(December 21, 2021 / JNS) As U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan prepares for his trip this week to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a senior Biden administration official said on Monday that talks in Jerusalem will center around developing a plan on Iran for the near-term.
“We will talk about where we see the state of Iran’s nuclear program and some of the timelines,” the official said. “It will be a good opportunity to sit down face-to-face and talk about the state of the talks, the timeframe in which we are working.”
He added, “This is a very serious situation. It’s something that both we and [the] Israelis very much agree on and we’ll talk about where we are in the coming weeks. We don’t have much time.”
American and Israeli officials met earlier this month in Washington, reportedly in part to discuss the potential for cooperating on military exercises to prepare for a potential strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The New York Times reported last week that the White House has reviewed military options to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
While Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been increasingly critical of the Biden administration’s extended diplomatic efforts to coax Iran back to a deal and its hesitancy to use a more punishing approach, other senior Israeli government officials have voiced their concerns mostly behind closed doors.
The Israeli government is concerned about the potential for the Biden administration to reach an interim agreement with Iran that would result in billions of dollars in sanctions relief without any meaningful rollback of Tehran’s nuclear program.
Sullivan said Friday during a webinar that the ongoing Iran negotiations “are not going well,” as the U.S. still does not have a clear framework to reenter the deal. The U.S. unilaterally left the nuclear agreement in 2018, when then-President Donald Trump withdrew and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran.
‘We support Israel’s right to defense’
The Biden official on Monday chose not to divulge whether the delegation visiting Israel this week would try to dissuade Israel from unilateral military action.
“We support Israel’s right to defend itself. I don’t want to get into any of the internal discussions when it comes to their own self-defense needs,” the official said.
Sullivan, joined by Brett McGurk, the White House Middle East coordinator, and Yael Lempert, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, will visit Israel for detailed discussions with Bennett and senior government officials, focusing on Iran’s nuclear program. Sullivan arrived in Israel on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting President Isaac Herzog. On Wednesday, he will meet Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Sullivan will also co-lead the fourth Strategic Consultative Group with his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, the White House said.
The meetings come as negotiations on an American and Iranian re-entry to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known informally as the Iran nuclear accord, have seemingly hit a dead end. Iran is digging in its heels on what have been termed by American and European diplomats as maximalist demands, with negotiators accusing Tehran of reneging on their previous concessions in the discussions.
The U.N.’s atomic watchdog has warned that Iran is enriching uranium to near weapons-grade, in violation of the 2015 deal.
“All of this is still taking place in an atmosphere of provocation, what we have seen from the Iranians, and an atmosphere in which time is running out because of – owing in part to these provocations and advancements in Iran’s nuclear program. It’s the accelerating pace of that program. We can’t accept a situation in which Iran is dragging its feet at the negotiating table but accelerating the pace of its nuclear program back home,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Monday.
“If the pace of diplomacy on the one hand continues to lag far behind or continues to lag at all behind the pace of diplomacy on the other, the JCPOA, as you heard from the E3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom), will be an empty shell…a corpse that cannot be revived,” said Price.
The senior official on Monday’s call, meanwhile, said “time is running out” for the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, and that “we will talk with the Israelis on what is going to happen in the coming weeks.” Talks between Iran and world powers have been put on pause until next week.
‘No updates on the Jerusalem consulate’
Sullivan and members of his delegation will also meet with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to discuss strengthening U.S. relations with the Palestinians, the official said. Sullivan will be the highest-ranking White House official to meet with Abbas since President Joe Biden took office this year.
It appears that after much pushback from the Israeli government, the Biden administration has given up on its stated intention of re-opening its Jerusalem consulate, which served as a direct diplomatic channel to Ramallah, prior to it being subsumed by the Israeli embassy under Trump. The senior official on Monday’s call said he had nothing to add on the matter of the consulate, and Price repeatedly refused to provide any updates on the matter on Monday, even refusing to say whether the State Department was still committed to the consulate’s reopening.
Another matter for discussion in the U.S.-Israel relationship is the recent blacklisting of a pair of privately-owned Israeli cyber intelligence firms accused of selling cellphone spying software to governments, which used the applications to target foreign government officials, human rights activists and journalists, among others. The Israeli Defense Ministry oversees the export licenses that allow such applications to be privately sold abroad, and American officials reportedly had been pressing Israel to tighten its controls in the wake of revelations about those abuses.
Responding to a question from JNS, the Biden official said that the U.S. views such infringements as global issues, and the White House does not view the matter as one in tension with the Israeli government, per se, even as discussions on the matter continue between Washington and Jerusalem.
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