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Political Implications of the latest incident at Natanz

Apr 16, 2021 | AIJAC staff

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Update from AIJAC

 

04/21 #02

 

On April 11, there was an incident which caused a blackout at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Initially said to be possibly a cyberattack, and later reported as possibly a bomb blast, the incident has been widely attributed to Israel, and is also alleged to have done major damage to the thousands of centrifuges Iran uses to enrich uranium there. This Update deals with what is known about the incident and more importantly, how it may affect current events in the Middle East, where Israel and Iran are in an intense situation involving attacks at sea and other clashes, while the US is currently trying to negotiate with Iran on a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal signed in 2015.

We lead with an excellent detailed backgrounder from the US-based think tank JINSA, the Jewish Institute for the National Security of America. The backgrounder does an excellent job of summarising what is known about the Natanz incident – including estimates of how much it has affected Iran’s enrichment capabilities –  the history of similar incidents there, and the wider background in terms of the Iran-Israel conflict and the JCPOA negotiations. It also offers some good policy advice for the US Biden Administration on how to potentially exploit Iran’s apparent nuclear setback in the current negotiations. For everything you need to know about this whole incident and its geopolitical implications,  CLICK HERE.

Next up are some views on the significance of the incident at Natanz from Israeli security experts interviewed by defence reporter Yaakov Lappin. Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall explores the likelihood of retaliation from Iran and how this incident might affect the nuclear talks currently underway in Vienna. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom looks at the how this alleged attack, and the larger Israeli conflict with Iran, are affecting Israeli relations with the Biden Administration. For both their insights,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, David Pollack of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looks in more depth at the relationship between this alleged attack and the differing US and Israeli approaches to Iran. He notes three things about the attack and its aftermath – its technical effectiveness; the apparent American acquiescence to it, or at least lack of criticism; and the restrained Iranian response. From these, he discerns a potential US-Israeli effort to play  “good cop/bad cop” with Iran, and sees these efforts as giving nuclear negotiations both more time and a better chance of success. For Pollack’s important analysis in full,  CLICK HERE.

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Explosion at Iranian Nuclear Plant Buys U.S. Time and Leverage

Blaise Misztal, Jonathan Ruhe, Ari Cicurel 

NatSec Brief – April 2021
JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy

On April 11, what appears to be an explosion at Iran’s main Natanz nuclear facility, widely suspected to be the result of Israeli sabotage, set back recent advances in Tehran’s ability to enrich uranium quickly and on a large scale – and with it, to pressure Washington to return to the JCPOA. The Biden Administration should embrace the additional leverage and time bought by this action to pursue a more effective strategy for preventing a nuclear Iran, including by publicly endorsing Israel’s freedom of action and working with it to develop further credible military options against Tehran’s nuclear aggression.

 


A map of the known nuclear sites in Iranian, including the main enrichment plant at Natanz, where last week’s incident occurred. (Photo:  Wikimedia Commons). 

What Happened?

  • On Saturday, April 10, Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, Tehran announced it would begin enriching uranium with a new, more efficient type of centrifuge, as well as onduct R&D on even more advanced centrifuges.
  • The next day, Iran’s primary uranium enrichment facility at Natanz suffered a major power failure that appears to have been caused by an explosion.
  • Despite official Iranian claims that the facility suffered only a fire and a “possible minor explosion,” other reports suggest much greater damage, including an explosion that “completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium.”
  • By some accounts, the damage extended beyond the power system to include structural damage. An Iranian official visiting the site reportedly “fell 7 meters (23 feet) through an open ventilation shaft covered by aluminum debris, breaking both his legs and hurting his head.”
  • The Biden Administration has said it was not involved, and Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the attack and vowed retribution.
    • Although Israel has officially remained silent about the incident, Israeli media have unusually cited unnamed intelligence sources who claim Mossad was behind the attack.
    • It is not clear how the explosion might have been caused. Some Israeli commentators have suggested a cyberattack, while Iranian sources claim that, because Natanz is not connected to outside networks, a physical attack had to be involved.
    • Sunday’s events appear to be part of an intensifying shadow war between Israel and Iran over the last nine months, including previous Israeli operations against Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian proxies and facilities in Syria, and Iranian ships.

