Gantz: 'We must prepare for alternatives' if no deal reached

Bennett to Blinken: US must immediately halt Iran talks over ‘nuclear blackmail’

In call with US secretary of state, prime minister calls for world powers to take ‘concrete steps’ against Tehran over its boosted uranium enrichment

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on the United States on Thursday to immediately halt the ongoing negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Bennett spoke on Thursday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a conversation that largely focused on the Iranian talks, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Bennett told Blinken that Iran was utilizing “nuclear blackmail” as a tactic and therefore the United States should initiate “an immediate cessation of negotiations.”

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Blinken provided Bennett with an update on the talks, which restarted earlier this week in Vienna months after they were suspended. The State Department did not immediately provide its own readout of the call.

In the phone conversation, Bennett referenced a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency revealing that Iran has recently begun enriching uranium to 20% purity with advanced centrifuges at its Fordo facility.

Bennett told Blinken that instead of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal — which the United States pulled out of in 2018 — “concrete steps” against Iran should be “taken by the major powers.”

The United States is participating indirectly in the negotiations with Tehran in Vienna, which restarted on Monday.

The Biden administration has repeatedly reiterated its desire to return to the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which former president Donald Trump exited. Following its exit, the US began reinstating sanctions on Tehran while Iran began to openly breach the deal’s terms.

Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora speaks to journalists in front of the Coburg palace after nuclear talks in Vienna on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

Israel has long maintained its opposition to US plans to return to the terms of the original deal.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is slated to travel to Washington next week to meet with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin.

Gantz told Ynet Thursday morning that the primary purpose of his visit is to discuss the Iranian issue, and that if a deal is not reached, “we must prepare ourselves for the alternatives.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a ceremony honoring wounded soldiers, in Tel Aviv, November 21, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted that Israel is fomenting tension during the recently renewed negotiations.

“Israeli regime whose existence relies on tension is at it again, trumpeting lies to poison Vienna talks,” Khatibzadeh wrote. “All parties in the room now face a test of their independence & political will to carry out the job — irrespective of the fake news designed to destroy prospects for success.”

The Coburg Palais, the venue of the Iran nuclear talks, is pictured in Vienna on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

After the months-long suspension of talks, and the election of hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, US officials have expressed some skepticism at the potential of reaching a deal.

A spokesperson for the State Department told reporters in a briefing on Monday that Iran’s escalation of nuclear activities was not going unnoticed.

“We’ve made clear that Iran’s continued nuclear escalations are unconstructive,” said deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter. “They’re also inconsistent with what’s stated with the goal of returning to a mutual compliance with the JCPOA. It won’t provide Iran any negotiating leverage as we return to the talks.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said that Bennett and Blinken also discussed dealing with the Omicron COVID variant, restocking the Iron Dome missile defense system, and potential construction at the Atarot industrial zone. Israel announced a massive housing project in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Atarot last week, but backed off from the plans days later after pushback from the White House.

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