Mar 17, 2021 - World

Scoop: Inside the U.S.-Israel talks on Iran

Illustration of two hands with matching pieces of a nuclear symbol.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In the first round of U.S.-Israel strategic talks on Iran last week, senior national security and foreign policy officials laid down all they know about Iran's nuclear program, three senior Israeli officials familiar with the talks tell me.

Why it matters: Amid President Biden’s push for diplomatic reengagement with Iran, the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue is intended to hash out differences in approach and coordinate on the path forward.

  • Israel’s first objective in the March 11 meeting was to arrive at a common baseline with the U.S. when it comes to intelligence on Iran.
  • As it happens, the intelligence pictures both sides presented about recent developments in Iran's nuclear program were almost identical.
  • “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," a senior Israeli official told me.

The meeting was led by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. The meeting was held over a secure videoconferencing system.

  • The meeting included senior officials from the CIA, Pentagon, National Security Council, State Department and other agencies on the U.S. side; and the Mossad intelligence agency, military intelligence, Atomic Energy Committee, Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense on the Israeli side.
  • The forum began during the Obama presidency, when its existence was top secret, and continued under Trump, when the focus was on coordinating "maximum pressure" on Iran.
  • Sullivan proposed that the forum be resumed under Biden, who has promised to coordinate closely with Israel while pursuing the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal — which is completely at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's position.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials tell me they were satisfied by the discussions and noted that Sullivan and his team stressed the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon in the long term.

  • Sullivan promised that the U.S. would be transparent with Israel about its decisions on Iran, but expects the same level of transparency in return, the Israeli officials say.
  • Sullivan and his team were candid about the dilemmas they face in seeking diplomacy with Iran and the difficulties of engaging with the Iranians, the Israeli officials say.

Between the lines: Israeli officials say they are playing for time, hoping the Iranians will continue to reject U.S. proposals for engagement.

  • They hope that every day that passes with U.S. sanctions in place will make it more likely that the Iranians blink first and agree to make concessions before the U.S. lifts sanctions.

What’s next: One of the decisions that came from the meeting was to establish a special joint team that will focus on sharing intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.

  • The Israeli officials said a second meeting of the strategic forum will take place in the coming weeks and will focus on Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East and its missile program.

Worth noting: The White House declined to comment beyond the official readout.

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