The Biden administration stressed its commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran during a strategic meeting with Israeli officials on Tuesday, as Middle East tensions rose and Iran announced it was stepping up uranium enrichment to unprecedented levels.
Israeli and White House officials on Tuesday held the second session of a bilateral strategic group aimed at collaborating in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The teams, led by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, held the meeting virtually after a previous discussion in March.
A White House statement on the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group meeting said the two sides had discussed “opportunities to promote stability and security in the face of shared regional threats and challenges.”
“Sullivan reaffirmed the Biden-Harris administration’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to ensuring that Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon,” the statement said.
Sullivan invited Ben-Shabbat to Washington in the coming weeks for follow-up talks, the statement said.
The meeting came as a flurry of escalations in Iran and at sea threaten to derail ongoing talks aimed at rescuing Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The Biden administration opened indirect talks with Iran over the deal last week.
Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was hit by a suspected attack on Sunday. Israel is widely believed to have carried out the assault that shut down the facility and damaged centrifuges, though it has not claimed it. Washington has denied any involvement.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday that if Iran determines the Jewish state was behind the strike on Natanz, “then Israel will get its response and will see what a stupid thing it has done.”
Following the Natanz attack, Iran on Tuesday said it will begin enriching uranium to 60 percent purity, higher than the program ever has before. Iranian nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency as saying that Iran would increase its enrichment from its current rate of 20% in response to the weekend attack. That would put Iran a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels.
The broadcaster also quoted Araghchi as saying Iran would install another 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz, without elaborating. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.
Also Tuesday, an Israeli-owned ship, the Hyperion Ray, sustained minor damage in an attack near the United Arab Emirates, in the third incident of its kind in recent months.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the strike, but officials in Jerusalem believe Iran is responsible, according to Hebrew media reports.
Tehran and Jerusalem are engaged in a maritime shadow war, with both sides blaming the other for explosions on vessels, marking a new front in the conflict that was previously carried out on land, by air, and with alleged espionage and cyberattacks.
The MV Saviz, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen, was struck by an explosion last Tuesday, likely from a limpet mine.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it will return to the 2015 nuclear deal, if Iran first returns to compliance. Iran has taken a hardline approach, demanding the US lift all sanctions against it first, putting the two sides at a stalemate.
Officials from the US, Iran, and European intermediaries said talks in Vienna last week were “constructive,” but yielded little progress. US officials later voiced doubts about Iran’s seriousness in the talks.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have adamantly opposed the US returning to the nuclear deal, putting Jerusalem at odds with the new White House administration.