Conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is “about to flare again” with President Joe Biden’s July trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, the New York Times said Friday.

In a piece by staff in Washington and Mossad expert Ronen Bergman in Israel, the Times highlighted Iran’s construction of “a vast tunnel network” just south of its Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

With year-long talks in Vienna to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on hold since March, the paper suggested that “high on the agenda” for Biden’s trip would be “the question of taking more extreme measures to stop Iran, as the United States and Israel have attempted before.” Diplomatic efforts to “reimpose limits on Iran’s nuclear actions appear all but dead,” the Times argued.

The purpose of the tunnels was, however, unclear. US officials told the Times that the new underground facility was to replace a centrifuge assembly plant that the Times – apparently referring to a fire at Natanz in July 2020 ­– said “Israel blew up in April 2020 [sic], in a particularly sophisticated attack.”

US officials also told the Times Iran was probably engaged in a brinkmanship they believed to influence the nuclear talks. As well as expanding levels of uranium enrichment and restricting the access of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, Tehran sought “new pressure points, including the excavation of the mountain plant near Natanz.”

The Times reported Kenneth McKenzie, who stepped down in April as commander of US Central Command covering the Middle East, also suggesting Iran sought leverage. “They like the idea of hanging the nuclear program over us because it produces a response,” he said.

A photo released by Iran showing different types of uranium enriching centrifuges. April 10, 2021

McKenzie argued that the nuclear program was not the main issue. The real “crown jewels” for Iran were ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones – where he suggested it had “made huge strides in the last five to seven years.”

‘Relentless effort for a bomb’

Israeli officials gave the New York Times a different take. For them, the paper said, the Natanz tunnels were “more evidence of a relentless Iranian effort to pursue a bomb capability” and justified Israel’s “accelerated attacks on the nuclear program and the scientists and engineers behind both Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.”

Among recent attacks on Iranian facilities was one on the Karaj manufacturing workshop in June 2021, which Tehran blamed on Israel. The strike soured Iran’s relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency and led it to switch manufacturing to existing space at Natanz.

While the killing of Iranian scientists attributed to Israel goes back to 2010, there have been suggestions that Israeli intelligence recently poisoned two more.

The freeze in talks to revive the JCPOA – which according to some reports boil down to the US listing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ – alarm many in Europe also concerned over Biden’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia after initially in office taking distance from Riyadh over ‘human rights’ and its role in the Yemen war.

‘Time for decision is now’

While EU efforts to revive the Vienna nuclear talks over the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), have failed to bridge the US-Iran divide, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell told the United Nations Security Council Thursday of his “permanent contact with all the parties to try arrange a return to the JCPOA and ensure its full implementation.”

Insisting that the “basic elements and terms to do this are known and on the table,” Borrell said “the time for decision is now.”

In a separate part of his speech referring to countries buying Russian exports, Borrell reiterated the EU’s opposition to ‘secondary’ sanctions – punitive measures against third parties. Ironically, the US Thursday took such measures against Chinese and Emirati firms over Iranian petrochemical exports. Hamad Al Kaabi, the United Arab Emirati envoy to the IAEA, said Friday he hoped Iran would work with the IAEA to reassure “the international community” over its nuclear program.

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