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Lapid to meet Blinken in US next week as fresh Iran talks brew

Foreign minister not expected to meet Biden during three day trip as both Washington and Tehran indicate frozen talks on reviving nuclear pact opposed by Israel may restart ‘soon’

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

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will travel to Washington next week to meet with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Lapid’s office announced Wednesday, with international talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal opposed by Israel expected to unfreeze.

There was no formal announcement on topics for the meeting, but the two are 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.”

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

Lapid will reportedly not meet with US President Joe Biden during the three-day trip from October 12 to 14.

On Wednesday, Iran’s foreign minister said he expects the nuclear talks to resume shortly.

“We are now finalizing consultations on this matter and will soon restore our negotiations in Vienna,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told reporters after talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Moscow on October 6, 2021. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / POOL / AFP)

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

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.

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 Iran’s ultraconservative new President Ebrahim Raisi 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)

The Biden administration has made it clear to Israel that it believes diplomacy, rather than military action, is the best way forward in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, most recently during a Tuesday meeting between US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and a visiting Israeli delegation led by National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata.

Sullivan “explained that this administration believes diplomacy is the best path to achieve that goal [ensuring Iran never obtains nuclear weapons], while also noting that the president has made clear that if diplomacy fails, the United States is prepared to turn to other options,” a White House readout said.

His remarks were made at a meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group (SRG), an inter-agency bilateral forum established in March for discussing Iran and other regional security issues.

National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in front of the White House on October 5, 2021. (Jake Sullivan/Twitter)

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.

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 appeared to be the most senior cabinet member to reflect it on the record.

A spokesperson for the minister later clarified that Gantz does not support an American return to the JCPOA, but rather maintains that Israel would accept some other longer, broader and stronger nuclear agreement.

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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