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US envoy says Israel’s ‘hands not tied’ on Iran, even if nuke deal signed

‘Israel can do and take whatever actions they need to take,’ ambassador to Jerusalem tells Channel 12; Blinken reportedly asks Bennett for Iran deal ‘alternative’

US Ambassador Tom Nides is interviewed by The Times of Israel at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on January 7, 2022. (David Azagury/US Embassy)
US Ambassador Tom Nides is interviewed by The Times of Israel at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on January 7, 2022. (David Azagury/US Embassy)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said on Thursday Israel won’t be faced with any American restrictions if it wishes to act against Iran, whether or not a nuclear deal is signed between Tehran and world powers.

Asked in a Channel 12 interview if the US expects Israel to “sit quietly and not do anything” if a deal is signed, Nides replied: “Absolutely not. We’ve been very clear about this. If we have a deal, the Israelis’ hands are not tied. If we don’t have a deal, the Israelis’ hands are certainly not tied.”

“Israel can do and take whatever actions they need to take to protect the state of Israel,” he added.

“The president,” he stressed, “will do whatever he can do to make sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon… It’s clear we’d like to do it through a diplomatic channel.”

Regarding the progress of the negotiations on a deal, he said: “The Israelis know very clearly exactly what is going on. I’m not suggesting they necessarily like it always, but there are no secrets here.”

In this September 21, 2016, file photo, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops march in a military parade in Tehran, Iran. ​(AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

Nides dodged a direct question on whether Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will be delisted from the US list of terror groups as part of a revived deal, as he also did in a Channel 13 interview.

Tehran has said that taking the IRGC off a US terror list is a condition for restoring the 2015 agreement.

Israeli officials have openly expressed their concerns over this possibility, including during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel earlier this week for the Negev Summit.

During a press conference on Sunday with the American top diplomat, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett referred to Houthi attacks in Saudi Arabia last week, which he called “horrific,” adding that he was concerned over the possible removal of the IRGC from the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list as part of a revived nuclear deal with Tehran.

“I hope the US will hear concerned voices in the region, from Israel and others, on this issue,” he said.

Bennett also protested the notion of the IRGC being delisted during a cabinet meeting earlier Sunday.

“We are still hoping and working toward preventing this from happening,” he said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Blinken said during the press conference that “there is no daylight” between the US and Israel on the efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as well as countering its threats to the region.

He added that the US will maintain that stance regardless of whether a new Iran nuclear deal is reached.

“Deal or no deal, we will continue to work together and with other partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region,” he said.

Blinken asked Bennett during their meeting on Sunday for his alternative to a nuclear deal with Iran, according to a report Thursday by the Axios news site, citing a senior State Department official and an Israeli official.

According to the report, Blinken asked Bennett how he would stop Iran from being capable of obtaining a nuclear weapon, when at its current enrichment pace, it would be able to do so within weeks.

Israeli officials said Bennett told him Iran can be deterred from enriching uranium to weapons-grade, if it knows Western nations will ramp up sanctions to the level they’ve been imposed on Russia, the report said.

The Israeli official also reportedly said that Bennett described a revived Iran deal as “a Band-Aid” solution for a few years that would allow Iran to expand its support for its regional terror proxies.

“It is us here in the region that will have to deal with that afterward,” Bennett told Blinken, according to a senior Israeli official.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency Kazem Gharib Abadi, Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Abbas Araghchi, and Deputy Secretary-General and Political Director of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora stand in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action gave Iran relief from heavy sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program to prevent it from obtaining atomic weapons, a goal Tehran denies it seeks. In 2018, the Trump administration pulled the US out of the deal and reimposed sanctions. Iran has responded by dropping many of its commitments and ramping up enrichment and other elements of the program.

European-sponsored talks in Vienna are aiming to bring the US back into the deal and see Iran recommit to its terms in return for lifted sanctions.

‘Nobody like violence’

Asked by Channel 12 about Israel’s efforts to tackle terrorism amid a wave of attacks, Ambassador Nides said: “We’re not going to tell the government what to do.”

Regarding Blinken’s highlighting of settler violence and settlement expansion during his recent visit, as opposed to Palestinian terrorism, Nides said: “No one likes violence. Period. It doesn’t matter if it’s settler violence [or], you know, Palestinian violence.”

Nides said he made clear, in his own confirmation testimony, that the Palestinian Authority’s payments to terrorists and their families must be halted: “Martyr payments… must stop,” he said.

He stressed US support for the two-state solution, noting: “We can’t lose the vision… [though] we can’t impose anything on anyone.”

Nides also said the US was “very comfortable with what the Israelis are doing vis-à-vis Ukraine,” despite complaints out of Washington that Israel had failed to adopt anti-Russia sanctions or send equipment to Ukraine’s army.

A soldier walks amid the destruction caused after the shelling of a shopping center in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

“When we have issues, we express them, as Israel expresses them to us… I am very comfortable today on the relationship, with what they’re doing with Ukraine,” Nides said.

Israel has long maintained good relations with both Ukraine and Russia, and has been seeking to use its unique position to broker an agreement between the two sides, as it tries to walk a tightrope maintaining its ties to both countries.

Ukraine has repeatedly pushed Israel for more support since Russia launched its invasion. But Israel has been seeking to avoid antagonizing Russia, which has a strong presence in Syria, where Israel carries out military action against Iran-linked groups.

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