Blinken meets with Israel and Arab partners as imminent renewed deal with Iran shakes ties

JERUSALEM — As President Joe Biden’s administration has been gripped by the global response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, another foreign policy crisis looms over the Iran nuclear deal.

Talks to revive the deal have been on hiatus for more than two weeks now, but the parties remain close to finalizing a deal. Without one, the administration has warned that Iran is only weeks away from having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

But major US partners in the Middle East are widely opposed to a renewed deal, with Israel rallying the concern of its new Arab partners under the banner of the Abraham Accords, the Trump-era accords that established diplomatic ties and economic relations between Israel and several Arab countries. .

Secretary of State Antony Blinken stepped into that minefield over the 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. States, Bahrain and Morocco.

In Jerusalem on Sunday, he will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior officials, seeking to reaffirm US commitment to Israel while allaying Israeli concerns over a renewed nuclear deal.

The 2015 accord, signed by Iran, the United States and other world powers, imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018, reimposing harsh US sanctions that were meant to push Tehran to negotiate a new deal.

During his tenure, that never happened, and instead Iran took its own steps outside of the deal – enriching more uranium, at higher levels and with more advanced centrifuges. .

It is now enriching uranium up to 60% purity, a short technical step from 90% weapons-grade, with US officials warning for weeks that Iran is only weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for a bomb. At this point, Iran would still have to go through several complicated technical steps to build a nuclear warhead, but reaching this 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 would then launch follow-up talks on other issues.

But nearly a year after talks began in Vienna, Iran’s nuclear program continues to expand, while delegations have yet to reach an agreement. The Iranian negotiators did not even agree to meet the American delegation, led by the American special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley. Instead, the negotiations were conducted indirectly – with the US and Iran meeting separately with the other parties to the deal: France, Germany, the UK, China and Russia.

While the talks initially made progress last spring, they broke down in June ahead of Iran’s presidential elections, where Ebrahim Raisi, a tougher cleric with close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, took power. Months of delays from Iran ended in November, but the resumption of talks initially sparked deep skepticism that the deal could be revived.

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

Last Monday, Bennett traveled to Egypt for a historic summit with Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el Sisi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. It was the first time the leaders of the three countries had met – with talks focusing on a joint defense strategy against Iran, according to Israel.

The State Department said the United States welcomed the meeting, and Blinken will have its own summit on Monday, with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, as well as a key meeting with Sheikh Mohammed in Morocco.

If there’s any US 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.

For his part, Bennett is keen to avoid a public feud 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.

Instead, Bennett and Yair Lapid, his foreign secretary who is supposed to succeed him as prime minister in a power-sharing deal, began to outline their points of agreement with the team. Biden. When Lapid and Blinken met last month in Munich, the pair emphasized their “common goal” – to prevent Iran from ever obtaining nuclear weapons.

But that’s what made Bennett and Lapid’s recent vocal opposition to parts of a potential deal so striking. The two men issued a statement more than a week ago condemning what could be part of a final deal, delisting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the Department of Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. ‘State.

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

The Biden administration declined to say whether it would delist the IRGC, which claimed responsibility for a missile attack it said hit an Israeli target in Erbil, Iraq last week – landing near from the American Consulate.

Biden administration officials said these follow-up talks would address issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for proxy forces like Hezbollah, which threatens Israel from Syria and Lebanon. or the Houthis, who threaten Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from Yemen. As recently as Friday, a Houthi attack on the facilities of Saudi oil giant Aramco caused two storage tanks to burn 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 United States even in nuclear talks. Either way, critics like Bennett say a renewed deal will mean new funds for Iran to project force in the region and threaten its adversaries, and neither does Israel.

“Trying to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and addresses its attacks on our main partners is an effort worth pursuing. But we must consult with our partners and realize that Iran has not changed – and, with the recent attacks in northern Iraq and Saudi Arabia, they have no intention of changing. We need a deal that works for everyone. world, not just a deal for the sake of having a deal,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and now an ABC News national security analyst.

In recent days, however, Blinken and his team have changed their minds slightly, with the current two-week hiatus in talks seeming to alarm the likelihood of a deal.

“An agreement is neither imminent nor certain, and in fact, we are also preparing for scenarios with and without a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” the State Department spokesperson said Monday. Ned Price, using an acronym for the formal agreement. name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Yet Blinken will insist to Bennett and others that without a deal Iran would be more dangerous because it is able to rush to a nuclear weapon with little information about its program.

Even as the United States says it is preparing for this world, Blinken will pressure Israel and its Arab partners to find alternatives to keeping a nuclear weapon out of Iran’s hands, if diplomacy fails.

“We have long discussed … alternatives with our partners in the region,” Price said Tuesday, adding, “For obvious reasons, we haven’t publicly detailed what that might look like, but that’s not by lack of planning on our part.”

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