Bennett: Biden notified me last month of decision to keep Iran Guards on terror list

Official tells ToI Biden asked Bennett during April call not to publicize decision, as US fears it’ll complicate effort to restore nuke deal; PM only did so after decision leaked

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in the capital Tehran, on September 22, 2018. (Stringer/AFP)
Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in the capital Tehran, on September 22, 2018. (Stringer/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett revealed Tuesday that US President Joe Biden updated him last month on his final decision to keep Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.

Biden notified Bennett of the decision during the last phone call the two held in April, the premier said in a statement from his office.

An official familiar with the matter confirmed Bennett’s account to The Times of Israel, saying Biden had asked the prime minister not to publicize his decision, as Washington still hopes to reach an agreement with Iran on a joint return to compliance with the multilateral nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The Biden administration feared that publicizing its decision to refuse Iran’s demand to delist the IRGC would further complicate talks in Vienna to restore the JCPOA, which have reached a dead-end over the issue.

Bennett only issued his statement after POLITICO, published a report on Tuesday citing a senior Western official who confirmed that Biden had made a final decision on the matter. Another source familiar with the matter told the news site that Biden told Bennett during the April 24 phone call that the window for Iranian concessions had closed.

But Bennett was careful not to violate Biden’s request for discretion. In the Israeli readout of the call, Bennett said “I am sure that President Biden, who is a true friend of Israel and cares about its security will not remove the Revolutionary Guards from the [State Department’s] list of [Foreign] Terrorist Organizations.”

The official familiar with the matter who spoke with The Times of Israel said the Israeli prime minister also coordinated his Tuesday response with the White House ahead of time.

US President Joe Biden, right, meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, August 27, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

“I laud the US administration, and first and foremost my friend, President Joe Biden, on his intention to leave the Revolutionary Guards where they belong — on the terror list,” Bennett said Tuesday. “President Biden is a true friend of Israel who is concerned with its security and continued fortitude.”

He added that the IRGC is “the world’s largest terror organization, involved in directing and executing deadly terror attacks and destabilizing the Middle East”

Biden’s decision is thus “correct, moral and just,” he said.

Over the past month, US officials have hinted at the position confirmed by Bennett on Tuesday.

“If Iran wants sanctions lifting that goes beyond the JCPOA, they’ll need to address concerns of ours that go beyond the JCPOA,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a May 5 briefing when asked about the Revolutionary Guards’ delisting. “They will need to negotiate those issues in good faith with reciprocity.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

As Iran has not expressed a willingness to budge on non-nuclear-related issues, Price’s remarks already then appeared to put to bed the possibility of a unilateral delisting by Washington, even if it meant coaxing Tehran back into compliance with the JCPOA.

“If they do not want to use these talks to resolve other bilateral issues, then we are confident we can very quickly reach an understanding on the JCPOA and begin to reimplement the deal itself,” Price told reporters.

The Biden administration has sought to restore the JCPOA, which was signed in 2015. Former president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and began implementing a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, which was welcomed by Israel. Tehran responded by gradually violating the terms of the deal, which offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Talks have hit a standstill since April over the IRGC demand.

Israel launched a public campaign against the move, warning against rewarding the group behind the deaths of thousands of American citizens. Supporters of the delisting say it is a pill worth swallowing to ensure a revival of the JCPOA given that it would be largely symbolic and significant economic sanctions against the IRGC would remain.

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