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Says the terms of the possible deal sound 'unnerving'

US Senator Graham in Israel: Time to develop ‘guardrails’ around Iran’s nuke program

US lawmaker visits Jerusalem for meetings on Iranian nuclear program, as Washington’s negotiations with Iran continue in Vienna

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Senator Lindsey Graham waits to speak to reporters at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 10, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Senator Lindsey Graham waits to speak to reporters at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 10, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Visiting Israel on Monday, US Senator Lindsey Graham told journalists that he and Israeli leaders discussed the ongoing international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and that he raised possible avenues for additional security cooperation between the US and Israel.

Graham was in Israel to hold a series of meetings on Iran and bilateral cooperation between Israel and the United States.

Neither the US nor Israel is a direct party to the nuclear negotiations, which are intended to restart the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, The US pulled out of the plan in 2018, under former president Donald Trump.

On Monday morning, Graham met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and was to meet former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli representatives also provided Graham with a technical briefing on current Iranian capabilities, and he was briefed by Mossad officials.

“I mentioned the idea of formalizing a mutual defense agreement, in very limited circumstances that would involve existential threats to the Jewish state,” Graham said.

US Senator Lindsey Graham delivers a briefing to journalists in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, February 14, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / Times of Israel)

Although the possibility of a mutual defense agreement was discussed between Netanyahu and Trump, Gantz opposed the idea when it was raised in 2019.

Such an idea, if it progresses, could be a departure from current Israeli security policy, which focuses on self-reliance.

“Israel is jealous, and rightly so, of [its] ability to conduct operations independent of a foreign power. And I would never suggest that any defense agreement would restrict Israel’s ability to act on their own,” Graham said.

“What I’m trying to say is that I want a clear message to be sent in the 21st century, that destruction of the Jewish state means war with the United States.”

Regarding the potential nuclear agreement, Graham said he and Israeli officials discussed the idea of placing “guardrails” around Iranian nuclear ambitions.

“That’s what’s missing when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program,” he said.

According to Graham, parameters need to be set to create “red lines” around three guardrail factors, which are Iranian enrichment stockpile, weaponization of that stockpile, and ability to delivery that weapon.

Should negotiations bear fruit in Vienna, open questions remain about the legal scope and durability of an agreement. Graham, whose Republican Party holds half of the Senate’s 100 seats, shared his assessment that a nuclear agreement would not garner the two-thirds of votes necessary for ratification as a treaty, to make it binding law.

Vienna’s Palais Coburg has been used for closed-door nuclear talks with Iran, February 8, 2022. (Lisa Leutner /AP)

“What I’ve been briefed about the terms is very unnerving,” Graham said.

“If [the agreement] is anything like I’ve been told in scope, it’ll fall far short of the votes necessary to ratify,” Graham said. He did not share sketches of the currently discussed terms.

Should a deal be reached, but either not presented to Congress or not ratified, the Biden administration could still choose to implement it as an Executive Agreement. Such an agreement, however, is made upon the authority of a sitting president and would not bind Biden’s successors.

Jerusalem was the first leg of Graham’s Iran-focused trip. On Tuesday, he travels to the United Arab Emirates, and then onwards to Munich.

Last Friday, Graham and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez announced a resolution to create a nuclear fuel bank to supply enriched uranium to civilian nuclear power programs in the Middle East. Although Graham recognized that Iran is unlikely to accept this proposal as an alternative to pursuing its own nuclear program, he plans to discuss it in Munich.

Graham’s visit on Monday came as Iran said talks with world powers in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal are “complicated and difficult,” but have not hit an impasse.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh acknowledged during a news conference in Tehran that key issues were still under discussion.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh during a press conference in Tehran, on February 22, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

US President Joe Biden is in a tough spot over the talks, gambling on a successful outcome, but facing growing bipartisan concern that even if a deal is reached, it may be insufficient to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

US negotiator Rob Malley and National Security Council envoy Brett McGurk said last week that Iran could have enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon within weeks if it wants to, indicating a growing urgency to reach a deal soon.

Supporters of a negotiated solution warn that if Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state, that could spark a military confrontation, with Israel or the United States conducting preemptive strikes on Iran.

Israel, which opposes the nuclear deal, has repeatedly said that it reserves the right to strike Iran if it is facing an existential nuclear threat, whether or not the JCPOA is revived.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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