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US envoy arrives in Israel on Mideast tour; not expected to meet PM Bennett

Rob Malley will reportedly sit down with other senior Israeli officials, including Mossad chief; trip comes ahead of the seventh round of Vienna negotiations with Iran

Robert Malley, US Special Envoy for Iran, in Vienna, Austria, on June 20, 2021. (AP/ Florian Schroetter)
Robert Malley, US Special Envoy for Iran, in Vienna, Austria, on June 20, 2021. (AP/ Florian Schroetter)

US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley arrived in Israel on Sunday as part of a 10-day regional trip that began last week, as the Biden administration works to coordinate with Mideast allies before the resumption of indirect talks with Iran, aimed at reviving their multilateral nuclear accord.

Malley is expected to meet on Monday with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, director of the Mossad spy agency David Barnea, and National Security Adviser Eyal Haluta, according to Hebrew media reports.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will not be meeting with Malley, as the latter did not request such a sit-down, the Walla news site reported. Other Hebrew media reports said Bennett was not meeting Malley because protocol did not require it, but also noted that the prime minister opposes the US effort to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Malley began his trip on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates before proceeding to Israel, and later to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The tour will conclude on November 20, nine days before world powers are set to reconvene in Vienna for the seventh round of talks on a joint US-Iran return to the JCPOA.

The special envoy “will coordinate our approaches on a broad range of concerns with Iran, including its destabilizing activities in the region and the upcoming” nuclear talks, the US State Department said in a statement.

The trip is Malley’s first to Israel as a member of US President Joe Biden’s administration, though he has met multiple times with Israeli officials in Washington. Malley — one of the original architects of the JCPOA — has rarely seen eye-to-eye with Israeli officials on the matter, given Jerusalem’s longstanding opposition to the deal.

Malley last spoke publicly on efforts to revive the JCPOA last month when he told reporters in a briefing that Iran’s explanations for staying away from nuclear talks in Vienna were “wearing thin.”

Days later, Tehran announced its readiness to return to the negotiation table at the end of November.

Last week, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman and top negotiator in the nuclear talks, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said the Islamic Republic will continue its actions in breach of the nuclear deal until it is assured the US will lift its crippling sanctions in a verifiable manner.

The date of November 29 has been set for restarting talks in Vienna to save the JCPOA after a five-month gap in negotiations that began when Iran elected hardline President Ebrahim Raisi.

The nuclear talks, which are being brokered by European Union mediators as Tehran refuses to deal with United States negotiators directly, are aimed at bringing Washington and Tehran back into the JCPOA, which was abandoned by former US president Donald Trump. After exiting, the Trump administration slapped Iran with stiff sanctions, primarily targeting its oil exports.

The remaining parties to the agreement — Britain, China, France and Germany as well as Russia — are also taking part in the Vienna talks.

Biden has said he is ready to rejoin the deal, under which Iran agreed to strict limits on its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from sweeping sanctions.

Iran wants a lifting of all US sanctions imposed after Trump’s withdrawal. The Biden administration says it will only negotiate measures taken by its predecessor over the nuclear program, not steps imposed over other concerns such as human rights.

TV cameras in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (AP/Florian Schroetter)

Washington insists Tehran must return to full compliance with the limits on its nuclear program it agreed to in 2015, and has warned repeatedly that the window of opportunity for a deal is closing fast.

Last Friday, Iran said it had almost doubled its stock of enriched uranium in less than a month. Meanwhile, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that its oversight capabilities in Iran are being weakened.

Sixty percent enrichment is the highest level to which Iran has enriched uranium, and is a short technical step to weapons-grade 90%. Under the nuclear agreement, Iran was barred from enriching uranium above 3.67%.

In September, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had boosted its stocks of uranium enriched above the percentage allowed in the deal.

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