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In Washington, IDF chief warns US against rejoining Iran nuclear deal

Meeting with American counterpart, Kohavi lays out Israeli opposition to 2015 accord, saying it paves way to an Iranian bomb

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

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, center-right, and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, center-left, salute outside the US Department of Defense in Washington, DC, on June 21, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, center-right, and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, center-left, salute outside the US Department of Defense in Washington, DC, on June 21, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Military chief Aviv Kohavi warned American officials against their government’s plan to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal this week during a visit to Washington, DC, as part of a last-ditch effort by Israel to affect the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Iran in Vienna.

The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff arrived in the United States on Sunday and spent the past two days in meetings with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in the Pentagon, the military said.

“The chief of staff presented the failures of the current nuclear deal, which allow Iran to make significant advances in the coming years in the quantity and quality of centrifuges and in the amount and quality of enriched uranium, and he stressed the lack of oversight in the area of developing a nuclear weapon,” the IDF said in a statement.

Kohavi’s visit to the US, which was delayed due to last month’s Gaza conflict, came as indirect talks between Washington and Tehran picked up steam, following the election last week of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s next president.

Both the current and former Israeli governments have voiced opposition to the US rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which former US president Donald Trump abrogated in 2018, putting in place a crushing sanctions regime that prompted Iran to also abandon the agreement a year later.

US President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated his intention to return to the agreement, provided Tehran comes back into compliance with it as well. The Biden administration has said it plans to use the JCPOA as a starting off point for brokering a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal, though critics — including those in Israel — say that once the US eases the sanctions in place on Iran and Iranian officials as it returns to the JCPOA, Tehran will no longer have an incentive to negotiate.

Several delegations of Israeli officials, including former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, have traveled to the US in recent months in an effort to dissuade the Biden administration from reentering the agreement.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Kazem Gharib Abadi attends the IAEA Board of Governors meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on June 7, 2021. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

In the past, US officials have said that the concerns raised by Israel during these talks will not change the White House’s plans.

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

The newly inaugurated Israeli government has said that, while it opposes Biden’s plan to rejoin the deal, it would voice its concerns behind closed doors.

Kohavi, however, has kept his criticism firmly in public.

“The chief of staff emphasized the inherent danger in returning to the original nuclear agreement and stressed that everything must be done to prevent Iran from obtaining military nuclear capabilities,” the IDF said.

During his meeting with Milley, which was attended briefly by Austin, Kohavi also discussed Iran’s expansionist efforts in the Middle East, the efforts being made by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group to develop precision-guided missiles, and Israel’s recent conflict in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, the military said.

“The strategic and military alliance with the United States represents a facet of the State of Israel’s national security that is of the utmost importance. Cooperation between the militaries is a force multiplier and of growing mutual interest in recent years, and we will continue to work together against our shared threats in the Middle East,” Kohavi said during the meeting.

Pentagon officials largely refrained from discussing the contents of the meeting, with a spokesperson saying only that Milley “reaffirmed the US commitment to its relationship with Israel.”

Kohavi was joined on his nearly week-long trip by Maj. Gen. Tal Kelman, who leads the IDF’s counter-Iran efforts, as well as Brig. Gen. Amit Sa’ar, who leads Military Intelligence’s Research Division, and Israel’s defense attaché in Washington, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, who is due to complete his tenure shortly.

In addition to Milley and Austin, the IDF delegation was scheduled to meet US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the head of the US Central Command Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the US Special Operations Command Richard Clark and other top American defense officials.

Kelman, Sa’ar, and Fuchs will also hold their own meetings with additional American defense officials, according to the IDF.

Kohavi was initially scheduled to travel to Washington in late April, but his trip was called off in light of rising tensions at the time between Israel and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, which culminated in a vicious 11-day battle last month.

Kohavi was also scheduled to meet with heads of think tanks and other “thought shapers” in the US, as part of Israel’s public relations efforts before returning to Israel on Friday, the military said. Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir is commanding the IDF in Kohavi’s absence.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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