Why Does it Matter?

  • The explosion will slow the pace of Iran’s recent breakneck nuclear advances, buying time and leverage for the United States, if it chooses to use it, in its effort to prevent a nuclear Iran.
  • Though the extent of the damage remains unclear, according to U.S. intelligence officials it could take Tehran nine months to restore the lost enrichment output at Natanz.
  • Natanz is the larger of Iran’s two known enrichment facilities (the other being the fortified Fordow plant). It consists of two large underground rooms (“production halls”) and an aboveground R&D facility.
  • Compared to Fordow’s 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges, Natanz houses: 5,060 actively enriching IR-1 in Hall A; and At least 860 actively enriching, advanced centrifuges (IR-2m/-4/-5/-6) in Hall B.
  • If Iranian claims that its IR-1 centrifuges were impacted are true, that would mean the attack targeted Hall A.
  • This could have disrupted the operation of up to 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges. How long t takes for Iran to resume operations depends on the extent and nature of the damage.
    • Hall A represents up to 57 percent of Iran’s total current enrichment capacity, roughly 100 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium produced per month.
    • At a minimum the plant’s power supply has to be replaced and part of the hall repaired, if reports of structural damage are accurate.
    • However, it is possible that the explosion also damaged the centrifuges installed there, either directly or through a power surge that might have affected the delicate machines’ electronics and/or mechanics.
    • Replacing damaged centrifuges might take longer, though it will depend on what type of centrifuge Iran chooses to install.
    • Iran has roughly 11,000 IR-1 centrifuges in storage that it could relatively quickly put into place. However, Iran has threatened it will replace any damaged IR-1 centrifuges with more advanced models. This might lead to a longer delay, but ultimately allow Iran to resume enrichment at a much faster rate than before.
  • Since September 2019, Iran has sought to build leverage against the United States by significantly expanding its enrichment capacity (see chart below). The new centrifuge advances unveiled on April 10 were the latest such nuclear escalation.
    • Since September 2019 Iran has steadily expanded its R&D on IR-2m, IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges, including testing each of them with uranium in large-scale, 164-174-machine cascades.
    • On April 10, 2021, Iran announced it would begin R&D on new IR-9 machines, which it claims are 50 times more efficient than the IR-1.
    • Since September 2020, Iran has progressively transferred these cascades and associated infrastructure to Natanz, and installed more IR-2m cascades, for enrichment.
    • Prior to April 10 at Natanz, Iran had 696 actively enriching IR-2m in four cascades, plus 174 actively enriching IR-4 in one cascade, with two additional IR-2m cascades installed but not yet enriching.
    • On April 10, Iran announced it was beginning enrichment with an additional 164 IR-6 machines in one cascade.
    • In cascades, these centrifuges are estimated to be roughly 4-7 times as efficient as the IR-1, which has always been Iran’s enrichment workhorse.
  • These nuclear escalations demonstrate how a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would fail to return Iran’s nuclear program to pre-2018 levels or prevent its eventual acquisition of a nuclear capability.
    • Returning to the JCPOA would not reverse Tehran’s invaluable knowledge, gained over the past year-plus, about operating these machines in large-scale cascades.
    • Moreover, returning to the JCPOA would permit Iran to conduct further, and gradually expanding, R&D on advanced centrifuges.
  • This latest apparent attack on Natanz came as Biden Administration officials had begun indirect talks with Iran about rejoining the JCPOA, spurred in part by concern that Iran could “break out” (enrich enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon) in as little as three months.
    • Despite criticism of the JCPOA, the Biden Administration appears to consider returning to the deal the best means by which to stop Iran’s nuclear advances.
  • Meanwhile, the damage to Natanz demonstrates that, while the JCPOA cannot prevent a nuclear Iran, the tactical application of force can disrupt Tehran’s nuclear escalations and buy time to pursue a more effective strategy for preventing a nuclear Iran.
    • Israel’s concerted campaign of sabotage and covert action, including with U.S. support and involvement,  has repeatedly delayed Iran’s nuclear program over the last decade.
    • With at least three incidents over the last nine months, Israel’s pace of operations – and its ability to operate in Iran – seems to be accelerating.
      • Last July’s explosion at an adjacent Natanz facility is estimated to have delayed Tehran’s ability to mass-produce advanced centrifuges by 1-2 years.
      • The November 2020 killing of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist might also delay Iranian attempts to research nuclear weapons design.
      • The most recent explosion at the Natanz production hall disrupts Iranian enrichment and could potentially temporarily reduce the number of centrifuges available for enrichment.
    • Iran and Israel are locked in a broader shadow war that extends beyond the nuclear program to include attacks in Syria and at sea.


