Nov 21, 2021 - World

U.S., Israeli officials air public disagreements over upcoming nuclear talks with Iran

Brett McGurk and his Israeli counterpart

White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, left, and Israel's National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata speak together during the 17th IISS Manama Dialogue on Nov. 21. Photo: Mazen Mahdi/AFP via Getty Images

MANAMA, Bahrain — The differences between the Biden administration and the Israeli government regarding the nuclear talks with Iran were aired out in the open during an international conference in Bahrain on Sunday.

Why it matters: Both sides have been trying in recent months to hash out their differences in private and avoid a public clash, but this is becoming more difficult as talks with Iran are set to resume on Nov. 29 in Vienna.

Driving the news: The closing session of the annual Manama Dialogue brought together Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata and President Biden’s senior Middle East adviser Brett McGurk.

  • Hulata and McGurk tried to present a unified front, but right from the opening speeches, the presented diverging positions in front of dozens of officials and experts from the Gulf and Western countries.
  • While the Israeli official spoke about the need to prevent Iran from having “a nuclear breakout” capability, his U.S. counterpart spoke about the Biden administration's commitment to prevent Iran “from getting a nuclear weapon.”
  • During the Q&A session, the differences weren’t just nuanced as Hulata and McGurk disagreed about the need for a credible military threat to deter Iran from advancing its nuclear program further.

What they are saying: Hulata, a former Mossad general who spoke publicly for the first time, said that Iran stopped its efforts to get a nuclear weapon only when the world stood decisively against it. “Israel will defend itself against Iran if it needs to and we are making the preparations for this,” he said.

  • McGurk, on the other hand, said the U.S. is focusing on the Vienna talks and wants diplomacy to succeed. Only if it fails will the Biden administration consider other options, according to McGurk, who added that military action could damage Iran’s nuclear program, but won’t change its behavior.
  • The Biden’s adviser stressed that the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal allowed Iran to dramatically advance its nuclear program and added that the previous president's maximum pressure campaign against Iran had failed. “"We have no illusions that they suddenly change their orientation or that the regime will collapse under sanctions,” McGurk said.
  • On this claim, Hulata said that “Iran won’t make concessions only because we ask them nicely. They don’t work like that. Whoever says pressure doesn’t work needs to look at how pressure by both Republican and Democratic administrations made Iran change its policy,” he said.

What’s next: During the upcoming talks in Vienna, the new Iranian negotiating team is expected to present its position on the draft agreement, which was achieved in June before the Iranian presidential election.

  • One area on which both the Biden administration and the Israeli government agree — nothing dramatic is likely to happen during this round of talks. The main questions are 'how bad could it get?' and 'what will the U.S. do next?
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