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IDF chief to make first US visit next week to discuss Iran, Hezbollah

Military says Kohavi will meet with top American military, civilian leadership during 5-day trip to raise Israel’s concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program and entrenchment in region

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

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a memorial ceremony on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery on April 11, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a memorial ceremony on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery on April 11, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi will travel to the United States on Sunday to discuss the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and its entrenchment throughout the region, the military said Friday.

Kohavi’s trip — his first since entering his position — comes amid considerable tensions between the United States and Israel over the Iran nuclear issue. US President Joe Biden’s administration intends to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, a move that Israeli officials, including Kohavi, staunchly and publicly oppose.

Shortly after Biden’s inauguration in January, Kohavi made waves with a particularly blunt, overt speech arguing against the US rejoining the deal, saying it was a “bad thing.”

During his visit, the IDF chief will meet with a number of top US defense officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, head of the US Central Command Kenneth McKenzie, and head of the US Special Operations Command Richard Clark.

“As part of his meeting, the chief of staff will discuss with his counterparts current shared security challenges, principally those related to the Iranian nuclear threat, Iran’s entrenchment efforts in the Middle East in general and on the northern front in particular, Hezbollah armament efforts, the consequences of the precision-guided missile threat and joint force build-up,” the IDF said in a statement.

(L-R) IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, CENTCOM Commander Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

During his visit in the US, Kohavi will formally be a guest of the chairman of the joint chiefs.

Kohavi will be joined on the trip by his wife, Yael, as well as the IDF defense attache to the US, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, the head of the IDF’s Iran-focused Strategic and Third Ring Directorate, Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, and the head of the IDF’s foreign relations department, Brig. Gen. Effi Defrin. Fuchs, Kalman and Defrin were all scheduled to hold their own high-level talks with American counterparts during the trip as well.

In the coming weeks, a number of other top Israeli defense officials were slated to visit the United States, including National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, and Military Intelligence commander Tamir Hayman.

Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

Kohavi, Ben-Shabbat, Cohen and Hayman were all scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday to coordinate their messaging to their American counterparts.

Israel is generally concerned that the US is rushing too quickly into a return to the 2015 accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and is ignoring the concerns of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, notably those in the Gulf. Israeli sources told the Axios news outlet that Americans countered that Israel was not sufficiently heeding the administration’s request for “no surprises” from either side concerning Iran policy.

Israel and the US set up a strategic group, which last convened on April 13, to coordinate their efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. The group is led by Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Ben-Shabbat.

Earlier this week, Kan news reported that Israel was lobbying the US to push for improved international oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, having concluded there will not be significant changes to the treaty but nonetheless seeking to slightly improve the terms of the pact, which is being negotiated in Vienna, with Europeans acting as intermediaries between Washington and Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that 60-70 percent of issues had been resolved in Vienna.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA, arrives at the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place, in Vienna, Austria, Thursday, April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

A spokesman for the US State Department indicated that Washington was backing down from a key prerequisite for its return to the deal.

The Biden administration had repeatedly said that it would only return to the nuclear deal if Iran first returns to compliance. However, on Tuesday, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said at a press conference that Washington would only need to be sure that Iran intended to return to compliance.

Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have adamantly opposed the US returning to the nuclear deal, putting Jerusalem openly at odds with the new White House administration.

Critics have long denounced the deal’s so-called “sunset clauses,” aspects of the agreement barring Iran from certain nuclear activities that end after a certain number of years. Though the deal technically prohibits Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon, detractors of the agreement say these clauses will allow Iran to do so with impunity once the sanctions against the regime end.

The agreement is also narrowly focused solely on the nuclear issue, ignoring Iran’s development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that can reach Israel and parts of Europe, as well as its constant funding and support of terror groups like Hezbollah.

Proponents of the agreement generally argue that while the deal is imperfect, it was the best possible deal that could be struck under the circumstances and at least postpones the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

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