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Israeli, US national security advisers talk Iran in 2nd phone call in weeks

Discussion comes as Netanyahu taps Meir Ben-Shabbat to lead talks with Washington on Iran amid concerns US heading back to nuclear deal

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

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

The Israeli and American national security advisers spoke on the phone for the second time in recent weeks, the White House confirmed Friday, as the countries intensify their discussions on Iran — an issue they don’t see eye-to-eye on.

The phone call between Meir Ben-Shabbat and Jake Sullivan took place on a secure line on Thursday and also included other senior national security officials from both countries, Axios reported.

It came just 16 days after their first conversation, during which they also discussed Iran, but Thursday’s discussion was considerably longer, according to Israeli officials.

The call came shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to appoint Ben-Shabbat as Israel’s main point-man for talks on Iran with the US and other major powers, senior officials told Axios.

Ben-Shabbat is expected to convene a team in the coming days to determine Israel’s strategy for talks with the Biden administration regarding the planned US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Netanyahu is expected to hold a meeting on the same subject in the coming weeks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and other security officials.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen speaks at a Tel Aviv University cyber conference on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)

The Walla new site said Mossad chief Yossi Cohen had sought to take point on the issue, and had been leaking to several Israeli outlets that the position was his and that he would be the first Israeli official to meet with US President Joe Biden, possibly during the latter’s first week in office.

Officials in Washington on the other hand said at the time that they were unaware of such reports.

Netanyahu ultimately decided to go with his NSC chief instead. Ben Shabbat is not seen as someone with additional political ambitions,  whereas Cohen has been named by analysts as a possible successor to the Likud leader.

Biden has said he intends to re-enter the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, setting him and Netanyahu on a potential collision course. Netanyahu strongly opposed the deal when it was made, and hailed former president Donald Trump’s decision to quit it in 2018.

The US president said earlier this week that his administration would not agree to lift sanctions on Iran before it halts its increased uranium enrichment, saying that the Islamic Republic will have to first resume full compliance with the nuclear deal. Iran has demanded Washington first return to the deal and remove sanctions.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, left, and Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, take part in a Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ministerial meeting on the Iran nuclear deal on July 6, 2018 in Vienna, Austria. (AFP/APA/Hans Punz)

Biden has also said wants to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional hegemony, but that the priority is first getting Iran to comply with the JCPOA. Israel maintains that these issues cannot wait and that the US will lose its leverage with Iran if it returns to the nuclear deal without demanding more in return.

The prospect of the US reengaging with Tehran has drawn warnings and alarm from Netanyahu and his allies.

Netanyahu, who publicly lobbied against the 2015 deal, has warned Biden that it would be a “mistake” and “folly” for the US to rejoin the JCPOA.

Thursday’s conversation also comes amid mounting consternation in Israel that Biden has not yet called Netanyahu since taking office.

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