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Gantz: A future Iran nuclear deal can’t have ‘expiration dates’

Defense minister says he told his visiting American counterpart that a new agreement with Tehran must be ‘more robust’ than the 2015 accord

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, fist-bumps US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel on April 12, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, fist-bumps US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel on April 12, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday said he told his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, that any future agreement to address Iran’s nuclear program must be “more robust” than the 2015 accord it will replace, without any “expiration dates.”

The defense minister expressed Israel’s position on the matter to Austin as the US defense secretary made his first visit to the Jewish state this week. It was also the first visit to Israel by a Biden administration official and one of the first trips abroad by any Biden administration official anywhere in the world.

“We believe the old agreement was not a good enough agreement, that there needs to be more pressure on Iran and to reach an agreement without expiration dates and with wider and unrestricted oversight abilities,” Gantz said.

The defense minister was referring to so-called “sunset clauses” in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which remove sanctions on different aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program after a certain number of years until eventually all of them fall away. These clauses are considered by critics of the accord to be one of its greatest deficiencies.

Austin’s visit came as the United States indirectly negotiates with Iran in Vienna — through European intermediaries — over a return to the JCPOA, a move that Israel staunchly opposes. US president Donald Trump abandoned the agreement in 2018, prompting Tehran to systematically violate the terms of the deal, enriching greater quantities of uranium and to greater levels, as well as using more powerful centrifuges and researching forbidden nuclear-related subjects, such as uranium metal, which is used in atomic bombs.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, walks alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during an honor guard ceremony at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)

Gantz said Austin was receptive to his comments and that the relationship between the two countries would continue regardless of how the White House proceeds.

“We found an open ear, and there is American dedication to cooperation, even if we don’t agree 100 percent on every point,” Gantz said.

Austin touched down in Israel on Sunday morning shortly after news broke about a major power cut at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which was later said to have been the result of an explosion — attributed to the Israeli Mossad spy agency — that reportedly shut down uranium enrichment at the site at least for the time being.

Asked if Austin expressed any anger or concerns regarding the alleged Israeli attack on Natanz, which could disrupt or otherwise impede the ongoing talks in Vienna, Gantz said the US defense secretary made no indications that he was upset or disquieted by the news.

“Did I hear from him any misgivings? The answer is no,” Gantz said.

“We know how to maintain our coordination with the Americans,” the defense minister added.

File: Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

On Monday, the White House publicly denied that Washington played a role in the alleged strike on Natanz.

“The US was not involved in any manner, and we have nothing to add to speculation about the causes,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

The defense minister said he and Austin had productive meetings on Sunday and Monday and lauded the defense secretary’s visit as “significant” and “not an obvious thing to happen” in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the complications that it brings.

“There’s nothing you can think of that we didn’t discuss,” Gantz told reporters.

The defense minister said that among those topics were the nuclear deal, Iran’s entrenchment in the Middle East, weapons sales between the US and Israel, [Israel’s] normalization with Arab countries, Israeli relations with the Palestinians, and the need to strengthen relations with Jordan and Egypt. Gantz added that one subject that was not deeply discussed but was broached was American concerns over Israeli collaboration with China, which Washington sees as a rival.

The defense minister stressed the strong ties between the US and Israel on most levels, from economic collaboration between companies, to defense cooperation between the two countries’ security forces, to high-level talks between the countries’ top brass, though Gantz said that there were not robust ties between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the defense minister’s political rival.

“The prime minister needs to improve his coordination with the president. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done that,” Gantz said.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to give a statement after their meeting at the Premier’s office in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP)

Netanyahu and former US president Barack Obama had a notoriously thorny relationship, one made more pronounced by the overwhelmingly warm ties the Israeli premier maintained with Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, who was Biden’s opponent in the 2020 election. Biden was Obama’s vice president.

Israeli defense analysts have warned that there is a growing rift between Jerusalem and Washington, particularly on the issue of Iran and its nuclear program, which may have significant ramifications on Israel’s security in the future.

Netanyahu, too, met with Austin on Monday, saying following the sit-down the US-Israel alliance was critical in defending both countries. He added that Israel would not allow Iran to redevelop a nuclear weapon, even at the risk of war.

“As you know, the US-Israel defense partnership has continually expanded over successive administrations and our cooperation is crucial in dealing with the many threats confronting both the United States and Israel,” Netanyahu said at a press conference.

“In the Middle East, there is no threat more dangerous, serious and pressing than that posed by the fanatical regime in Iran,” said Netanyahu, citing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, arming of terror groups, and calls for Israel’s annihilation.

Netanyahu added: “Mr. Secretary, we both know the horrors of war. We both understand the importance of preventing war. And we both agree that Iran must never possess nuclear weapons. My policy as prime minister of Israel is clear — I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel. And Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism.”

Austin also met with a number of other Israeli officials: IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi; Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, who holds the military’s Iran portfolio; Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin; Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel; and the head of the ministry’s influential Political-Defense Directorate, Zohar Palti.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin, center, give US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin a model of the Iron Dome missile defense system at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel on April 12, 2021. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The US defense secretary also visited the Israeli Air Force’s Nevatim Air Base in the northern Negev desert, which is home to the F-35 stealth fighter jet. There he inspected the aircraft, which the US sold to Israel, along with a number of Israeli-made munitions, and was shown three Israeli air defense systems: a short-range Iron Dome, medium-range David’s Sling and long-range Arrow.

Earlier this year, Israel delivered the second of two Iron Dome batteries to the US military, part of a pilot program to consider additional purchases of the advanced air defense system, which can intercept mortar shells, rockets and drones.

As a gift, Gantz presented Austin with a model of an Iron Dome battery, quipping, “We already gave you two real ones.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, gives Defense Minister Benny Gantz a US State Department cable that called for the recognition of Israel after its independence was declared, at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel on April 12, 2021. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

In return, Austin presented Gantz with a US State Department cable that was written on May 14, 1948 — the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence — instructing the then-American ambassador to the United Kingdom to “grant recognition to Jewish provisional [government] as de facto authority of Jewish state.”

Austin and Gantz have previously met as generals in uniform, when the former was in the US military’s Central Command and the latter was the Israel Defense Forces deputy chief of staff.

After his official meetings, Austin, who is on his first visit to Israel, secretary visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and laid a wreath at the Mount Herzl national cemetery, ahead of Israel’s Memorial Day, which begins Tuesday night.

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