March 19, 2021
Israeli and US officials agreed to set up a joint team for sharing intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program during recent strategic talks, according to a report Wednesday.
Last week’s talks were the first held by a bilateral group for cooperating in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. The meeting was led by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Citing three senior Israeli officials, the Axios news site reported that Israel’s initial objective was to get on the same page with the Biden administration concerning intelligence on Iran. The officials said they were satisfied by the first round of discussions.
“We are on the same page on the intelligence. There are small nuances but overall, they see data the same way. It was very positive, but it is only the beginning of a process. It will be a rollercoaster,” one of the officials was quoted saying.
Sullivan pledged to the Israelis the US would be transparent about any decisions regarding Iran and said he expects transparency in return, according to the officials, who also said the American national security adviser was upfront about the difficulties of engaging in diplomacy with Iran.
The Israeli officials also said they hoped Iran would continue to rebuff US entreaties and that the pain of American sanctions would lead the Iranians to first offer concessions.
A second meeting dealing with Iran’s regional activities and missile program will be held in the coming weeks, the officials added.
A similar working group convened during former US president Barack Obama’s first term in office. Its existence was not public, and the sides used the meetings to share intelligence on Iran. However, the group ceased meeting as the Obama administration ramped up efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fiercely and publicly opposed that deal — which was signed in 2015, when President Joe Biden was vice president — contributing to a famously acrimonious relationship between himself and Obama.
Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and put punishing sanctions on Iran. Trump’s Middle East policies were largely in line with Netanyahu’s. Biden and his administration have repeatedly said they will return to the JCPOA if Tehran first returns to compliance. Iran has insisted the US remove sanctions before it returns to the deal’s terms, putting the two sides at a stalemate.
Seeking to avoid public spats this time around, Washington offered to reestablish the working group with Israel, which, after deliberation by Netanyahu with other senior officials, agreed to it, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.
In recent months, Iran has repeatedly taken steps to violate the deal and turn up the heat on the US, including by enriching uranium past the accord’s limits and barring UN inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have already begun voicing opposition to the Biden administration’s desire to rejoin the deal, putting Jerusalem and Washington at odds on the issue. Some leading Israeli officials in recent months have warned of military action to halt Iran’s nuclear program.