Gun emplacements around the heavily guard uranian enrichment plant at Natanz. (Photo:  Wikimedia Commons). 

  • Proponents of the JCPOA might argue that this attack makes a U.S. return to the deal, and preemptive concessions to Iran, more urgent. However, the obverse is now certainly true: Washington now has additional time and leverage, reducing the need to for quick U.S. reentry into the flawed JCPOA.
    • Supporters of the deal could argue that, if Iran uses the attack as an excuse to refuse negotiating with the United States, Washington will have to offer greater sanctions relief sooner to entice Tehran back to the table.
    • However, with its nuclear program damaged, its breakout clock paused, and the credible threat of further Israeli action, it is Tehran that should feel pressured to make concessions, not Washington.
  • Tehran might attempt to use Israeli action to drive a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem. Indeed, this put the Biden administration in a delicate spot. There is no reason that Israeli action should cause friction between the two partners.
    • It is not clear at this time if Israel provided advance notice to or consulted the Biden administration at any phase of the Natanz operation.
    • Iran will portray the Natanz incident as an Israeli attempt to disrupt Washington’s nuclear diplomacy and embarrass American officials.
    • The explosion occurred a week after Washington and Tehran began indirect talks in Vienna, and on the same day that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Israel.
    • American officials, if not previously alerted, might be understandably irritated by this timing.
    • However, given the significant time required to plan and execute such an operation, it does not appear that Jerusalem deliberately scheduled the Natanz attack to coincide with the Vienna talks or Austin’s visit, which was announced just five days in advance.

What Can the United States Do Next?

  • The Biden administration should utilize the time and leverage provided by the recent string of setbacks to Iran’s nuclear program.
    • American officials should continue to refuse to lift any sanctions on Iran before it stops, and reverses, its nuclear escalation.
    • The Biden administration should underscore publicly that diplomacy with Iran does not rule out military or other options, including closer cooperation with Middle East allies, to reverse Tehran’s nuclear progress.
    • This time should be used to build a credible U.S. military option against Iran’s nuclear program, including by reversing the drawdown of relevant offensive and defensive assets from the Middle East.
  • President Biden should publicly endorse Israel’s freedom of action to defend itself against Iranian nuclear threats by all means necessary and offer Israel further military assistance. He should also recognize, even if privately, that such Israel’s efforts against Iran serve U.S. interests as well.
  • American officials should warn that any violence directly against Israel from Iran or its proxies would lead to the immediate suspension of negotiations.

Blaise Misztal is Vice President for Policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, while Jonathan Ruhe is Director of Foreign Policy and Ari Cicurel is Senior Policy Analyst at the same organisation.


Israeli strategic observers: ‘It appears as if a lot of Iranian work in Natanz went down the drain’

 

Nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran seem to be triggering recent events involving reported strikes on Iranian targets; according to one assessment, the regime is being exposed as unable to defend its critical assets but will try to retaliate when it can.

