May 25, 2022 - World

Scoop: U.S. made mistake by exiting Iran nuclear deal, Israeli official says

An Iranian flag. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images
An Iranian flag. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

One of Israel’s most senior defense officials told Pentagon and State Department counterparts during a recent visit to Washington that the U.S. made a mistake by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, according to three Israeli and U.S. officials.

Why it matters: Current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior officials within the government are still lobbying the U.S. publicly and privately to not return to the 2015 deal.

  • The Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 with the enthusiastic backing of the Israeli government, including then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Driving the news: Retired Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, the head of the political-military bureau in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, visited Washington last week for the first time since he assumed office in April.

  • Shalom has one of the most influential positions in the national security establishment in Israel. He oversees security policy and sits on all senior decision-making forums, including on Iran.
  • In his previous position, he headed the Israeli military intelligence research and analysis division — one of the most powerful positions in the Israeli intelligence community.

Behind the scenes: In several meetings with Pentagon and State Department officials last week, Shalom stressed that the withdrawal from the Iran deal was a mistake that brought Iran closer to a nuclear weapon and created a worse situation, the Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • Shalom said that in 2018, he raised his objections about the withdrawal in meetings with Netanyahu, the officials said.

Yes, but: A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official who is in charge of the Iran file and was also in Washington last week expressed a contradictory message during separate meetings with U.S. officials, including U.S. Iran envoy Rob Malley, according to the officials.

  • Josh Zarka, head of the strategic department in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told Malley and other U.S. officials that Israel believes Iran's supreme leader has decided not to go back to the nuclear deal unless the U.S. removes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the foreign terrorist organizations list.
  • Prime Minister Bennett said yesterday that President Biden told him last month he had ruled out removing the IRGC from the terror list.
  • Zarka said a nuclear deal is therefore irrelevant and the U.S. should pursue a Plan B that includes putting more pressure on Iran, the officials said.

Between the lines: Biden administration officials were surprised to hear Shalom’s comments, mainly because the current administration wants to return to the deal while the Israeli government objects to it, the U.S. officials said.

  • An Israeli official said Shalom’s position on the issue isn’t new, but he shouldn’t have expressed it in a formal meeting with the Biden administration.
  • The official said the Biden administration in the past used comments by former Israeli security officials that expressed support of the nuclear deal to argue that the U.S. must return to the accord.

What they're saying: "We don’t comment on discussions in closed meetings," a spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Defense said.

  • A spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on private diplomatic conversations.
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