In message to Iran, Israeli jets escort US bombers from Gulf

White House denies reports of progress on new interim nuclear deal with Iran

Netanyahu tells top US diplomat that ‘Israel would not be bound’ by any new agreement with Tehran, as Washington said to be pursuing talks

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, second right, receives an explanation while visiting an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 9, 2022. (Photo released by Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, second right, receives an explanation while visiting an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 9, 2022. (Photo released by Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The White House on Thursday denied a report that Washington and Tehran were making progress on a new nuclear deal, a potential development Israel has been watching closely and with mounting concern in recent weeks.

The London-based Middle East Eye reported earlier Thursday that the US and Iran were moving closer to a deal that would alleviate sanctions on Tehran in return for it limiting its enrichment of uranium and that negotiations have taken place on US soil.

In its report, the Middle East Eye cited two sources “with direct knowledge of the talks.”

According to the reported developing terms of the deal, Iran would commit to ceasing its uranium enrichment activities and would continue cooperating with the UN watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on its nuclear program. In exchange, Tehran would be allowed to export up to a million barrels of oil a day and gain access to its revenue and other frozen funds abroad, according to the sources.

“This report is false and misleading,” a White House National Security Council spokesperson told Reuters Thursday. “Any reports of an interim deal are false,” added the spokesperson.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations told Reuters: “Our comment is the same as the White House comment.”

A student looks at Iran’s domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Two Iranian officials also told Reuters there had been progress on the talks but an agreement was not imminent. “There (has) been some progress and we have exchanged proposals and messages with Americans,” a senior Iranian official said. “Still, there are lots of details that we need to discuss.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday at length about Iran, according to an Israeli readout of the conversation, which came after the top US diplomat was wrapping up a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia to boost ties and talk about possible normalization with Israel.

Netanyahu reiterated his position that Iran will not stop advancing its nuclear program, even if it agrees to revive the nuclear deal with the US, his office says he told Blinken.

“Israel will not be bound by any deal with Iran and will do everything to defend itself,” Netanyahu said.

The readout stated that Netanyahu also expressed his appreciation for the military and intelligence cooperation Israel has with the US “which is at an all-time high” and thanked Blinken for the “candid discussions” that took place last week in Washington between Netanyahu’s aides and senior officials in the Biden administration about the Iran nuclear file and expanding the Abraham Accords.

Separately on Thursday, Israeli F-16D fighter jets escorted two American B-1 bombers as they made their way through Israeli airspace returning from the Persian Gulf, in an apparent show of force toward Iran amid lingering tensions in the region.

The flight took place “as part of the close cooperation with the US Armed Forces, which is a significant component in maintaining the aerial security of the State of Israel and the Middle East,” the Israel Defense Forces said.

Israeli F-16D fighter jets escort American B-1 bombers through Israeli airspace on June 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli jets escorting American bombers have become a regular fixture in the skies of the Middle East over the past two years, as tensions between Tehran and the West have risen amid stalled attempts to negotiate a new deal that would block the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief.

Talks to revive the nuclear deal under the Biden administration fell apart last year, but reports of renewed negotiations have swirled in recent months. Comments from Israeli officials warning of developments in Iran that could spark military action have also become amplified in recent weeks, amid signals that Washington and Tehran are moving into a new chapter in the on-again, off-again nuclear talks.

Israel lobbied hard against the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which the US pulled out of in 2018. Subsequent efforts by Europe and US President Joe Biden’s administration to revive the agreement and bring Washington back into the pact have also been met with protests from Jerusalem. Israel argues that diplomatic efforts fall short of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, pushing instead for a credible military threat.

Israel is concerned that a new deal could legitimize Iran’s nuclear activity and erase international support for military action.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week, the Financial Times reported that the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, held a number of meetings with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Amir Saeid Iravani, recently.

These were believed to be the first direct interaction between American and Iranian officials since then-president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018.

The Financial Times described the outreach as part of a shift among US and European officials, who are concerned Iran’s continually expanding activities in violation of the nuclear deal could trigger a regional conflict.

The report came a day after the UN’s atomic watchdog closed an investigation into an Iranian site where secret nuclear activity was suspected, leading Israel to accuse the monitor of caving to pressure from Tehran.

The move by the IAEA to conclude the probe into traces of man-made uranium found at Marivan, some 525 kilometers (325 miles) southeast of Tehran, “could have extremely dangerous consequences,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said last week.

“The explanations provided by Iran for the presence of nuclear material at the site are not reliable or technically possible,” Haiat said. “Iran continues to lie to the IAEA and deceive the international community.”

International Atomic Energy Organization (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, center, and head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami arrive for a joint press conference in Tehran, Saturday, March 4, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The Associated Press reported that the IAEA said Iran had satisfied concerns over suspected secret nuclear activity at Marivan and the underground Fordo facility.

Iran had argued the uranium traces could have come from “laboratory instruments and equipment” used by miners at the site. The IAEA called the answer “a possible explanation.”

Analysts had repeatedly linked Marivan to Iran’s secret military nuclear program and accused Iran of conducting high-explosive tests there in the early 2000s. In 2019, Netanyahu exposed the site, claiming it was a secret nuclear facility.

Last year, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said in no uncertain terms that closing IAEA investigations into nuclear particles found at suspected nuclear sites was a prerequisite to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

In response to the report, Haiat accused the UN watchdog’s director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, of “yielding” to Iranian political pressure, which he called “very disappointing.” He warned that the watchdog had “severely damage[d]” its credibility.

“The information in the file implicitly points to… blatant Iranian violations of the inspection agreements,” he said.

A separate investigation into uranium particles found to be enriched to 83.7% at Iran’s underground Fordo facility, just a short step from weapons-grade material, was also closed by the IAEA, which accepted Tehran’s explanation that the fluctuations were caused by an enrichment byproduct

The closure of the probes slightly eases pressure on Tehran, which has been escalating its nuclear program since 2018.

A second IAEA report last week found that Iran has significantly increased its stockpile of enriched uranium in recent months to more than 23 times the limit set out in the 2015 accord between Tehran and world powers.

Iran’s nuclear deal limited Tehran’s uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms (661 pounds) and enrichment to 3.67% — enough to fuel a nuclear power plant, but Iran has been producing uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use.

The IAEA report estimated that as of May 13, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was at 4,744.5 kilograms (10,460 pounds). Of that, 114.1 kilograms (251 pounds) was enriched up to 60% purity.

Enrichment levels of around 90 percent are required for use in a nuclear weapon — a short technical step from their current level.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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