Lapid arrives in London, as showdown over sanctions on Iran’s banks takes shape

Talks in Vienna on renewing nuclear deal begin, with foreign minister set to meet with Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron to push for sanctions on financial sector to remain in place

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with 26 EU foreign ministers in Brussels, July 12, 2021. (European Union)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with 26 EU foreign ministers in Brussels, July 12, 2021. (European Union)

A day before talks on Iran’s nuclear program restart in Vienna, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrived in London on Sunday for a two-day trip to the UK and France.

One of Lapid’s primary goals in his meetings with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron is to ensure that banking sanctions against Iran remain in place, Channel 13 reported.

However, Iran is coming to Vienna determined to have those very sanctions removed. Iran’s negotiating team includes the deputy governor of Iran’s Central Bank, and senior officials from the trade and economy ministries.

In an attempt to cut off Iran’s ability to fund its armed proxy groups, in October 2020 the US Donald Trump sanctioned 18 Iranian banks and gave foreign companies 45 days to cease doing business with them or risk secondary sanctions.

“The minister’s visit will focus on the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna as well as the deepening of bilateral relations between Israel and Britain and France,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Lapid’s schedule begins on Monday with a meeting with his British counterpart Liz Truss. They will sign a series of agreements and will hold a press conference.

Lapid is then scheduled to attend an event hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, where both officials will give speeches.

Lapid and Johnson will hold a working meeting at 10 Downing Street in the afternoon, before a Hanukkah lighting ceremony at the prime minister’s official residence.

The foreign minister is slated to travel to France on Monday night, before meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday afternoon.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) is introduced to Israel’s Energy Minister Karine Elharrar (L) as he meets with Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) on the sidelines of the COP26 Climate Conference at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, Scotland on November 2, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali / POOL / AFP)

The schedule and delegation were slimmed down over the weekend as new restrictions go into effect in the wake of fears over the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.

The world powers — known as the P5+1, which include the UK and France — are set to resume talks with Iran on Monday over a return by Iran and the US to the terms of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.

Talks have been frozen since the summer when Iran elected a new hardline president.

Israel has staunchly advocated against an American return to the accord, which Jerusalem believes is far too weak and ultimately paves the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Israeli officials have instead called for a different, harsher diplomatic approach, backed up by the credible threat of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

Lapid’s trip is the latest sign of increasingly close ties between the UK and Israel.

Last Tuesday, Johnson warned that “the world doesn’t have much time” on Iran, during comments with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, echoing concerns by leaders in Israel and the West over Tehran’s uranium stockpile, which has grown while talks were frozen.

Herzog urged both Johnson and a group of 100 British lawmakers he met with separately to make sure their government remains tough on Iran as world powers prepare to restart the negotiations.

“Our understanding is that the Iranians are not coming [to Vienna] to do business, rather to rush toward a bomb,” Herzog told the MPs at the Palace of Westminster.

“It is the duty of the superpowers to be strong and make it clear that all options are on the table,” he added, in an apparent reference to Israel’s consistent demand that countries present a credible military threat against Iran.

Herzog also met with Truss and Johnson on his trip.

President Isaac Herzog meets with UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in London on november 22, 2022 (Courtesy)

Also last week, London announced that it was designating the entirety of Hamas as a terror organization and outlawed support for the group.

Truss came into office in September, and held what Lapid called “a warm and friendly conversation” with Israel’s top diplomat in October.

She has been vocal about her support for the UK-Israel relationship. In a speech at the Conservative Friends of Israel reception earlier that month, Truss spoke of her desire to build “deeper relations” with the Jewish state, particularly around technology, security and trade.

She also named Israel as being among the UK’s most trusted allies as she spoke of a new “network of liberty” to counter authoritarian states and “malign actors.”

“The foreign secretary and Lapid will be hosting a strategic dialogue, in which they’ll be talking about the normal range of issues,” said a source at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. “This is also an opportunity for the foreign secretary to set out the importance of the bilateral relationship to the UK and to her personally.”

There have also been indications that France is warming up to Israel.

“I think we changed our point of view in France about Iran,” Philippe Latombe, vice president of the France-Israel Friendship Group in the National Assembly, told The Times of Israel in July, “and so I think we changed our point of view about Israel.”

President Isaac Herzog (L) and French Ambassador Eric Danon at a Bastille Day celebration, Jaffa, July 14, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

During his Bastille Day address in Tel Aviv last week, French Ambassador Eric Danon declared, “The mullahs’ regime should never possess the nuclear bomb.”

However, France does maintain open diplomatic channels with Iran. Macron was the first Western leader Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi spoke to after he took office in August.

Macron called on Iran to “quickly resume negotiations in Vienna in order to get to a conclusion and put an end without delay to all the nuclear activities it is carrying out in breach of the agreement,” the French government statement said.

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