Feb 9, 2022 - World

Inside the Biden-Bennett call on Iran

Biden meets with Bennett in the Oval Office on Aug. 27, 2021. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images
Biden meets with Bennett in the Oval Office on Aug. 27, 2021. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged President Biden during a phone call on Sunday not to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying "nothing will happen if you don't sign it," an Israeli official told me.

Why it matters: A possible U.S. return to the nuclear deal is the biggest point of tension between the Israeli government and the Biden administration.

  • The initial agreement in 2015 led to a deep rift between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.

The big picture: Talks that resumed yesterday in Vienna over a return to the deal — one of Biden's key campaign promises — have reached a critical point, with U.S. officials saying Iran must make "tough" decisions now or face an escalating crisis.

  • Israel, meanwhile, believes that a nuclear deal with Iran, according to terms that are being discussed in Vienna, will give more to the Iranians than Tehran will give to the world powers.

Behind the scenes: During Sunday's call, Bennett told Biden the U.S. doesn’t have to go back to the Iran deal, Israeli and U.S. officials told me.

  • Bennett said that without a deal, there would not necessarily be an escalation in Iran's nuclear program.
  • He also said the financial benefits Tehran will gain from a renewed deal will far outweigh any non-proliferation benefits. Bennett said that with a deal, Iran will gain billions of dollars that Israel believes will fuel malign activities in the region, Israeli officials said.

Biden told Bennett it is still unclear if there is going to be a deal, according to a U.S. official briefed on the call. The president said the U.S. won’t compromise on its basic demands regarding the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program.

  • A White House National Security Council spokesperson said Biden discussed a range of issues with Bennett including the threat posed by Iran and its proxies.
  • “The United States and Israel share a common interest: seeing to it that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon," the spokesperson said.

Between the lines: Israeli and U.S. officials said the 30-minute call between Biden and Bennett on Sunday was very friendly and warm.

  • They said it struck a different tone from the tense conversations between former President Obama and former Prime Minister Netanyahu more than seven years ago. Nevertheless, the officials said, the disagreements were clear.
  • While Bennett opposes a U.S. return to the nuclear deal, he is also careful not to repeat Netanyahu’s mistakes and will maintain a good relationship with the Biden administration regardless of their differences.
  • Some Israeli defense officials have recently signaled that Israel will be better off if the Iran nuclear talks lead to a deal rather than collapsing without one.

What to watch: Bennett’s national security adviser Eyal Hulata arrived in Washington yesterday for meetings with his U.S. counterpart Jake Sullivan and other Biden administration officials.

  • Hulata said he is going to continue the discussion about the possible nuclear deal and strengthen the coordination with the Biden administration about Iran.
  • During Sunday's call, Biden told Bennett he'd like to visit Israel in the spring, Israeli and U.S. officials said.
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