Israel sends diplomats to sidelines of Vienna nuclear talks, annoying Iran

Envoy meets Russian representative, expected to talk with US envoy; Tehran news site says Israeli presence is ‘a deterrent to progress’

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Vienna's Palais Coburg has been used for closed-door nuclear talks with Iran, on February 8, 2022. (Lisa Leutner /AP)
Vienna's Palais Coburg has been used for closed-door nuclear talks with Iran, on February 8, 2022. (Lisa Leutner /AP)

Israeli diplomats traveled to Vienna to meet Tuesday with negotiators involved in talks aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, for the first time since the Vienna talks resumed in April.

The appearance of an Israeli delegation in close proximity to the high-stakes talks over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action apparently angered some in Iran.

The Israeli delegation, headed by deputy director general of Strategic Affairs at the Foreign Ministry Joshua Zarka, met Tuesday with Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, the Kremlin’s representative at the negotiations in Vienna.

Ulyanov wrote Tuesday that he had discussed issues related to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with “Israeli colleagues from the capital.”

Zarka tweeted that his meeting with Ulyanov was “frank and important.”

The delegation arrived in Vienna earlier this week. Diplomats met Monday with Director General of the IAEA Rafael Grossi. On Tuesday, they also met with ambassadors from a number of South American countries.

The delegation was also expected to meet with the US officials involved indirectly in the talks, according to Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv.

Israel is not a party to the Vienna talks, and has said it reserves the right to act as it sees fit against Iran’s nuclear program regardless of the negotiations’ outcome. While the government is officially opposed to a return to the 2015 deal, which US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of in 2018, it has also sought to influence negotiations to seek tighter curbs on Tehran and more robust security arrangements.

The unusual decision to send an Israeli envoy to Vienna comes amid a growing sense of urgency among involved parties to reach a deal to revive the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran.

The appearance of the Israeli delegation as talks have reached a critical juncture apparently piqued some in Iran.

“The overt and unexpected presence of the Zionists in Vienna is undoubtedly a deterrent to progress in the current sensitive situation,” Iran’s Nour News wrote on its Hebrew Twitter feed.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Western parties involved in the negotiations were “playing for time” but said a deal could be reached soon, as long as the US and European parties were serious about their commitments.

US negotiator Robert Malley and National Security Council envoy Brett McGurk expressed last week concern of Iran being only “weeks” away from having enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon, upping pressure on the Biden administration to reach a deal before it becomes irrelevant.

Officials involved in the talks have indicated that they are nearing a conclusion, and experts have estimated that the next few weeks will either see a deal reached or talks fall apart for good.

Robert Malley, US Special Envoy for Iran, is shown in Vienna, Austria, on June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Monday with US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to discuss regional challenges, while focusing on “the Iranian threat, which is faced by both Israel and the US, and ways to deal with it.”

In a recent phone call, Bennett and US President Joe Biden discussed unspecified “steps to block the Iranian nuclear program.”

Amy Spiro contributed to this report.

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