Aug 29, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Former Israel ambassador joins U.S. Iran team

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is seen speaking.

Dan Shapiro. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro has joined the State Department's Iran team as a senior adviser, a senior State Department official tells Axios.

Why it matters: Israel is pressing the Biden administration to start discussing a “Plan B” in case diplomacy with Iran fails. Shapiro, who has a personal relationship with many Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is equipped to play a key role in any such talks. His portfolio will be the regional aspects of the Iranian issue and coordination with Israel.

State of play: Indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran about a possible mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal were suspended after the Iranian elections in June. It's unclear if and when they'll resume.

  • The new Iranian president and senior members of his government signaled they'd take a tougher line than their predecessors, restarting negotiations from zero.
  • That led many Israeli and U.S. officials to think that a return to the 2015 deal, which was canceled by President Trump, is less likely at the moment.
  • Israel is concerned this limbo will allow Iran to make even more progress in its nuclear program. It wants to urgently put together a joint strategy with the U.S. to counter Iran.
  • The prime minister unveiled what he called a "death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy during his meeting Friday with President Biden. The president said that if diplomacy with Iran fails, he's ready to consider other options.

Driving the news: Shapiro went through a security clearance process and started working last week as a “part-time senior adviser” to U.S. envoy for Iran Rob Malley, a senior State Department official told Axios.

  • Shapiro was in Washington ahead of the Biden-Bennett meeting and advised the State Department on several issues, though he did not meet the Israeli delegation, a source familiar with the issue said.
  • State Department officials say Shapiro will spend half of his time in Washington and half in Israel, where he'll work out of the U.S. embassy.
  • One of his main missions will be to engage in discussions with the Israeli prime minister’s office, foreign ministry and ministry of defense to enhance coordination and allow a more intimate dialogue about Iran.

Be smart: In recent months, Shapiro’s name came up in several press reports as a possible U.S. special envoy for promoting normalization between Israel and the Arab world.

  • The president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they want to push forward normalization but haven’t decided if they want to appoint a special envoy.

Between the lines: In December 2020, after Biden was elected, Shapiro wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post stressing the U.S. and Israel must enter into a close dialogue.

  • He recommended drafting a joint strategy on Iran and avoiding a public fight like when the initial nuclear deal was completed in 2015.

What they are saying: A senior State Department official told Axios that Malley recruited Shapiro as part of his commitment to receiving a broad range of views about Iran. Although he supported the 2015 deal, Shapiro takes a more centrist approach to Iran.

  • “Dan’s experience and knowledge of the region and the fact that people in the region know him will help us in thinking about the regional aspects of the Iranian issue and will contribute a lot to our coordination with Israel," the State Department official told Axios.

What’s next: Malley is going to add more advisers to his team in the coming weeks to expand it and integrate more experts with divergent views on Iran.

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