Senior US official arrives in Israel as Washington said to eye Iran deal

Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, slated to meet both political and military leaders and discuss ‘constraining Iran’s destabilizing behavior’

Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, speaks to reporters at a media roundtable in Kuwait City on October 19, 2022. (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP/ File)
Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, speaks to reporters at a media roundtable in Kuwait City on October 19, 2022. (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP/ File)

Amid reports that the US is close to reaching an interim nuclear deal with Iran, a senior White House official is visiting Israel this week and meeting with Israeli officials.

Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, arrived in Israel on Saturday, according to the State Department. She is slated to meet with “senior Israeli political and military leadership” during her time in the country, with discussions including “constraining Iran’s destabilizing behavior.”

Leaf is also scheduled to hold meetings with Palestinian officials in Ramallah before departing for Jordan on Saturday.

Earlier this month, Leaf told a Senate subcommittee hearing that while an Israeli-Saudi normalization deal is something US officials are working toward, there is a great deal of “misreporting and a lot of hyperventilation in the press,” in particular by Israeli media.

Leaf clarified at the time that an Israel-Saudi agreement was still “no question an end goal” for the Biden administration and that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also vocalized “that is clearly a thing he’s got in mind as a step he wants to move to[ward].”

She arrived in Israel just days after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Brussels last week, amid a series of reports that Washington is nearing an agreement with Tehran.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meet in Brussels on June 15, 2023. (Elad Malcha/Defense Ministry)

Gallant met with Austin on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers gathering and agreed to work together to “address the wide range of threats posed by Iran,” according to a readout from the US Department of Defense.

On Friday, however, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to tamp down speculation about any imminent deal.

“With regard to Iran, some of the reports that we’ve seen about an agreement on nuclear matters or, for that matter, on detainees, are simply not accurate and not true,” Blinken said when asked about indirect talks via Oman.

Last week, Iran said it was conducting indirect negotiations with the United States through the Sultanate of Oman, with nuclear issues, US sanctions and detainees on the menu.

There have been multiple reports indicating the deal is moving forward and that Israel will accept the general parameters of the potential agreement.

In a report last week, Haaretz said that the US had been updating Israel on the emerging understandings and that Jerusalem was not trying to foil the talks.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) welcomes International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi ahead of a meeting in Tehran on March 4, 2023. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The comments echoed similar remarks from Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog.

“Diplomacy isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Herzog said during an event hosted by the Democratic Majority For Israel, according to Haaretz.

“As far as we’re concerned, diplomacy in and of itself, and such understandings, are not necessarily bad to the extent that they can help deescalate a situation,” Herzog said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly informed Israeli officials last week about the details of a potential nuclear deal between the US and Iran that Israel would be able to accept.

The prime minister downplayed the US-Iran negotiations as closing in on a “mini-agreement, not an agreement,” the reports by Walla and Channel 13 said, citing several unnamed lawmakers who took part in a closed-door, three-hour meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“What’s on the agenda at the moment between Washington and Tehran is not a nuclear deal, it’s a mini-deal,” Netanyahu reportedly said. “We will be able to handle it.”

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that the United States and Iran were homing in on informal, limited understandings aimed primarily at anchoring the current status quo and preventing a potentially catastrophic escalation, referred to by Iranian officials as a “political ceasefire.”

The agreement would see Tehran pledge not to enrich uranium beyond its current level of 60 percent purity, cooperate with nuclear inspectors from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stop its proxy terror groups from attacking US contractors in Iraq and Syria, avoid providing Russia with ballistic missiles and release three American-Iranians held in the Islamic Republic, the report said, citing three unnamed senior Israeli officials, a US official and several Iranian officials.

In return, Washington would promise not to tighten its existing economic sanctions, unfreeze billions in Iranian assets held abroad alongside assurances that the money will only be used for humanitarian purposes, and not pursue punitive resolutions against the Islamic Republic at the United Nations or at the IAEA.

The United States is not going so far as to call the understanding with Iran an official agreement as that would require congressional approval, the report said.

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