'Sit with your regional allies. We have the most to lose'

Israel’s US envoy: It would be a mistake for Biden to reenter Iran deal

Ron Dermer appears to be first Israeli official to speak out publicly against president-elect’s plans to renegotiate a ‘longer, stronger’ accord

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

Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, speaks at an event in Detroit, on June 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya/File)
Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, speaks at an event in Detroit, on June 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya/File)

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said Monday that it would be a “mistake” for the incoming Biden administration to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, as President-elect Joe Biden pledged to do during the campaign.

“I think it would be a mistake and hopefully he will look at the Middle East as it is, he will see the benefits of [the normalization] process, of how he can continue that process, and I think to not go back into the same deal,” Dermer said during a panel with his Emirati and Bahraini counterparts in Washington hosted by the Economic Club.

Dermer highlighted the Abraham Accords Israel signed with the UAE and Bahrain against the backdrop of their common opposition to Iranian conduct in the region and appeared to suggest that building a more united front against Tehran would be more beneficial than trying to negotiate with the Islamic Republic.

He maintained that both Israel and Arab states opposed the 2015 multilateral agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and that their views should have been taken into consideration by the Obama administration at the time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

Dermer referred to the unsuccessful 2009 Obama-brokered nuclear talks with North Korea, which had included members in the region such as Japan and South Korea, lamenting that the same courtesy had not been extended during the Iran nuclear talks.

“The first thing I would say to the incoming administration [is], ‘Sit with your allies in the region. Listen to us. We have the most skin in the game. We have the most to lose. Speak to us. Try to work out a common position, which I think is possible, not only to do with nuclear issues but also to deal with the regional aggression of Iran,'” said Dermer, who has long been one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most trusted advisers.

The remarks appeared to mark the first time an Israeli official publicly spoke out against Biden’s plans to re-enter the nuclear accord since he defeated incumbent US President Donald Trump earlier this month.

In March 2015, Netanyahu warned in a blistering address to the joint houses of Congress that the nuclear deal then taking shape between Iran and Western powers “paves the path for Iran” to a nuclear arsenal, rather than blocking it, and urged American leaders to walk away from what he called “a very bad deal.” The speech publicly underlined the profound differences between Netanyahu and president Barack Obama over how to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, with Netanyahu denouncing the Obama-backed deal when it was finalized later that year as a “historic mistake for the world.”

During the recent presidential campaign, Biden — who was Obama’s vice president — and his aides slammed Trump’s 2018 decision to bolt the agreement, arguing that it allowed Iran to progress toward acquiring a nuclear weapon. They pledged that a Biden administration would work to renegotiate a “longer and stronger” deal.

Foreign ministers sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear negotiations were being held in Vienna, Austria, on July 6, 2015. (AFP/POOL/CARLOS BARRIA)

Last week, former Biden aide Amos Hochstein told Channel 12 that rejoining the Iran nuclear deal was “high on his agenda” and that the US president-elect would move to do so shortly after taking office.

“I believe that in the first months [of Biden’s presidency], we’ll either see him rejoin the deal fully, or what I would call ‘JCPOA-minus,’ meaning lifting sanctions in exchange for suspending some of the Iranian nuclear programs [developed] in the past three years,” Hochstein said in the interview.

Hochstein, who served at the State Department and oversaw energy sanctions on Iran during Obama’s tenure, said Biden wants “some changes” to the pact, including its expiration date.

Those comments came as an Israeli news site reported the Trump administration — in coordination with Israel and Arab states in the Persian Gulf — was planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to reenter the nuclear deal.

Also during Monday’s panel, Dermer lauded the president-elect for coming out in support of the Abraham Accords during the campaign. “I think that is a very good thing,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on September 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Asked if the normalization deals would have come about under a different president, Dermer avoided answering directly, but claimed that “the fact that [Trump] confronted Iran helped. The fact that he embraced allies in the region helped. That fact that he didn’t put the Palestinian issue front and center helped.”

UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba said the most meaningful part of the Abraham Accords for him was the literal normalization they heralded — not the new business, trade and investment opportunities they are slated to bring about between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.

“I grew up thinking Israel is the enemy, and I drove by the Israeli ambassador’s house [in Cairo] every day going to school thinking oh you know… so my 10-year-old son is going to grow up thinking it’s totally normal to visit Israel. It’s totally normal to invest in Israel… He’s going to grow up with a completely different mindset from the one I grew up with and to me that’s probably the most meaningful part of the Abraham Accords,” he said.

Both Otaiba and Bahrain Ambassador Abdullah bin Rashid al Khalifa expressed interest in visiting Israel once the pandemic calmed down, with the latter saying they would likely be on the same flight.

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