Amid spiraling tensions, Israel and US to convene strategic group on Iran

Second meeting of teams headed by national security advisers comes after Israel accused of attack on Iran nuclear facility, resumption of talks between Tehran and Washington

Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)
Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

Israeli and Biden administration officials will hold the second session of a bilateral strategic group on Tuesday aimed at collaborating in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Axios reported Monday.

The teams, led by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, will meet virtually on Tuesday, the report said, citing three Israeli officials, They held their first meeting in March.

The meeting comes following revelations of an apparent attack on the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility, which Tehran has blamed on Israel, and amid indications the Israel-Iran conflict is increasingly being waged at sea, marking a change in the conflict that previously took place primarily via airstrikes, cyberattacks, alleged espionage activities, and on land.

It also comes amid ongoing talks in Vienna regarding a return to the 2015 nuclear deal by both Iran and the United States, a move that is staunchly opposed by Israel, particularly by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Axios, a key aim of the working group is to prevent surprises between the two allies, noting that it was not clear how much coordination or warnings, if any, were given before the alleged Natanz strike or the naval operations.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

A similar working group convened during former US president Barack Obama’s first term in office. Its existence was not public, and the sides used the meetings to share intelligence on Iran. However, the group ceased meeting as the Obama administration ramped up efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Netanyahu fiercely and publicly opposed that deal — which was signed in 2015, when Biden was vice president — contributing to a famously acrimonious relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.

Seeking to avoid public spats this time around, Washington offered to reestablish the working group and Israel, after deliberation by Netanyahu with other senior officials, agreed to it.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote to the UN Security Council to protest the strike at Natanz, calling it “nuclear terrorism and a war crime.”

Netanyahu met Monday with visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at his office in Jerusalem, using the opportunity to again voice his concerns about Iran.

“As you know, the US-Israel defense partnership has continually expanded over successive administrations and our cooperation is crucial in dealing with the many threats confronting both the United States and Israel,” Netanyahu said at a press conference alongside Austin.

“In the Middle East, there is no threat more dangerous, serious and pressing than that posed by the fanatical regime in Iran,” said Netanyahu, citing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, arming of terror groups, and calls for Israel’s annihilation.

“Mr. Secretary, we both know the horrors of war. We both understand the importance of preventing war. And we both agree that Iran must never possess nuclear weapons. My policy as prime minister of Israel is clear — I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.

“Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism,” the prime minister added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Austin, speaking after Netanyahu, refrained from explicitly mentioning Iran but said he had decided to travel to Israel to “express our desire for earnest consultations with Israel, as we address shared challenges in the region.”

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has taken a hands-off approach, neither praising nor condemning the Natanz attack. The White House said the US “had no involvement” and had “nothing to add to speculation about the causes.”

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