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US national security adviser says deadline for Iran talks coming ‘within weeks’

Jake Sullivan’s visit to Israel said to calm some of Israel’s concerns; gaps between Jerusalem, Washington ‘smaller than we’d expected,’ official tells news site

US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, December 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, December 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The US deadline to reach an agreement in the nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna will come “within weeks,” America’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday.

Speaking to the Haaretz daily as he visited Israel, Sullivan said there was “still room for a diplomatic effort” to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, but that the timeframe in which to achieve results was “not long.”

Israel is reportedly concerned that the US may opt for a weaker interim deal with Iran in lieu of a return to the original accord. Asked on the matter, Sullivan said he was not a fan of the term “less for less” given to such a potential agreement, but stressed that any sanctions removal by the US would only come in return for effective limitations on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Walla news site, citing several unnamed senior Israeli officials, reported that Sullivan’s visit had served to assuage some of Israel’s concerns over US positions.

The US administration “is in a better place than we thought” in its thinking on Iran, one official said, and the gaps between Jerusalem and Washington “turned out to be smaller than we’d expected.”

The report said that in meetings with Sullivan, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz all strongly opposed the prospect of an interim deal with Iran, another official told the site. They warned that a renewed cash flow into Iran as part of sanctions removal would allow the regime to strengthen its military expansion in the region and further threaten Israel.

One official told Walla that Sullivan had said he expected the US would not continue talks in Vienna beyond the beginning of February.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on December 22, 2021. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

“These days are pretty important,” Bennett told Sullivan in public remarks in English ahead of their meeting. “What happens in Vienna has profound ramifications for the stability of the Middle East and the security of Israel for the upcoming years. And that’s why it’s such a timely meeting.”

Sullivan told the prime minister that US President Joe Biden had sent him to Israel “even just before Christmas” to coordinate and cooperate on their approach to Iran and other security issues.

“At a critical juncture for both of our countries on a major set of security issues, it’s important that we sit together and develop a common strategy, a common outlook, and find a way forward that fundamentally secures your country’s interests and mine,” said Sullivan. “And we believe those interests, like the values upon which our countries are built, are deeply shared and deeply felt.”

Sullivan held a meeting earlier on Wednesday with his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, and late Tuesday evening he met with President Isaac Herzog. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Israeli Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog also took part in Sullivan’s meetings with both Bennett and Herzog.

Sullivan and Bennett met shortly after reports surfaced saying that Biden has been ignoring Bennett’s request for a phone call, which Bennett appeared to downplay on Wednesday.

“I want to say that the relationship between my government and the Biden administration, between Israel and the United States, is as strong as ever,” Bennett said Wednesday. “And being so strong and having this meaningful friendship means that we can also talk openly and candidly about all the shared challenges that we’re facing. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

The meetings come as European diplomats warn that nuclear negotiations in Vienna to secure a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran are “rapidly reaching the end of the road.”

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at the Coburg Palais, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on December 17, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

In a blow to European mediators, Iran requested a new pause in the talks, which aim to bring the United States back into the agreement and roll back Iran’s nuclear activities. The Islamic Republic publicly stepped up its nuclear projects after the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018.

The talks had resumed in late November after a five-month break following the election of a new hardline government in Iran.

During a press briefing with reporters on Sunday, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the White House was not particularly optimistic about the talks, but was not giving up hope.

We are “curbing our enthusiasm for where we are and where we might go. There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Price. “What the team experienced on the ground in Vienna until the talks adjourned late last week, it was progress, but it wasn’t at a pace that was sufficient to get us to where we need if we are to render the [deal] as a viable vehicle going forward.”

Amy Spiro and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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