By David Brennan On 3/1/21 at 5:51 AM EST
Fresh violence in the Persian Gulf and Syria is ratcheting up regional tensions as the U.S. and Iran remain locked in a stalemate over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.
This weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for last week’s explosion aboard an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman. His accusation came just after Syria reported an Israeli missile attack launched from the annexed Golan Heights at targets around the capital Damascus on Sunday night.
The incidents follow tit-for-tat actions by Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups and U.S. forces in the region over the past month, which threatened to hamstring the multilateral efforts to revive the JCPOA.
The spike in violence comes as Tehran continues to refuse talks with the U.S. over the JCPOA, demanding instead that all sanctions are lifted before any further negotiations.
Netanyahu said on Monday that Thursday night’s attack on the MV Helios Ray vehicle-carrier “was indeed an operation by Iran. That is clear.” Asked whether Israel would retaliate, he replied: “You know my policy. Iran is Israel’s biggest enemy. I am determined to fend it off. We are striking at it all over the region.”
Iran denied the claim, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh telling reporters Monday: “The security of the Persian Gulf is extremely important for Iran.” But Tehran has been implicated in similar attacks in recent years, and international shipping in the strategic waterways off its coast offer Iran easy and high-profile targets for limited escalation and retaliation.
Israel is already staunchly opposed to the revival of the JCPOA, claiming the deal is deeply flawed and will only embolden the regime in Tehran to expand its weapons research programs and use of regional proxy militias. Netanyahu said last week: “With or without an agreement we will do everything so [Iran is not] armed with nuclear weapons.”
But the Biden administration is pushing ahead with its plans to return to the deal despite opposition from regional allies and conservatives in the U.S. The White House and Tehran have both said they want the deal to succeed, but the two sides are stuck in a stalemate over who will take the first step.
Iran has expanded its nuclear program beyond what is allowed under the JCPOA since Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and began applying ever-harsher sanctions on the country.
Iran wants Biden to lift these Trump-era sanctions before it scales back its nuclear activity. But the Biden administration says it will not lift any sanctions until Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA.
The Biden administration has said it is now willing to meet with JCPOA signatories to find a way to resurrect the deal. The White House hopes the JCPOA can become the basis for a “longer and stronger” agreement placing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional militia network; two key concerns among JCPOA critics.
The European Union has also suggested unofficial talks between the parties as a prelude to full negotiations. The EU and the three European signatories of the deal—Germany, France and the U.K.—could serve as referees for a phased return to the deal for both the U.S. and Iran.
But Khatibzadeh said Sunday that it is too early for talks. “In view of the recent stances and measures taken by the United States and the three European countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran believes this is not a good time for holding an unofficial meeting on the accord,” he said in a statement.
“There has been no change in the United States’ stances and behavior, and the Biden administration has not only failed to abandon Trump’s failed policy of maximum pressure, but has also failed to declare its commitment to the implementation of all its obligations under the JCPOA,” the spokesperson added.
“The path forward is quite clear: the U.S. must end its unlawful and unilateral sanctions and return to its JCPOA commitments,” Khatibzadeh said.
This picture taken on February 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai’s Mina Rashid cruise terminal. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty