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US updates Israel on nuclear talks in virtual meet of national security advisers

Jake Sullivan assures Eyal Hulata that while Biden administration still prefers diplomacy to prevent nuclear Iran, it’s ‘preparing alternative options’ if Vienna talks fail

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in front of the White House on October 5, 2021. (Jake Sullivan/Twitter)
National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in front of the White House on October 5, 2021. (Jake Sullivan/Twitter)

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, met virtually Wednesday to discuss the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna, with Sullivan assuring Hulata that the US is “preparing alternative options” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon if the diplomatic route fails.

The conference call was at least the fourth meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group (SCG) since Biden took office last year.

The meeting was convened as negotiations in Vienna to revive the nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action were reportedly showing subtle signs of progress after months of logjams.

Sullivan and Hulata were joined by “senior representatives from their respective foreign policy, defense and intelligence agencies,” according to a White House readout. The Prime Minister’s Office did not immediately release a statement on the meeting.

“The two sides discussed upcoming military training exercises, and welcomed American observation at a recent aerial exercise conducted by the Israel Defense Forces,” the White House said, in an apparent signal of increased military activity aimed at Iran.

“The officials also discussed significant regional developments since the last SCG meeting in December, including advances in Iran’s nuclear program,” it added.

A camera directed on Palais Coburg, where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

“Sullivan emphasized that while the United States remains committed to diplomacy as the best means for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the United States is preparing alternative options, in coordination with its partners, should diplomacy fail,” the readout said, reiterating a common talking point voiced by Biden officials in recent months.

Biden officials told the Axios news site that the US has set the period from late January to early February as a deadline for the talks in Vienna, convinced that the JCPOA will be rendered ineffective if Iran does not return to compliance with the accord by then.

A senior Israeli official told the news site that while it was noteworthy that the White House took the time to hold the meeting in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, concern remains in Jerusalem that US focus is elsewhere.

A day before the SCG meeting, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in a live TV address that a nuclear agreement with the US is possible if sanctions on Iran are lifted.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian signaled a willingness by Iran to engage directly with the US in discussions over the deal if necessary to reach a satisfactory agreement.

“We have consistently held the position that it would be much more productive to engage with Iran directly on both [nuclear deal] negotiations and on other issues,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters hours later.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi speaks in a live televised interview with state-run TV, in Tehran, Iran, on Tuesday, January 25, 2022. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iran and world powers this week began another round of nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria aimed at salvaging the tattered 2015 nuclear deal. The meetings include all the deal’s remaining signatories — Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

The US has participated only indirectly in the ongoing talks because it withdrew from the accord in 2018 under then-US president Donald Trump. He later re-imposed crushing sanctions on Iran, and the Islamic Republic responded by increasing the purity of uranium it enriches and its stockpiles, in breach of the accord.

In 2018, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, banned any negotiations with the US, saying talks with America would only harm his country.

Earlier this month, however, Khamenei indirectly gave the green light to the Iranian negotiation team to talk with the US and said negotiating and interacting with the enemy does not mean surrender.

AP contributed to this report

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