 

BY YAAKOV LAPPIN

JNS.org, April 12, 2021

Threats by Iran to retaliate against what it said was an Israeli sabotage attack on its Natanz nuclear site on April 11 and the reported attack on an Iranian command ship in the Red Sea on April 6 should be taken seriously, observers in Israel say, but they also indicate the distress that the Iranian regime is feeling as it absorbs one blow after another.

Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism and the Middle East, and a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS on Monday that negotiations between the United States and Iran to return the Islamic Republic to the nuclear agreement is the trigger for many recent events.

“This isn’t the first time that centrifuges in Natanz have crashed in one way or another. I’m not sure how many cascades [which hold uranium enrichment centrifuges in place] were destroyed there, and it is not clear what happened, but when a cascade breaks, this represents years of work that go down the drain,” said Segall.

On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran had begun testing its IR-9 centrifuges, which enrich uranium 50 times faster than first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. On the same day, Iran said that 164 IR-6 centrifuges, which enrich uranium 10 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges, had been launched at Natanz. The 2015 nuclear deal restricts Iran to the IR-1 type only.

On Sunday, Natanz experienced a mysterious power blackout following a reported blast. The New York Times reported on Monday that the incident set back production at the site for at least nine months.


Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: The Iranian regime “has been exposed” by the recent attacks on its nuclear program (Photo: JCPA screengrab)

“The IR-9 centrifuges really cut down the enrichment time,” said Segall. “It reduces what takes days to do into hours. A power cut without back-up power can cause serious damage if the cascades leave their position.”

‘The Iranian regime has been exposed’

While some have claimed that the latest incident can strengthen America’s hand in talks by denting Iran’s threat to enrich uranium to the 20 percent level in greater quantities and in less time, Segall was skeptical of that argument.

Such incidents place the regime in a problem. Segall said social-media messages by Iranians have begun mocking the regime for its claims of being the strongest military in the region with a large missile program, but is unable to defend its most critical assets—whether they are the Natanz nuclear site, nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh or the late commander of the Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

“The regime has been exposed,” he said.

“As it continues to absorb attacks, there is a growing erosion in its perception by the Iranian people, and certainly, by the Iranian diaspora. Both of [these groups] were also highly critical of Iran’s agreement with China, viewing it as a Chinese takeover of Iran’s gas and oil infrastructure,” he added.

But the Islamic Republic already has several previous reasons to take “revenge,” noted Segall, including the reported assassination of Fakhrizadeh last November or the January 2020 U.S. drone-strike assassination of Soleimani, seen by many as the second most powerful man in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So far, there have been no “mega responses” by Iran to past incidents, but rather “more of the same,” said Segall.

“They want to respond. They wanted to retaliate after Soleimani and after Fakhrizadeh. They don’t need to wait for more reasons. They’re trying all of the time. If they can, they’ll do it,” he said.

On Monday, the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence agencies announced in a joint statement that Iranian intelligence elements were attempting to lure Israelis on social-media sites to meetings abroad that could lead to kidnappings or attacks against them.

The Israeli intelligence agencies said the pattern was one also used by Iran against dissidents in Europe.

The bottom line for Iranians: ‘All sanctions to be removed’

Meanwhile, at the nuclear talks in Vienna, Washington has so far displayed a fairly determined stance in talks. The American delegation is headed by Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy to Iran. But Iran, for its part, has been “highly determined” in its insistence that all sanctions be lifted before it reverses its nuclear steps.

Segall said he observed a well-organized division of labor in the Iranian government, with the foreign ministry reflecting the firm position of Khamenei, and President Hassan Rouhani occasionally displaying a more optimistic tone regarding the possible outcome of negotiations.

“The bottom line of all of the Iranians involved in this is that all sanctions have to be removed, even those linked to non-nuclear issues such as terrorism and human rights,” said Segall.

