Israeli and US officials held secret talks last week to discuss a “plan B” in the event talks with Iran aimed at saving an unraveling nuclear deal aren’t renewed, according to a report on Wednesday.
EU-mediated negotiations began in Vienna in April aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers — an accord left hanging by a thread after former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and ramped up sanctions.
The discussions, which involve the remaining parties seeking to persuade Washington to rejoin the deal and Iran to return to its nuclear commitments, have been stalled since June, when ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran’s president.
Citing two unnamed Israeli officials, the Walla report said the secure video meeting was the first time a special bilateral strategic group aimed at collaborating on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon had convened since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the new Israeli government took office in June.
Leading the talks at the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group were US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, his Israeli counterpart Eyal Hulata and diplomatic officials from both countries.
The Israelis reportedly pressed for moving forward with alternative plans due to the stalled nuclear talks, feeling Iran is seeking to draw the negotiations out while advancing with its nuclear program.
An Israeli official quoted in the report said the main message from the US was that if the nuclear talks don’t resume soon, the Biden administration will impose further sanctions on Iran. US sanctions already in place have caused chaos to the Iranian economy, crashing the rial currency, though Tehran has remained defiant to the pressure.
The report comes as Iranian and European officials said the negotiations are expected to resume soon in Vienna.
European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he had spoken with Iran’s new top diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
“The Iranian foreign minister assured of the willingness to resume negotiations at an early date,” the EU said in a statement.
Sullivan is expected to visit the Middle East next week, Walla reported. He will travel to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Negotiations are also underway over a possible visit to Jerusalem, though his schedule may clash with that of Bennett’s, who is set to address the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27.
The 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, offered Iran a reduction of UN sanctions in return for strict limits on its nuclear program, but Tehran has progressively stepped away from its commitments in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal and imposition of sanctions.
Trump’s successor Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to return to the deal, which was negotiated when he was Barack Obama’s vice-president and under Iran’s relatively moderate former president Hassan Rouhani. At the UN General Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Biden said the US will return to the pact only if Iran returns to all its commitments while also vowing to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon… We’re prepared to return to full compliance with [the deal] if Iran does the same,” he said.
Hopes of a revitalized deal were kept alive earlier this month by Iran agreeing with the UN nuclear agency on a new compromise regarding surveillance of its nuclear sites.
Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he was prepared to accept a scenario in which the US negotiates a fresh nuclear deal with Iran.
While Israeli defense officials not in government have indicated a degree of tolerance for the JCPOA or a negotiated nuclear deal of any kind in the past, that sentiment has not extended to public officials, and Gantz appears to be the most senior cabinet member to reflect it on the record.
Bennett assured Biden at the White House in August that he would not publicly campaign against Washington’s efforts to coax Iran back to the 2015 accord. The Israeli leader has made it clear, however, that he opposes a return to that deal.