'We inherited an Iran that's working extremely aggressively'

Bennett to present Biden with strategy for stopping Iran without nuclear deal

When he meets US president on Thursday on 1st official visit, PM will argue that 2015 accord is no longer relevant; no major concessions to Palestinians expected to be announced

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US President Joe Biden. (composite image: AP, Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US President Joe Biden. (composite image: AP, Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will present to US President Joe Biden on Thursday a strategy for confronting both Iran’s nuclear program and its regional activities without returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement, according to a senior diplomatic source.

“The heart of the diplomatic discussion will deal with Iran,” said the source during a phone briefing on Monday evening, speaking to reporters ahead of Bennett’s trip to Washington on Tuesday.

“When we began to plan the visit, a return to the agreement seemed certain. Since then, time has passed, the president in Iran has changed, and things seem far less certain. In our view, it may be that there is no return to the agreement.”

Bennett will argue that Iran’s nuclear program has advanced too far for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to have any relevance in 2021. Though it might plug some holes on the enrichment side, the deal gives the Islamic Republic too much in return, the official maintained.

“There is no value to returning to the nuclear deal,” the official said.

“We inherited an Iran that is working extremely aggressively and is empowering very negative forces in the region,” said the source, indicating criticism of the previous, Benjamin-Netanyahu-led government’s handling of the issue.

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 leave the ‚Grand Hotel Vienna where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, June 2, 2021. (AP/Lisa Leutner)

The prime minister has been involved in a deep policy review process on the Iran issue since entering office in June, and believes that a return to the deal is no longer a given, according to the source.

Bennett has long publicly opposed the Biden administration’s stated plan to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which former US president Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018. Western powers — with the US participating indirectly — held months of negotiations with Iran in Vienna earlier this year, but talks stalled ahead of the installation of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president, earlier this month.

Bennett sees the Iranian nuclear issue as a challenge for Israel and its allies, and an opportunity to develop a new broad regional strategy for confronting Tehran, said the official.

No major concessions to the Palestinians are expected to be announced during the trip.

Bennett is scheduled to take off for his first official visit to the US on Tuesday at 4 p.m. It will be Bennett’s first official overseas trip as premier, and the first time Biden meets with an Israeli prime minister since he took office earlier this year.

On Wednesday, Bennett will meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and then-opposition chairman Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021. (Yair Lapid/Twitter)

He is slated to meet with Biden midday on Thursday in the Oval Office.

Bennett will be traveling with his close diplomatic and security advisors, including National Security Adviser Eyal Hulta, diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir, military secretary Avi Gil, cabinet secretary Shalom Shlomo, and Ambassador to the US and UN Gilad Erdan.

Diplomatic sources said Bennett expects to build a personal connection with Biden, as both leaders have a similar, personable style.

Bennett’s trip comes as the Biden administration is dealing with the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, and both leaders face spiraling COVID-19 numbers in their respective countries.

In this image provided by the US Marines, evacuee children wait for the next flight after being manifested at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 19, 2021. (1st Lt. Mark Andries/ US Marine Corps via AP)

Despite the ongoing COVID crisis in Israel, “the timing of the visit is very important because we are at a critical point regarding Iran,” Bennett said on Sunday during the weekly cabinet meeting.

The prime minister said the Iranians are “advancing rapidly with uranium enrichment, which has already significantly shortened the time that it would take for them to accumulate the material required for a single nuclear bomb.”

President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, on August 18, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images via AFP)

While Bennett has stressed that the bulk of his meeting with Biden will focus on Iran, the White House statement on Bennett’s visit noted plans to discuss “regional and global security, including Iran,” as well as “efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians and the importance of working towards a more peaceful and secure future for the region.”

On Sunday, Bennett noted that shortly after he returns from Washington, he will host outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and, not long after that, he will visit Cairo “to meet Egyptian President [Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi, who invited me.”

Last week, Bennett met with Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate chair Abbas Kamel, who extended the invitation on behalf of Sissi.

Amy Spiro contributed to this report. 

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