Atmosphere in White House ‘not optimistic’ about Iran deal — Israeli official

Visitors impressed by Biden’s handle on issues, as Bennett presents his strategy for stopping Tehran’s efforts to destabilize region and build a nuclear bomb

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden listens during a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office at the White House on August 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by POOL / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
US President Joe Biden listens during a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office at the White House on August 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by POOL / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

WASHINGTON — The atmosphere in the White House is “not optimistic” about returning to a nuclear deal with Iran, said a senior Israeli official after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with US President Joe Biden on Friday.

The official stressed that the fate of the agreement depends on Iran.

Bennett’s government opposes US efforts to return to the Iran nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by the Obama administration and abandoned three years later by Trump. Biden has been seeking a return to the deal, but this has looked increasingly unlikely as Iran has moved further away from its obligations and as a hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, has taken office in Tehran.

During public remarks the two gave in the Oval Office, Biden still clarified that he prefers a diplomatic approach to block Iran’s path to the bomb, namely the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, he said that “other options” would be pursued if those negotiations failed and vowed that the US would ensure Iran “never” attains nuclear weapons.

Later pressed on what was meant by other options, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to elaborate. Israel has been pushing the US to put a “credible military threat” against Iran on the table while negotiating to curb its nuclear efforts.

Biden and his staff surprised their Israeli guests by the attention they gave to the Iranian threat and how important it was to them, the Israeli official said.

During the meeting in the White House, Bennett presented his two-pronged approach to dealing with Iran — confronting its regional activities in a quiet, multi-faceted “gray zone” campaign, and keeping Tehran permanently a year away from nuclear breakout capability.

President Hassan Rouhani, second right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Bennett also presented his view of a Middle Eastern “cold war”, in which Israel is analogous to America, and Iran is a Soviet-like dictatorship, hated by its people and rotten from within.

The official reiterated that Bennett came to the meeting with four goals — creating a direct, personal connection with Biden; sharing his strategy on Iran; making progress on visa waivers for Israeli seeking to enter the US; replenishing Iron Dome missile defense stocks.

All these goals were met, said the official.

He added that Bennett was impressed by Biden’s command of the details, and his personal warmth, something reiterated by Bennett in a subsequent briefing with Israeli reporters.

“It was a wonderful meeting, especially the one-on-one,” he said.  “It was mostly a working meeting. There was a feeling that we’ve known each other for a long time. I found a leader who loves Israel, knows exactly what he wants, and is attentive to our needs.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and US President Joe Biden have coffee in the White House private presidential dining hall on Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (White House/Twitter)

Bennett was also impressed by the knowledge and openness to new ideas from Biden advisors, especially National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Bennett and Biden were able to set “rules of the game” for how their offices work during their terms, the official said. They agreed there would be vigorous direct open dialogue, and that disagreements would be kept quiet.

The name of Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett’s predecessor who had a sometimes acrimonious relationship with Democrat administrations, did not come up at any point in the meetings, said the official.

The subject of reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians did come up in the meetings, according to the official. Israel does not expect any dramatic demands on the issue, and Bennett’s team expressed the government’s opposition to the reopening.

The consulate, which mainly served the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, was officially shut down in 2019 by former US president Donald Trump as part of the administration’s transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem.

Many of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street have continued their same jobs at the same location, though under a newly named Palestinian Affairs Unit formed under the larger umbrella of US relations to Israel, considered a de facto downgrading of ties to the Palestinians that Biden is keen to reverse.

The US consulate on Agron Street in Jerusalem. (CC BY-SA, Magister/Wikimedia)

Bennett is in Washington for the first time since becoming prime minister in June and held a series of meetings with top administration officials. On Wednesday, Bennett met with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Sullivan.

His meeting with Biden on Thursday was pushed back to Friday because of the deadly suicide attack at the Kabul airport, forcing Bennett and his staff to spend Shabbat in Washington before flying back early Sunday morning.

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