“Verification is very important for the Iranian perspective—first, Iran wants to verify that sanctions have been lifted, and only then would it reverse its violations of the nuclear deal, including the installation of IR-9 advanced centrifuges.”

Segall stressed in that six weeks, Iran is scheduled to cease sharing videotape footage of its nuclear sites with the International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog—a move that comes after Iran ended live video feeds as part of its ever-escalating nuclear steps to place pressure in negotiations.

Segall said he remains disturbed by the unknown aspects of Iran’s nuclear program.

“They have proven in the past that the nuclear program is spread out in hidden sites,” said Segall, raising the question of whether there are additional sites that are enriching uranium, rather than Natanz that is in the spotlight.

“I think the Iranians will continue in their efforts, and they will seek to put a wedge between Israel, the United States and Europe. They will say that they want to reach an agreement, that they came to Vienna despite the pandemic restrictions, and that the U.S., Europe, China and Russia want a deal while Israel does not,” he assessed.

‘A change in strategy has occurred’  

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said that Israel’s reported campaign against Iran can be divided into two phases: before and after the American elections.


Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom, senior research associate at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies: Since the US election, “a change in the American strategy occurred, and Israel responded to this.” (Photo: INSS). 

“The sea campaign started long before the U.S. elections,” Brom, who served as former director of the Strategic Planning Division in the Planning Branch of the General Staff, told JNS. “The Iranian responses were expected. They usually retaliate even if their responses come late and even if the responses are small in proportion to the incidents because of their weakness. The sea campaign is all part of the struggle against Hezbollah and the Iranian presence in Syria.”

The campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, however, is a separate issue, even though it is related to the regional shadow war, and even though both campaigns can influence one another, he stated.

“After the U.S. elections, a change in the American strategy occurred, and Israel responded to this. A new element has been added. This presents an open question: To what extent were the reported actions by Israel since the U.S. elections designed to undermine U.S. plans to negotiate with Iran on a return to the nuclear program, in addition to the ongoing campaign against Iran?” he asked.

The reported sabotage attack in Natanz—whether it was conducted via cyber warfare or an explosives attack—is part of the long-standing campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, he said, a campaign that reportedly includes the assassination of Fakhrizadeh and the July blast at Natanz. “But the latest incident happened after a change of U.S. policy, so the question is: Was this also part of an effort to trip up American plans?”

U.S. President Joe Biden, for his part, is not speaking publicly on the latest Iran-related incidents, making it difficult to know his position, said Brom.

“Based on my knowledge of this administration, I tend to believe that the more dominant approach is opposition to Israeli activities” against Iran at this stage, said Brom, before adding “whether this is the view that is in control, I can’t determine.”


Bibi “Natanzyahu” Plays Bad Cop on Iran

 

by David Pollock

Newslooks, Apr 14, 2021


Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu holds up a piece of an Iranian drone shot down over Israel at the Munich Security Conference in 2018 (Photo: Attribution: Preiss/ MSC, Creative Commons licence)

This week witnessed three big surprises in the ongoing not-so-shadow war between Israel and Iran. First, the remarkable technical success of a sabotage operation, almost certainly staged by Israel, against Iran’s heavily guarded uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Second, more surprising, the apparent American acceptance of this operation, even as the U.S. proclaims that “negotiations are the only way forward.” And third, most surprising of all, Iran’s relatively restrained response to the first two surprises—at least as of this writing.

Taken together, these three major new twists indicate that the U.S. and Israel are now successfully playing the classic “good cop/bad cop” routine in confrontation with Iran. To be sure, we may well see some further, perhaps less pleasant twists to this story in the months ahead. For now, however, the odds have abruptly tilted against Tehran, as a quick look at each of these three new developments will demonstrate.

