the Jewish High Holidays season.
  • All of this makes the last two weeks of October more important. Only then will the election campaign really get underway and the trends in public opinion start to crystalize.

4. MBS formally named Saudi prime minister

Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images
Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's King Salman issued a royal decree yesterday appointing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as prime minister.

Why it matters: The decree formalizes MBS’ status as the Saudi head of government after he acted as the de facto prime minister for several years.

  • Tuesday's move also continues to lay the ground for a possible succession process in Saudi Arabia.

Driving the news: The decree was published by the Saudi official news agency as part of a broader announcement on a reshuffling in the Saudi government.

  • Prince Khalid bin Salman, the king’s son and MBS’ younger brother, was promoted to defense minister.
  • Khalid was the Saudi ambassador to Washington when Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in 2018. He left the post several months later in the aftermath of the killing and was appointed deputy minister of defense.

Worth noting: The Saudi king's announcement comes several days after a visit by three of Biden’s senior advisers to Jeddah for a meeting with the crown prince.

  • The advisers included Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East; Amos Hochstein, the special presidential coordinator for international energy security and infrastructure investment; and Tim Lenderking, special envoy for Yemen, according to a National Security Council spokesperson.
  • “The visit addressed ways of building on President Biden’s participation in the historic Jeddah Summit last July, including energy security, bolstering the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, and ending the conflict in Yemen," the spokesperson added.

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5. Iran protests enter 12th day

Protesters in Iran rally to demand justice for Mahsa Amini. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Protesters in Iran rally to demand justice for Mahsa Amini. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The protests in Iran over Mahsa Amini's death while in police custody have entered their 12th day.

Why it matters: It's the most serious wave of protests since demonstrations over the country's economic situation rocked the country in 2019. Unlike the 2019 demonstrations, however, the recent protests are focused on civil liberties, posing an even greater threat to the Iranian government.

Driving the news: Amini, 22, died earlier this month after being arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating a religious law requiring women to wear a headscarf.

  • Police claimed Amini was not mistreated and that she died of a heart attack. Her father, Amjad Amini, told BBC Persian that she had no preexisting conditions.
  • Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has ordered an investigation and said at a Cabinet meeting today that the protests are a result of an attempt by Iran’s enemies to sow discord in the Iranian society because they feel threatened by the Islamic Republic’s strength.

State of play: It's hard to assess the breadth of the protests mainly because the Iranian government has taken steps to block social media and decrease internet access.

  • According to assessments by Iran watchers who analyze videos from the demonstrations, several thousand people participated in the first few days of the protests, with the numbers declining over the last few days. There have also been at least two large pro-government protests in recent days.

About 40 protesters have been killed since the demonstrations began, Iranian state media reported, though Iranian human rights groups say the number is much higher.

  • Several political activists, 20 journalists and hundreds of protesters have been arrested by the Iranian security forces, according to press reports.
  • Although the crackdown by the security forces led to a decrease in the number of protesters in the streets, there have been in recent days other types of civil disobedience, including Iranian civilians shouting anti-regime slogans from balconies and windows of their apartments.

Behind the scenes: During meetings in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week, several European leaders raised Amini’s case with Raisi.

  • A European diplomat told me that this issue made Raisi lose his temper and start a monologue about police brutality in France and the way Muslims are treated in Europe.