Feb 24, 2021 - World

Scoop: U.S. and Israel to convene strategic forum on Iran

Biden and Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. Photo: Debbie Hill/AFP via Getty

The United States and Israel have elected to reconvene a strategic working group on Iran, with the first round of talks on intelligence surrounding the Iranian nuclear program expected in the coming days, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have sharply contrasting views of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but the resumption of the working group is a signal that their governments are starting with a serious and professional dialogue rather than a political fight.

Flashback: The working group was established in the early days of the Obama administration following a White House visit from Netanyahu in 2009. The top-secret forum was even given a special code name.

  • It was the main venue for strategizing over how to apply pressure to Iran during Obama’s first term, and it became the primary setting to air disagreements about the nuclear deal during Obama’s second term.
  • During Donald Trump's tenure, the forum convened to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and to coordinate the "maximum pressure" campaign.
  • The forum is headed by the U.S. and Israeli national security advisers — currently Jake Sullivan and Meir Ben-Shabbat — and includes top officials from across the various national security, foreign policy and intelligence agencies in both countries.

Driving the news: Sullivan proposed the resumption of the working group in his first phone call with Ben-Shabbat on Jan. 23.

  • Israel was engaged in an interagency disagreement over how to engage with the White House over Iran, and the decision of whether to accept the proposal was further delayed by Israel's domestic turmoil ahead of next month's elections.

Behind the scenes: On Monday, Netanyahu held the first high-level interagency meeting on Iran with Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and the chiefs of the other national security and intelligence agencies.

  • The meeting started with the various agencies providing updates on their engagements to date with the Biden administration, to provide a full picture of what had been discussed through the various channels, sources familiar with the meeting tell me.
  • Next came proposals on how to engage with the Biden administration going forward. The directors of the Mossad intelligence agency and Israel Defense Forces both stressed the need for a quiet dialogue, free from public confrontations.
  • The main action item was the decision to accept the proposal to resume the working group.

What's next: The top Israeli priority in the first meeting — which will take place over a secure video conference system — is to lay out all the latest intelligence and data on Iran's nuclear program and assess whether the U.S. and Israeli intelligence pictures align.

  • Israeli sources familiar with the issue say that a mutual intelligence baseline must be established before moving on to policy discussions.

The state of play: Netanyahu swiftly expressed concern last Friday after Secretary of State Tony Blinken said the U.S. was prepared to begin nuclear talks with Iran aimed at restoring the 2015 deal.

Go deeper