Israel and US to convene 1st strategic group meeting on Iran


Sessions will be led by national security advisers Ben-Shabbat and Sullivan; sides will seek to limit disagreements and keep discord behind closed doors

By JACOB MAGID10 March 2021, 7:34 pm  0

Collage: Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

Collage: Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

Israeli and Biden administration officials on Thursday will hold the first session of a bilateral strategic group aimed at collaborating in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

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 Biden was vice president — contributing to a famously acrimonious relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.

Seeking to avoid public spats this time around, Washington offered to re-establish the working group and Israel, after deliberation by Netanyahu with other senior officials, agreed to it, the official said.

The White House released a statement on Wednesday regarding the group’s meeting, with few details.

An Iranian technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. February 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

US National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne called the collaborative the “US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group and said it would be led by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat.

“The discussion will focus on regional issues, building on the close consultations between the two sides over the past several months,” the statement said. Sullivan and Ben-Shabbat have spoken on the phone twice since the start of the new US administration.

“This meeting is part of the broader ongoing dialogue between the United States and Israel on the full range of issues of importance to the bilateral relationship, building on longstanding dialogues between our two nations under previous administrations,” the statement added.

US envoy on Iran Robert Malley told the Axios news site Wednesday that neither Washington nor Jerusalem wishes to see a return to the very public discord that existed between the countries’ leaderships during the run-up to the signing of the 2015 nuclear accord.

“We don’t always agree, but the talks are extremely open and positive. While we may have different interpretations and views as to what happened in 2015–2016, neither of us wishes to repeat it,” Malley said.

Robert Malley in 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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