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Report: Israel, US to launch quiet talks on Iran in coming days

Sides plan to reconvene working group set up under Obama administration, keep discussions low profile to avoid public spat

US President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Jerusalem and Washington will launch strategic discussions on Iran in the coming days that will focus on the two nations’ intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program, according to a Wednesday report.

The sides are planning quiet dialogue in a bid to avoid a public fight over US policy on Iran under US President Joe Biden’s new administration, the Axios news site reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fiercely and publicly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated by former US president Barack Obama with Biden as his vice president, contributing to a famously acrimonious relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.

The US and Israel are set to reconvene the working group on Iran, first set up under the Obama administration, which will be led by the national security advisers of both nations — Israel’s Meir Ben-Shabbat and Washington’s Jake Sullivan.

Sullivan brought up reconvening the working group during their first phone call last month, the Axios report said.

Biden and his administration have repeatedly said they will return to the 2015 deal Iran signed with world powers if the Islamic Republic first returns to compliance.

Iran has insisted the US remove sanctions before it returns to the deal’s terms, putting the two sides at a stalemate.

An Iranian technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. February 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

In recent months, Iran has repeatedly taken steps to violate the deal and turn up the heat on the US, including by enriching uranium past the accord’s limits and barring UN inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and put punishing sanctions on Iran. Trump’s Middle East policies were largely in line with Netanyahu’s.

Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have repeatedly voiced opposition to the US rejoining the deal, putting Jerusalem and Washington at odds on the issue, and some leading Israeli officials have warned of military action to halt Iran’s nuclear program in recent months.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Wednesday said Iran’s actions threaten regional stability and require an immediate international response.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Wednesday that the military was “currently working to build up our forces and is preparing itself for any scenario, including one in which we would need to take operative action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu on Tuesday vowed Israel would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether a multilateral accord is in place to prevent Tehran from doing so, hours after Iranian state TV reported that the Islamic Republic has officially begun restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at his confirmation hearing that the new administration will consult with Israel and Arab allies in the Middle East before making any decision on reentering the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to US President Joe Biden on February 17, 2021. (Prime Minister’s Office)

A Tuesday report also said that senior Israeli and Saudi officials recently held several phone calls to discuss the Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the nuclear deal. During the conversations, the Saudis expressed concern over the new US administration and decried its focus on human rights violations in the kingdom, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Israel has no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia but has maintained long had clandestine ties that have strengthened in recent years, as the two countries have confronted a shared threat in Iran. Netanyahu was reported to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Red Sea city of Neom on November 22, along with then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

According to a report last month, Israel was planning to lobby the Biden administration not to pressure regional allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on matters related to human rights, fearing that doing so could imperil the Jewish state’s improved ties with some Arab countries and strengthen Iran.

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