Lapid takes off for Washington ahead of likely restart of Iran nuclear talks

Meetings with US vice president, secretary of state and UAE’s foreign minister expected to focus on Tehran’s nuclear program and Abraham Accords

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken  (right) greets Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of their meeting in Rome, on June 27, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) greets Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of their meeting in Rome, on June 27, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)

As Iran signaled its intention to return to nuclear talks in Vienna, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid took off from Ben Gurion International Airport overnight Monday for a three-day visit to Washington DC to meet with senior Biden administration officials, Jewish leaders, and the UAE foreign minister.

Highlights of the trip include a meeting Tuesday with US Vice President Kamala Harris and a trilateral meeting Wednesday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.

“They will discuss progress made since the signing of the Abraham Accords last year, future opportunities for collaboration, and bilateral issues, including regional security and stability,” the State Department said.

The three are also expected to discuss European-sponsored talks in Vienna that are aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

Negotiations have been on hold for several months, but officials said recently they expect them to restart “soon.”

On September 21, the day Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi blasted US sanctions on Iran in his pre-recorded address to the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said that Tehran would return to the talks within weeks.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh during an interview, November 2020 (video screenshot)

Last week, Khatibzadeh told France24, “We are going to get back to Vienna.”

On Monday, a senior US official said the Biden administration was “hopeful” talks would resume “in a fairly short period of time.”

Blinken had invited Lapid to visit him in the US during a September 6 phone call between the two top diplomats.

Lapid is not slated to meet with US President Joe Biden.

Lapid’s schedule begins on Tuesday with an 11:30 a.m. meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

At 12:45, he is slated to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and leaders of both congressional caucuses.

Harris and Lapid are scheduled to begin their meeting at 3:45 p.m.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Lapid’s bilateral meeting with Blinken is set for 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, followed by a 2:15 p.m. sit-down with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias.

The trilateral meeting with Blinken and Bin Zayed will take place at 4 p.m., followed by a joint press conference at 5. The three diplomats will end their day with a joint dinner.

On Thursday morning, Lapid is scheduled to meet with the leadership of AIPAC, before taking off around 1 p.m. for Israel.

The 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, gave Iran sanctions relief in return for tight controls on its nuclear program.

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks April 20, 2021, at the White House in Washington, after former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In 2018, then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the multilateral accord and began reimposing sanctions.

Tehran has gradually rolled back its nuclear commitments since 2019.

Biden has sought to reverse Trump’s decision to pull the United States from international negotiations on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel opposes a return to the nuclear deal, but some officials have signaled that it could live with an outcome, viewed by many as a fait accompli.

At the last meeting between the two, in June, Lapid told Blinken in Rome that Israel has “some serious reservations” about the Iran nuclear deal being negotiated in Vienna.

But talks in Vienna to revive the deal have been at an impasse since June, when Raisi, Iran’s ultraconservative new president, was elected.

TV cameras in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)

Washington says that the new government in Iran has projected interest, through intermediaries, in returning to negotiations, though the Biden administration has also clarified that its patience is running out. Iran wants the US to drop sanctions before it recommits to the deal’s restrictions, while Washington insists that Iran move first.

“We still believe very strongly that the diplomatic path remains the best path for resolving this issue,” a senior US official told reporters during a Monday briefing. “Since we came in we have not lifted any sanctions, we are not going to pay upfront, and we’ve made that very clear.”

Last month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Foreign Policy magazine that he was prepared to see the US negotiate a fresh nuclear deal with Iran, a rare comment from a senior government official not rejecting the multilateral accord out of hand.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has made it clear that he opposes a negotiated nuclear deal and has not publicly stated that its resurrection is something that Israel could live with, as Gantz did in his interview.

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