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Netanyahu warns against reengaging with Iran, in apparent message to Biden

PM says world needs ‘uncompromising policy’ to block Tehran’s path to nuclear weapons, as incoming US administration expected to restart talks with Islamic Republic

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an apparent message to US President-elect Joe Biden and his team, warned on Sunday against reengaging with Iran on the 2015 nuclear deal.

“We will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said at an annual memorial event for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in the southern kibbutz Sde Boker where Ben-Gurion lived.

“There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.

The world must stop Iran’s “aggressive behavior, including its support for terror,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjmin Netanyahu speaks at an annual memorial service for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, at Kibbutz Sde Boker, November 22, 2020 (Haim Zach / GPO)

Netanyahu said Israel’s stance toward Iran played a part in Jerusalem’s warming ties with the Arab world. Israel in recent months achieved historic normalization agreements with three Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

“Thanks to our determined stand against the nuclearization of Iran, and to our opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran,” Netanyahu said, “many Arab countries have fundamentally changed their approach to Israel.”

Netanyahu’s comments Sunday echoed his bitter opposition to the 2015 deal when it was being negotiated by the Obama administration, and contrast starkly with Biden’s pledge to “rejoin” the accord.

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.”

Hundreds of protesters, including Ben-Gurion’s grandson, gathered at Kibbutz Sde Boker ahead of Sunday’s speech to protest against Netanyahu, calling for his resignation over corruption charges.

Biden has lambasted US President Donald Trump for his 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal. During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to return to a renegotiated version of the agreement if he won the election. Biden was vice president when Obama and the other P5+1 members finalized the deal.

Biden is generally expected to take a more conciliatory approach to Iran than Trump, who has levied punishing sanctions against Tehran and had its top general killed in January. Tehran appears open to discussions with the Biden administration.

Also on Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended his administration’s continued efforts to squeeze Iran.

“Our policies don’t change. Our duty doesn’t change. My responsibilities don’t change,” Pompeo said. “I still have an obligation — every hour, every minute — to defend the American people and to keep them foremost in our efforts, and we’ll do that. We’ll do that to the very last minute.”

In what was likely his final tour of the Persian Gulf as secretary of state, he touted the Trump administration’s Mideast strategy that focused on Iran as “the central threat inside the region” as a maximum pressure campaign that hampered Iran’s ability to support militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to board his plane at the Old Doha International airport in the Qatari capital Doha, on November 21, 2020. (Patrick Semansky / POOL / AFP)

“It’ll be our policy until our time is complete,” he said, stopping short of saying when he’d cease work as the top US diplomat.

Trump is viewed favorably by Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for pulling the US out of the nuclear accord with Iran and reimposing sweeping sanctions that have drained Iran of vital oil revenue.

Pompeo is scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia late Sunday to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before heading back to Washington. His tour also included stops in France, Turkey and Israel, including an Israeli settlement in the West Bank in a first for a US secretary of state.

Trump was recently talked back from moving ahead with a military strike on Iran’s main nuclear site by advisers who included Pompeo, according to a New York Times report. When asked about this, a State Department official traveling with Pompeo told reporters that “all options are on the table” and that the Trump administration “will continue to pursue its policies until it’s not in office anymore.”

Biden has argued that Trump’s withdrawal from the deal signaled to American allies that it could not be trusted to hold agreements and that while the accord may not have been perfect, it had been effective in blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

When it was being negotiated, the pact was stridently denounced by Netanyahu, who argued that it did not put in place sufficient safeguards to prevent Iran from seeking nuclear weapons capabilities.

Since Trump pulled out of the accord and began imposing crushing economic sanctions on Tehran — a move that was cheered by Netanyahu and other Israeli officials — the Islamic Republic has retaliated by producing more and more highly enriched fissile material in violation of the agreement, getting closer and closer to a bomb, while still leaving room for a return to negotiations.

The UN’s atomic watchdog agency said earlier this month that Iran continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium far beyond the limits set in the accord and to enrich it to a greater purity than permitted.

Taking a step back from the brink, Iran’s foreign minister said Tuesday that Tehran was willing to return to the deal if Biden lifts sanctions on Iran after entering the White House.

The Trump administration is reportedly planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to reenter the JCPOA.

Earlier this month, former Biden aide Amos Hochstein told Israel’s Channel 12 that rejoining the Iran nuclear deal was “high on his agenda” and that the US president-elect would move to reenter the international pact shortly after taking office.

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