Israel and US hold first strategic group meeting on Iran, regional issues

White House spokesperson releases few details of discussion led by national security advisers Ben-Shabbat and Sullivan

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

Israeli and US administration officials held the first session of a bilateral strategic group aimed at collaborating in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the US National Security Council spokesperson announced Thursday.

Emily Horne, the spokesperson, said the “US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group” was led by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.

The White House released a statement on Thursday regarding the group’s meeting, with few details.

“During the discussion, the two sides shared perspectives on regional security issues of mutual interest and concern, including Iran, and expressed their common determination to confront the challenges and threats facing the region,” the statement said. Sullivan and Ben-Shabbat had previously spoken on the phone twice since the start of the new US administration.

“The National Security Advisors agreed on the importance of strategic interagency consultations and pledged to continue these engagements. This meeting is part of the broader ongoing dialogue between the United States and Israel on the full range of issues of importance to the bilateral relationship,” the statement added.

An Iranian technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran; February 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

A similar working group convened during former US president Barack Obama’s first term in office. Its existence was not public, and the sides used the meetings to share intelligence on Iran. However, the group ceased meeting as the Obama administration ramped up efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fiercely and publicly opposed that deal — which was signed in 2015, when Biden was vice president — contributing to a famously acrimonious relationship between himself and Obama.

Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and put punishing sanctions on Iran. Trump’s Middle East policies were largely in line with Netanyahu’s. Biden and his administration have repeatedly said they will return to the JCPOA if Tehran first returns to compliance. Iran has insisted the US remove sanctions before it returns to the deal’s terms, putting the two sides at a stalemate.

Seeking to avoid public spats this time around, Washington offered to reestablish the working group with Israel, which, after deliberation by Netanyahu with other senior officials, agreed to it, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

Robert Malley in 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

US envoy on Iran Robert Malley told the Axios news site Wednesday that neither Washington nor Jerusalem wishes to see a return to the very public discord that existed between the countries’ leaderships during the run-up to the signing of the 2015 nuclear accord.

“We don’t always agree, but the talks are extremely open and positive. While we may have different interpretations and views as to what happened in 2015–2016, neither of us wishes to repeat it,” Malley said.

In recent months, Iran has repeatedly taken steps to violate the deal and turn up the heat on the US, including by enriching uranium past the accord’s limits and barring UN inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have already begun voicing opposition to the Biden administration’s desire to rejoin the deal, putting Jerusalem and Washington at odds on the issue. Some leading Israeli officials in recent months have warned of military action to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

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