Blinken meets Israel, Arab partners as looming renewed Iran deal rattles ties

Israel opposes a return to the nuclear deal, a key Biden promise.

March 27, 2022, 6:05 AM

JERUSALEM -- While President Joe Biden’s administration has been seized by the global response to Russia's war on Ukraine, another foreign policy crisis looms ahead over the Iran nuclear deal.

Talks to revive the accord have been on pause for over two weeks now, but the sides remain close to finalizing an agreement. Without one, the administration has warned Iran is just weeks away from having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

But the top U.S. partners in the Middle East are largely opposed to a renewed deal, with Israel rallying concern among its new Arab partners under the banner of the Abraham Accords, the Trump era deals that established diplomatic and economic ties between Israel and several Arab countries.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken walked into that minefield this weekend, arriving in the region for four days of meetings, including a historic summit with Israel and three of the Abraham Accord countries -- the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco -- as well as Egypt.

In Jerusalem Sunday, he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior officials, seeking to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Israel while assuaging Israeli concerns over a renewed nuclear deal. But Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned Sunday that Israel "will do anything we believe is needed to stop the Iranian nuclear problem -- anything."

The 2015 deal, signed by Iran, the U.S. and other world powers, placed restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018, reimposing severe U.S. sanctions that were meant to drive Tehran to negotiate a new deal.

During his term, it never happened, and instead, Iran took its own steps out of the deal -- enriching more uranium, to higher levels, and with more advanced centrifuges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, walks by U.S. and Israeli flags, at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel, March 26, 2022.
Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via Reuters

It is now enriching uranium up to 60% purity, a short technical step from 90% weapons-grade, with U.S. officials warning for weeks now that Iran is just weeks away from enough enriched uranium for a bomb. At that point, Iran would still have to complete several complicated, technical steps to build a nuclear warhead, but reaching that nuclear threshold would be deeply alarming.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran returned to "strict" compliance, saying he'd then launch follow-on talks on other issues.

But nearly a year after negotiations began in Vienna, Iran's nuclear program continues to expand, while the delegations have not yet reached a deal. Iran's negotiators haven't even agreed to meet the American delegation, led by U.S. special envoy for Iran Rob Malley. Instead, negotiations have been conducted indirectly -- the U.S. and Iran meeting separately with the remaining parties to the deal: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China and Russia.

While talks initially made progress last spring, they were halted in June ahead of Iran's presidential elections, where Ebrahim Raisi, a more hardline cleric closely tied to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, took power. Months of Iran's delays ended in November, but those resumed talks at first brought deep skepticism about reviving the deal.

In recent weeks, however, all the sides have made clear they are close -- prompting a flurry of Israeli activity to rally opposition.

Last Monday, Bennett traveled to Egypt for a historic summit with Egypt's strongman leader Abdel Fattah el Sisi and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, UAE's de facto ruler. It was the first time the three countries' leaders met -- with talks focused on a joint defense strategy against Iran, according to Israel.

The State Department said the U.S. welcomed the meeting, and Blinken will have his own summit on Monday, with Israel, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco -- as well as a key meeting with Sheikh Mohammed in Morocco.

If there's any U.S. concern about the growing anti-Iran coalition, it's not public -- with the Abraham Accords a rare Trump era policy fully embraced by Biden's team.

"When it comes to the most important element, we see eye to eye. We are both committed, both determined that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon," Blinken said Sunday alongside Lapid at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For his part, Bennett is keen to avoid a public spat like the one between former President Barack Obama and his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed a Republican-controlled Congress in 2015 to lobby against the deal, infuriating the White House.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane, en route to Israel, at the Warsaw Chopin Airport, in Warsaw, Poland, March 26, 2022.
Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via Reuters

Instead, Bennett and Lapid, who is supposed to succeed Bennett as prime minister in a power-sharing deal, have taken to emphasizing their points of agreement with the Biden team. When Lapid and Blinken met last month in Munich, both men emphasized their "shared goal" -- preventing Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

But that's what made Bennett and Lapid's recent vocal opposition to some parts of a potential deal so striking. The two released a statement over a week ago, condemning what could be part of an ultimate deal, de-listing Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department's foreign terrorist organization list.

"The attempt to delist the IRGC as a terrorist organization is an insult to the victims and would ignore documented reality supported by unequivocal evidence," the two men said. "We believe that the United States will not abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists."

During a joint press conference, Lapid affirmed Israel's belief that the IRGC is a terrorist organization, while Blinken declined to say whether he considered it one: "The IRGC is probably the most designated organization in one way or another in the world," he said.

But he argued that an Iran without the nuclear deal would be an even greater threat to the region: "An Iran with a nuclear weapon -- or the capacity to produce one on short notice -- would become even more aggressive and would believe it could act with a false sense of impunity."

Biden administration officials have said those follow-on talks would address issues like Iran's ballistic missile program or its support for proxy forces like Hezbollah, which threatens Israel from Syria and Lebanon, or the Houthis, which threatens Saudi Arabia and UAE from Yemen. Just on Friday, a Houthi attack on Saudi oil giant Aramco's facilities caused two storage tanks to set fire in massive blazes in Jeddah, although there were no casualties. Saudi Arabia retaliated with a strike in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Saturday.

But analysts say those talks are increasingly unlikely, with Iran refusing to engage the U.S. even in nuclear negotiations. Either way, critics like Bennett say a revived deal will mean new funds for Iran to project strength across the region and menace its adversaries, none more so than Israel.

PHOTO: A man extinguishes a fire following air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, targeting the Huthi rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa on March 26, 2022. The retaliatory strikes came after the Iran-backed Huthi rebels fired on targets across Saudi Arabia.
A firefighter extinguishes a fire, following overnight air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, targeting the Huthi rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa, on March 26, 2022. The retaliatory strikes came after the Iran-backed Huthi rebels fired on 16 targets across Saudi Arabia yesterday.
Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

"Trying to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and addresses their attacks on our key partners is an effort worth pursuing. But we need to consult our partners and realize that Iran has not changed -- and, with the recent attacks in northern Iraq and Saudi Arabia, they do not intend to change. We need an agreement that works for everyone, not just an agreement for the sake of having an agreement," said Mick Mulroy, a former top Pentagon official and now an ABC News national security analyst.

In recent days, however, Blinken and his team have changed their tune slightly, with the current two-week pause in talks seeming to cause some alarm about a deal's likelihood.

"The deal is not just around the corner, and it's not inevitable," Malley said Sunday at the Doha Forum.

Still, Blinken pressed the case with Lapid and others that without a deal, Iran would be more dangerous as it's able to race toward a nuclear weapon with little insight to its program.

Even as the U.S. says it's preparing for that world, Blinken will press Israel and Arab partners for alternatives to keeping a nuclear weapon out of Iranian hands, should diplomacy fail.

"We've long discussed ... alternatives with our partners in the region," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday, adding, "For obvious reasons we haven't detailed publicly what that might look like, but it is not for lack of planning on our part."

But at some point, Israel may take those alternatives into their own hands, with the specter of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities growing, after years of Israeli sabotage.

"Israel and the United States will continue to work together to prevent a nuclear Iran," Lapid said next to Blinken Sunday, but added, "At the same time, Israel will do anything we believe is needed to stop the Iranian nuclear problem - anything."

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