Liberman heads to DC for talks with senior US officials on Iran, Syria

Defense minister’s trip comes as Trump decides fate of the Iran nuclear deal and amid high tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (right) meets US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) in Tel Aviv on April 21, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (right) meets US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) in Tel Aviv on April 21, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman took off for the United States on Tuesday night to meet top American defense officials for talks on Iran and Syria, his office said.

Liberman was scheduled to meet US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and newly named National Security Adviser John Bolton, as well as members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, which has considerable power over the US military.

According to the defense minister, his meetings will “focus on Iran’s expansion throughout the Middle East and on the Syria issue,” as well as Israeli-American security cooperation.

“I will also take advantage of the opportunity to thank our American friends for transferring the embassy to Jerusalem — the perfect gift for the 70th anniversary celebrations,” Liberman wrote in a tweet.

Liberman’s office would not say when he was expected to return to Israel.

The defense minister’s visit to Washington comes during a period of particularly heightened tensions between Iran, Israel, and the US.

Iran, which has called for the destruction of the Jewish state, is considered Israel’s primary nemesis, funding terrorist groups that carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and troops. Israel, therefore, has designated Iranian entrenchment in Syria as unacceptable, something it will work to prevent militarily if necessary.

Satellite images of the T-4 base in Syria before and after an airstrike on April 9. (Screenshot/Channel 10)

Over the past two weeks, Israeli and Iranian officials have swapped increasingly bellicose threats, following an airstrike on an alleged Iranian drone facility located on a Syrian air base on April 9. Iran, Russia, and Syria have all claimed Israel was behind the attack. Israel refuses to comment on the strike.

In addition, US President Donald Trump is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether or not America will remain part of the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Trump has long criticized the agreement, most recently calling it “insane” on Tuesday.

US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron hold a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

“This is a deal with decayed foundations. It’s a bad deal, it’s a bad structure. It’s falling down,” Trump said.

He faces a May 12 deadline, by which point he must make a decision whether or not to bring back sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Trump has indicated that he will remain part of the deal if significant changes are made to it.

The JCPOA required Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for relief from the crippling sanctions that had been imposed on it.

The deal’s critics argue that the “sunset clauses” in the JCPOA, periods of time after which Iran can begin enriching uranium, mean that the country is not actually prevented from developing a nuclear weapon, but is merely delayed. Others argue that international inspectors are not able to freely investigate locations like military facilities, something which may be exploited by Iran in order to violate the deal, without getting caught.

This is a deal with decayed foundations. It’s a bad deal, it’s a bad structure. It’s falling down

In addition, the nuclear deal is narrowly focused and does not address the country’s ballistic missile programs or its support for terrorist groups and dictators across the Middle East.

“I think we will have a great shot at doing a much bigger, maybe, deal,” said Trump. “We’re going to see what happens on the 12th.”

The other signatories of the JCPOA — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and Germany — have either expressed hesitance at these proposed changes or outright opposition.

However, on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Trump in the White House on Tuesday to discuss the JCPOA and indicated that some progress has been made to keep the US part of the deal.

“I can say that we have had very frank discussions on that, just the two of us,” Macron told a joint press conference with Trump at his side.

“We therefore wish from now on to work on a new deal with Iran,” he said.

Macron clarified that he did not mean the JCPOA would be scrapped, but rather that it would be the “first pillar” in an expanded effort to rein in Tehran, which would address the nuclear deal’s “sunset clauses,” as well as the Iranian ballistic missile program and its support of terror groups across the Middle East.

Agencies contributed to this report.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed