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Chief of staff heads to Washington on Saturday night

Bennett said to ramp up engagement with US over its planned return to Iran deal

New PM reportedly ends predecessor’s ban on discussing details of accord with Washington; top former defense officials said to warn emerging agreement could be worse than 2015 deal

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset on June 13, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset on June 13, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is hoping to use the coming weeks, ahead of the inauguration of a new Iranian president, to hold talks with Washington in order to positively influence the expected US return to the nuclear deal with Iran, Channel 13 news reported Friday.

The report said Bennett has removed a ban by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Israeli officials discussing the details of the emerging renewed deal between the US and Iran.

Netanyahu had instructed security officials not to hold talks on the details of the deal with American officials, in an apparent effort to distance Israel from it.

Meanwhile a report in Haaretz Friday said Bennett has been warned by three former top defense officials that the emerging deal could be worse than the 2015 version. In a missive circulated in the government, the officials claim they have received “reliable and worrying information” that the US is “willing to accept a reduced accord that will see most of the sanctions set by the Trump administration since 2018 removed. In return, Iran will roll back only some of the steps it has taken since 2019 to promote its nuclear program.”

The missive by former Military Intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, and former top officials in the Israel Atomic Energy Commission claims Washington is willing to accept only partial limitations on Iran’s increased enrichment capacity and reduced UN inspections.

They say the US will likely rebuff criticism by asserting it will deal with such issues as part of a broader, improved accord that will be negotiated down the line, but express doubts that such a deal is feasible.

“Iran will be able to advance covertly and significantly reduce the time required to reach a nuclear arsenal,” they argue.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, 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 AFP)

In a speech just before being sworn in as prime minister on Sunday, Bennett expressed staunch opposition to an American return to the 2015 nuclear deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, maintaining Netanyahu’s hawkish stance toward Tehran — though parties that have spoken about keeping disagreements with the US behind closed doors will represent an overwhelming majority at the cabinet table.

Bennett said the Iranian nuclear program “is approaching a critical point.”

“Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Israel is not a party to the [international nuclear] deal and will maintain full freedom to act,” he said.

In a message to Washington, he added: “Renewing the nuclear deal is a mistake.”

On Thursday Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel and the United States were working to increase the monitoring of Tehran’s nuclear program, while warning that “all options are on the table” regarding Jerusalem’s preparedness to conduct a military strike in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz stands during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, June 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schali22

This week, Iran announced that it had amassed 6.5 kilograms (14.3 pounds) of uranium enriched to 60% purity, and 108 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20% purity in five months. Uranium enriched to those levels can be relatively easy to further enrich into a weapons-grade level of 90% purity.

Former US president Donald Trump abandoned the Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018, imposing fresh sanctions on Iran and Iranian officials, leading Tehran to follow suit shortly thereafter. Since then, Tehran has ratcheted up tensions on the nuclear front by amassing greater quantities of enriched uranium at greater degrees of purity and by making advancements in the developments of missiles that could be used to carry a nuclear warhead.

In recent months, Iranian and European negotiation teams have been meeting in Vienna to discuss a return to the nuclear deal by the US and Iran — a move staunchly opposed by top Israeli officials. Though all sides have reported progress, the talks have stalled somewhat in recent weeks as Iran geared up for presidential elections.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, and Deputy Secretary General and Political Director of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Enrique Mora stand in front of the ‚Grand Hotel Vienna’ where where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

In an effort to influence America’s presumed return to the JCPOA, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi is scheduled to travel to Washington, DC, on Saturday night. There he will meet with top American defense officials before returning to Israel next Friday.

He was originally meant to make the trip last month, but his visit was postponed in light of rising tensions between Israel and the Hamas terror group in Gaza at the time, which culminated in a 11-day battle between the two sides.

Kohavi is expected to present American officials with Israeli assessments of the threats posed by Iran to the region, should the sanctions currently in place against the country be lifted. He will also discuss reconstruction plans for the Gaza Strip.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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