On the Natanz sabotage operation itself, while many details remain murky, suffice it to quote some relevant Iranian officials. The chairman of Iran’s Majles (parliament) committee on energy, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, publicly acknowledged that, “from a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful.” Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said that “the explosion inside the bunker removed the cover from a hole so big that he fell into it when trying to examine the damage, injuring his head, back, leg, and arm”—and released a picture from his hospital bed to prove it. And the chief of the Majles research center, Alireza Zakani, asserted on Iranian state television that “several thousand centrifuges [were] damaged or destroyed” in this operation that he blamed on Israel.

Similarly, on the Israeli side, while no one has officially taken responsibility for this incident, the top unofficial (and formerly official) experts are generally impressed with it. Even Amos Harel, a leading security affairs journalist who remains relentlessly and bitterly critical of Netanyahu, concedes in a Haaretz piece published today that Israeli covert action against Iran’s nuclear program has been “effective.” Former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland told local television this week that, while two decades ago Israel assessed that Iran would have acquired nuclear weapons by around 2005, today it still lacks that capability—“and not because Iran hasn’t tried.”

This brings us to the second surprise: the American reaction to this incident, or the conspicuous lack thereof. Until just now, while it has been clear that the U.S. and Israel were engaged in close consultations about Iran, it has been equally clear that they continued to differ regarding the Biden Administration’s evident desire to return to the JCPOA nuclear deal. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki was also quick to declare that the U.S. was “not involved” in the latest Natanz operation. As a result, some supposed that the U.S. would adopt a negative posture toward it, and possibly even toward Israeli policy more broadly.

But that is precisely what has not occurred. Instead, the day after Natanz, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met online once more with his Israeli counterpart, and then issued this statement: “Mr. Sullivan reaffirmed the Biden-Harris administration’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to ensuring that Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon.” Further, in an unusually personal and complimentary concluding sentence, “Mr. Sullivan warmly welcomed his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to visit Washington before the end of this month for follow-up consultations.” The word Natanz, or anything like it, is highly conspicuous by its absence from this announcement.

What accounts for this American acquiescence to Israel’s latest covert operation against Iran? The answer takes us back about a decade to the Stuxnet cyber sabotage of Natanz, which the Obama Administration reportedly not only approved but also actually participated in, alongside Israel. The idea then, as now, is to strengthen the U.S. hand in nuclear negotiations with Tehran, while avoiding a dangerously full-fledged overt military campaign against it. This time, however, it seems so far that the U.S. and Israel have learned this lesson: it would be better for both to avoid a public quarrel over the terms of any new (or renewed) nuclear deal with Iran.


US officials such as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have so far shown no tendency to criticise Israel’s alleged attacks, including the incident at Natanz (Photo Wikimedia Commons.)

That leads, finally, to the third in this quick string of surprises: Iran’s provocative yet limited response to Natanz, which suggests that a deal of some sort is still in the cards. Iran first announced some new conditions for negotiations—but not a refusal to negotiate. Then it announced an increase in uranium enrichment, on the pretense of medical needs, from 20 to 60 percent—but not a military retaliation. And even that increase, notwithstanding the fascination it holds for some foreign observers, would do little more to shorten the time needed for a test explosion, and almost nothing to shorten the time required for Iran to obtain a deliverable nuclear weapon. That lead time is also one which the new Natanz operation almost certainly lengthened considerably.

In short, Israel has just succeeded in giving the U.S. and others more time to negotiate an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran, and under less pressure. All of this still leaves open the final contours of such a deal, and the continuing grave challenge of Iran’s other, non-nuclear threats to the region and beyond. And Iran might have some surprises of its own up its sleeve. But this week’s three surprises suggest that the common interests of the U.S., Israel, and Iran’s Arab neighbors may have a somewhat better chance than before to prevail in the end.

David Pollock is the Bernstein Fellow at The Washington Institute and coauthor of its recent report “Asset Test 2021: How the U.S. Can Keep Benefiting from Its Alliance with Israel.” This article was originally published on the Newslooks website.

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