US said to rebuff request for Lapid-Biden call, Gantz-Austin meet amid Iran push

White House reportedly told Israeli officials that president is on break; secretary of defense also said to be out of town during Gantz’s visit to Washington

US President Joe Biden holds a joint press conference with Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2022. (Emil Salman/ Pool)
US President Joe Biden holds a joint press conference with Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2022. (Emil Salman/ Pool)

Amid major progress towards a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the White House recently rejected an Israeli request for an emergency phone call between Prime Minister Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden, Hebrew media reported on Wednesday.

Citing unnamed Israeli officials, Channel 13 news said that the president’s office claimed Biden was unavailable for a conversation with the premier because he was on vacation. However, the sources emphasized that the talk would be arranged eventually.

The network also reported that Defense Minister Benny Gantz will not meet with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when he flies to Washington on Thursday, since Austin too had apparently left the city.

Iran announced on Wednesday evening that it had received Washington’s response to its proposals on a final European Union draft for the revival of the 2015 accord, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the sides appeared to inch closer to a deal opposed by Israel.

The announcement comes a day after the US said Iran had agreed to ease key demands that had held up the revival of the 2015 deal trashed by former US president Donald Trump, boosting hopes for the restoration of an agreement its supporters say will keep Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

Gantz is scheduled to meet the head of the US military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, and with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The defense minister said on Wednesday that his visit was aimed at conveying Israel’s position on the deal.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a National Unity faction meeting at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on August 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s national security adviser Eyal Hulata arrived in Washington on Wednesday, also for talks centered on Iran with Sullivan and possibly with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, one of the architects of the 2015 accord.

In a briefing to foreign reporters on Wednesday, Lapid urged the US and the European Union to back away from the emerging deal, claiming it did not meet Biden’s own red lines as it won’t prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state.

“In our eyes, it does not meet the standards set by President Biden himself: preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state,” Lapid said, while also attempting to downplay any rift between Jerusalem and Washington or Europe.

Lapid panned the EU’s negotiating position, claiming that it had reneged on its declaration of “take it or leave it” when it presented a supposed final draft of the deal, allowing the Iranians to submit counterdemands and changes.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also voiced his staunch opposition to the deal on Wednesday, saying that the emerging new agreement is even worse than before.

“The terrible deal with Iran… casts a heavy shadow on our security and our future,” Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv.

According to an anonymous US official, Iran’s draft does not include their long-held demand that the US lift the terrorism designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and that the International Atomic Energy Agency close its investigation into unexplained traces of uranium at three undeclared sites.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Reza Najafi, left, and Iranian AEOI spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi, seen leaving the Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks took place in Vienna, Austria, August 5, 2022. (AP/Florian Schroetter)

EU-coordinated negotiations on reviving the deal began in April 2021 before coming to a standstill in March and picking up again in August. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it believes diplomacy is the best way to resolve the crisis.

However, Israel has already begun preparations for a military strike against Iran if such action is deemed necessary.

According to Elaph, a Saudi-run news outlet, Israeli F-35 stealth fighters penetrated Iranian airspace on multiple occasions in the last two months as part of “massive” drills.

Israel has long opposed the deal, arguing that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, and has published intelligence it says reveals the Iranian weapons program.

Iran has denied any nefarious intentions and claims its program is designed for peaceful purposes, though it has recently been enriching uranium to levels that international leaders say have no civil use.

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